Mexico made an emphatic statement at the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup final in New Jersey, beating USA, their biggest rivals, by a humiliating 5-0 scoreline to reclaim the title. It was the worst defeat suffered by the two-time defending champions since 1985, and it also saw the Mexicans take the lead in the all-time Gold Cup title count, with five to USA's four.
Whether the win, their first on US soil in nearly a decade, means Mexico are the best team in CONCACAF is open for endless debate, as all of the traditional powers played with highly experimental and youthful line-ups. It is, however, a welcome sign of recovery for a team that recently slipped to fourth in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for next year's FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa.
"This ends here in this locker room, we can't carry history around with us," Mexico coach Javier Aguirre said by way of warning. "We're celebrating now, but that's it. Tomorrow starts the job of preparing, working, fighting for 12 August, and that's a different story," added the coach, who took over from Sven-Goran Eriksson in April, making obvious reference to the upcoming South Africa 2010 qualifier with the US in Mexico City.
El Tri started the regional finals, in its odd year and thus not qualifying the winner for a FIFA Confederations Cup berth, struggling to beat debutants Nicaragua. They followed up with a physical draw against Panama in which Aguirre was sent to the stands and subsequently handed a three-match ban for kicking out at Felipe Baloy. The Aztecas finally got it right in their third group game, beating Guadeloupe - who failed to equal their semi-final heroics of 2007 - soundly to secure top spot in the section and a place in the quarter-finals. After a 4-0 drubbing of Haiti, whose inconsistency was as aggravating as their individual ability was inspiring, Mexico were made to suffer to reach the final.
Up against high-flying Costa Rica, currently in first-place in final round of FIFA World Cup qualifying, Aguirre and Co were given a fierce test, eventually settled by Memo Ochoa in a penalty shoot-out.
The USA, up to that point, had looked impressive, if not particularly stylish. Bob Bradley was forced to use primarily MLS-based players and rarely-used overseas journeymen, with the tournament coming so quickly on the heels of last month's FIFA Confederations Cup, where the first team shocked Spain to reach the final.
It worked well enough as they raced to the top of their group with wins over Grenada and Honduras before battling to take a point off Haiti in Boston. Of the young US standouts, none shone brighter than Stuart Holden, who scored two goals, including a last-second equaliser against the Haitians, in an impressive campaign.
An almighty struggle against Panama in the last eight required extra time before a simple 2-0 win over Honduras finally put the US in the final. It was there that their inexperience was punished. But Bradley, ever the professional, saw a lesson to be learned. "We will talk about this game, about this result, honestly and hopefully we can use it in a way that we're better from it down the road," he said.
A region's showpiece
Although it took them a while to get started, Mexico's Dos Santos, voted tournament top player, and Vela eventually caught fire, a good sign as El Tri take on a full-strength USA in just under 16 days in qualifying at their fabled Estadio Azteca. Miguel Sabah finished as top scorer while keeper Ochoa and centre-back Jonny Magallon performed well.
Very few, if any, of the US Gold Cup squad are likely to figure in next month's qualifier at the Azteca, where no American team has ever won, but some impressive prospects will leave Bradley with thinking to do. Robbie Rogers did his chances no harm with consistently fine wing play, while Holden proved a versatile gem for the future.
Of the Central American combatants, semi-finalists Honduras got good production out of Carlos Costly and dynamic front-man Walter Martinez. Costa Rica, who were seconds away from a place in the final, were in fine form with young playmaker Celso Borges, poacher Alvaro Saborio and up-and-coming goalkeeper Keylor Navas giving good account. Panama did not disgrace themselves with Baloy, Blas Perez and Luis Tejada all putting in good shifts. Nicaragua, playing in their first-ever Gold Cup, and El Salvador, who are still alive in South Africa 2010 qualifying, had rough rides, finishing at the bottoms of their respective groups.
Of the Caribbean contingent, Grenada suffered the worst. In their first-ever CONCACAF showpiece, they lost all three of their games, conceding ten goals and scoring none. Haiti's Fabrice Noel and Leonel Saint-Preux, as well as Guadeloupe's Loic Loval, flew the flag proudest for the pair of island quarter-finalists. Jamaica, reigning champions of their sun-splashed sub-region, were knocked out in the opening round.