PASADENA, Calif. – El Tri fans chucked plastic cups of beer and bottles at Jose Manuel 'Chepo' de la Torre as he walked along the sideline of the Rose Bowl. Gaze straight ahead, he headed down the tunnel to the locker rooms, “Fuera Chepo” ringing in his ears.
Mexico lost 2-1 to Panama in its Gold Cup opener, a first-ever defeat to Los Canaleros in an official competition.
Nearly an hour after the final whistle, de la Torre showed up in the press conference with the same composure and steadfast resolve. He answered questions directly, if tersely, and with poise.
“We have to be clear and analyze the situation, retake the work we are doing so that we can get on the right path,” de la Torre said. As always, Chepo preached calm analysis and hard work.
“Listen, if you don't have character, you can't overcome difficult situations,” he said. “There's no other way. There's no other way. That's how it's been all my life. That's how my parents educated me.”
Mexico has plenty of work ahead. The team looked sloppy and short of ideas against the well-drilled Panamanians. A pair of Gabriel Torres goals secured the upset in front of 56,000 at the Rose Bowl, nearly every last one wearing green.
“This is not the soccer we are accustomed to seeing in our national team,” Chepo said. “They were imprecise, behind the rhythm and intensity.”
The insertion of Carlos Pena at halftime helped slightly, but Mexico still relied heavily on balls over the top in what proved a futile effort to breach Jaime Penedo's goal again.
The former Toluca coach gave a one word answer to two questions: if he would resign and if the Mexico job is too big for him.
“No,” Chepo said. “You asked a yes or no question and I'm answering directly and clearly.” He pointed out that the team is on pace to satisfy his main objective, qualifying for the World Cup.
Though de la Torre maintains that this B roster must be judged separately, it's clear Mexico has endured a poor 2013. El Tri has only won one of six World Cup qualifiers and bowed out of the Confederations Cup in the group stages. “We're conscious of the situation,” Chepo said.
Now with a fresh group – only two holdovers remain from the Confederations Cup roster, Raul Jimenez and reserve goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera – the form has yet to improve. A Marco Fabian goal out of nothing in first-half stoppage time proved but a consolation against Panama.
“I think that the players have not reached their rhythm individually or collectively. This is what we're trying to work on,” Chepo said. “When things aren't going the right way you have to observe the players and see what they're made out of.”
Mexico will need results in its next two games, against Canada and Martinique, to reach the knockout rounds of the Gold Cup. In theory, neither should present El Tri much of a challenge, but Mexico has underperformed against underdogs all year.
The dip comes in sharp contrast to Mexico's form in 2012, when it won 10 of 12 games in all competitions, including six straight wins in World Cup qualifying.
De la Torre maintains that hard work and perseverance will return the positive form of his early tenure.
“There is no bad streak that lasts forever.”
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