For a moment in the first half, right after Panama made it clear a second Gold Cup win over Mexico was as much a probability as a possibility, El Tri seemed to wake up. They played with some of the skill and passion many expected a team with of their quality to carry throughout the tournament, even if most of their Gold Cup has been as meek as their World Cup Qualifying campaign. Yet by the time halftime rolled around, Panama again looked more likely to join the United States in Sunday’s final, an appearance the bore out over the match’s final 45 minutes.
With goals from Blas Pérez and Roman Torres on each side of half time, Panama secured their second ever competitive win over Mexico, replicating their group stage triumph to clinch a place in Sunday’s Gold Cup final. The Canaleros‘ second finals appearance comes eight years after their first, with the team set to meet a United States side that defeated them on penalty kicks eight years ago.
Pérez opened the scoring early. Teammate Alberto Quintero took the ball from Mexico midfielder Alejandro Castro at the edge of El Tri’s defensive third, exchanged passes with Pérez, then played the FC Dallas striker in to the right of goal. Pérez’s high, near post finish past Jonathan Orozco gave the Panamanians a 13th minute lead.
The advantage proved short-lived, as Mexico took the possession advantage they’d held through the opening whistle and started converting it into pressure. Eventually Marco Fabián, one of El Tri’s few bright spots this tournament, created a change for Luis Montes, chippping from the left of the area to set up Montes’s equalizing header in the 26th minute.
That score held for the next 35 minutes until Panama won a corner along their left just past hour mark. Restarting play, Gabriel Torres swung a ball in to the edge of the six-yard box, in the middle of goal, where Roman Torres had beat Joel Huiqui. Running onto an easy finish, the Panamanian defender put his team into their second Gold Cup final.
As with every Mexico disappointment, the loss is sure to increase pressure on head coach Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre, even though Mexico brought a diminished squad into the tournament. El Tri’s first two losses to Panama are unlikely to be taken in stride, though. At a minimum, the heat gets turned up yet another notch on the embattled coach.
As for Panama, Julio Dely Valdés’s team has a chance to make history. Only Mexico, the U.S. and Canada have ever claimed a Gold Cup, and while they’re sure to be seen as underdogs ahead of Sunday’s game in Chicago, Panama’s undefeated in the competition, scoring 11 times while conceding only three goals.
If they beat the U.S. it will be an upset, but from a team whose play transcends their renown, a victory for Panama would hardly be a shock.