Watching Mexico’s national soccer team in these parts is a novelty no more. El Tri now plays more games in the United States than it does in its own country. Every one of the team’s matches can be watched on television here.
Which says something about the 65,527 fans who visited the Rose Bowl on Saturday to watch a 7-0 demolition of overmatched Cuba on the opening day of the Gold Cup.
The story on this night wasn’t about the packed stands, the congested roads around the stadium or the pregame parties in the parking lots. Scenes like that were chronicled a decade ago. The news is that this team continues to be the subject of such intense devotion despite oversaturating this market.
Behind the Lakers and Dodgers, Mexico could very well be the most popular team in Los Angeles. And in certain parts of the city, El Tri has to be the undisputed king.
The consistency in audience sizes is matched by the team’s performance.
Like any other country, Mexico has better players in some periods than in others. Results fluctuate accordingly.
And the team currently happens to be in a transitional period, as it is now under a new coach in Tata Martino.
But as the team demonstrated in the comprehensive victory over Cuba, Mexico is always Mexico.
The players are technically capable. They will hold the ball. They advance with short, quick passes, but are content to move the ball along their back line if there aren’t any openings.
The country has a defined style. Martino can and will change only so much.
And so Martino had the luxury entering this regional championship as the favorite, even with many of his top players unavailable for a variety of reasons.
A starting XI made of players who aren’t here is better than the lineup that was on the field.
Carlos Vela? Not here. Chicharito Hernandez? Not here. Hirving Lozano? Not here. Hector Herrera? Not here. Jesus Corona? Not here. The list could go on and on.
The player who benefited most from the absences on this particular night was Uriel Antuna, a 21-year-old forward who plays for the Galaxy.
Antuna pounced on three rebounds to record a hat trick.
His second-minute strike to open the scoring typified how Mexico played on this night. Overlapping defender Jesus Gallardo ripped down the left flank and slanted a pass across the goal mouth that Raul Jimenez redirected into the right post. Antuna deposited the loose ball into the net.
Jimenez scored again in the 44th minute to send Mexico into halftime with a 4-0 advantage.
He netted his third goal in the 80th minute to increase Mexico’s lead to 7-0.
Jimenez, a 6-foot-3 target forward who plays for the Wolverhampton Wanderers of the English Premier League, scored twice.
Midfielder Diego Antonio Reyes and substitute forward Alexis Vega also registered their names on the scoresheet.
Mexico had 71 percent of possession, giving its stadium full of supporters plenty of opportunities to break into chants of “Ole!” when the ball was successfully moved from one player to another.
The disparity in possession resulted in a 30-3 advantage in shots. None of Cuba’s three attempts was on frame.
Mexico’s ability to rely on an established style in times like this gives El Tri an advantage over its main rival in the region, the United States.
Like Mexico, the U.S. has a new coach. But whereas Mexico entered this tournament a perfect 4-0 under Martino, the U.S. looked disheveled in losses to Jamaica and Venezuela earlier this month.
The 3-0 defeat to Venezuela was especially disconcerting, as the Americans looked disorganized in their attempts to realize coach Gregg Berhalter’s ambitions of becoming a more possession-oriented team.
While Berhalter didn’t play many of his projected starters, the performance raised suspicions about the U.S.’s ability to not only hold the ball, but to defend when losing it.
Perhaps inserting Chelsea-bound star attacker Christian Pulisic will change everything. Or not, in which case Berhalter will encounter the same dilemma his predecessors faced, as he will have to decide whether to continue pursuing his lofty ideals of attacking soccer or abandon that for something more pragmatic.
The U.S. is still in a stage of self-discovery. Mexico has no such questions.