There were sombreros (regular and super-sized) and lucha libre costumes. There were enough plastic horns being used to make you cry “tio.” There were lots of fans, enough to set a new record. Most important, there were lots of shots and quite a few goals in Saturday’s Gold Cup quarterfinal soccer games at the Georgia Dome.
Panama defeated Cuba 6-1 in the first quarterfinal behind two first-half goals by Gabriel Torres and two second-half goals by Blas Perez. Mexico fired shot after shot, finally breaking through late with a goal by Raul Jimenez to knock off Trinidad & Tobago 1-0 in the second game in front of 54,229 fans, a new attendance record for soccer in the Georgia Dome.
“A win is a win; that is enough,” Mexico coach Jose Manuel de la Torre said in response to a reporter describing the win as “weak.”
The U.S. team will play El Salvador on Sunday in the third quarterfinal in Baltimore, followed there by Honduras playing Costa Rica.
Both semifinals will be July 24 in Dallas. The championship will be July 28 in Chicago.
Mexico came close to cracking Trinidad & Tobago several times, forcing saves from Jan Michael Williams in the 48th, 62nd and 63rd minutes and hitting the post in the 55th minute.
“It wasn’t easy tonight, we knew it was going to be complicated,” de la Torre said.
After more than 15 shots, Mexico finally broke through when Jimenez mostly whiffed on a cross from Miguel Layun. But Jimenez got just enough of the ball to redirect it into the corner in the 84th minute.
“That goal was unfortunate, but (Jan Michael) Williams had some very good saves,” Trinidad & Tobago coach Stephen Hart said. “We were under pressure at that point.”
Panama didn’t have the same trouble as Mexico.
Cuba took a 1-0 lead against the run of play when Jaine Valencia hit a delicate chip from 40 yards out into the middle of the penalty box. Jose Ciprian timed his run precisely to get away from his defenders, running under the pass and hitting a stretched-out volley with his right foot into the bottom right corner 21 minutes into the first half.
“We were dominating the game and looking to attack,” Valdes said. “We had to continue to pursue the attack.”
Panama needed less than five minutes to respond when referee Mark Geiger judged that Cuba’s Renay Malblanche knocked down Marcos Sanchez’s shot with his arm in the penalty box. Torres buried the ensuing penalty kick into the bottom left corner under a diving Odelin Molina to the score at 1-1.
Panama added a second in the 38th minute when Gabriel Gomes whipped in a cross to Perez, who headed the ball a few yards to his left to a wide-open Torres. He volleyed the ball into the right corner from 8 yards out to give his team a 2-1 lead.
Cuba’s hopes to rally were ended when Ariel Pedro Martinez, the team’s best player, with three goals in the Gold Cup’s group stage, was given a red card after a hard foul on Perez, forcing his team to play with 10 men for the remaining 32 minutes (plus stoppage time) of regulation.
Cuban coach Walter Benitez said he thought the penalty kick in the first half and the red card in the second both were unfair.
“I don’t think it merited a red card,” he said. “It was unexpected.”
Panama quickly took advantage. They made the score 3-1 on an easy goal by Carlos Rodriguez, who trapped a deflection in the penalty box, settled himself and curled in a right-footed effort in the 68th minute. Perez made the score 4-1 in the 78th minute and scored another in the 87th. Jairo Jimenez added another in the 85th.
Panama coach Julio Dely Valdez expects next week’s meeting against Mexico will be much different than the first game on the Gold Cup’s first day at the Rose Bowl, won 2-1 by his team.
“In that one, we surprised them,” he said. “Games tend to be different when you face the same team in a short time. It will be much more complicated.”