Despite the USMNT fervor, Mexico's young guns remain the Gold Cup favorite

Uriel Antuna, left, celebrates with teammate Jesus Gallardo after scoring against Martinique on Sunday in Charlotte. (Getty)
Uriel Antuna, left, celebrates with teammate Jesus Gallardo after scoring against Martinique on Sunday in Charlotte. (Getty)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Given the amount of star names left at home, one could be forgiven for thinking that Mexico isn’t taking the Gold Cup seriously. The tournament’s most successful team is without the likes of Javier Hernandez, Carlos Vela, Tecatito and Chucky Lozano as it attempts to win the CONCACAF title for the eighth time.

However, a revamped side that mostly skews toward youth is very much part of Tata Martino’s plan. With a record of seven wins in seven and a positive goal difference of 17 during his reign, the former Barcelona manager might just be onto something.

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Take Sunday’s 3-2 victory over Martinique in the group stage finale. Under Tata, Mexico plays a positive attacking 4-3-3, with marauding fullbacks and a press that can pin opponents into their own half.

Many of Tata’s new-look side are barely out of their teens. Up front is 21-year-old LA Galaxy forward Uriel Antuna, who is joined by Cruz Azul’s 20-year-old Roberto Alvarado. The middle prong of the attacking trident, Raul Jimenez, is a relative veteran at 28. The Wolves forward, however, has been described by Martino as Mexico’s “most important striker.” There is no better indication that the Chicharito chapter of El Tri’s story is over.

El Tri arrived in Charlotte on a hot streak, and no doubt relished the prospect of facing a Martinique side who was given odds of around 70/1 for the win – astoundingly long for a two-horse competition.

But Mexico’s third group match was no walk in the park. Martinique, who triumphed 3-0 over Cuba in their second group game, was resilient in defense, often forcing their esteemed opponents to bypass the backline with a series of hopeful aerial balls into the box.

Target man Jimenez saw an early tap-in flagged for offside, while 32-year-old elder statesman Andres Guardardo – one of only two starters who plays club soccer in Europe – volleyed a deep cross wide of the far post.

Shortly before the half-hour mark, Mexico was awarded when they abandoned their tactic of aerial bombardment in favor of keeping it on the grass. Antuna nutmegged his marker on the edge of the box with a shot that neatly beat goalkeeper Loic Chauvet on his near post. It was the fourth goal of the tournament for a player currently on loan in California from Manchester City.

To the delight of the 59,000-strong crowd at Bank of America stadium, predominantly made up of El Tri fans, Martino’s side dominated proceedings in the first half. They enjoyed two-thirds of possession and nearly four times as many completed passes as their Carribbean opposition.

However, the stadium fell silent shortly before the hour mark, when Kevin Parsemain converted a superb free kick.

Just four minutes later, Jimenez found the net when halftime substitute Rodolfo Pizarro set up a simple tap-in.

It was Jimenez’s third goal of the tournament, which compensated for an earlier long-distance strike that he saw tipped onto the woodwork.

The lead was extended with around 20 minutes to go, when fullback Fernando Navarro made a cavalier run into the box and put his shot beyond the reach of Chauvet.

But Martinique clearly wasn’t going out without a fight. They exposed the potential flaw of a gunging-ho attacking side with their second of the evening: a well-executed header from Seattle Sounders defender Jordy Delem, who was worryingly untroubled by any of the Mexican shirts in the box.

Despite the late scare, and a less convincing win than El Tri would have hoped for, Mexico’s 51st Gold Cup win over Carribbean opposition cemented their place at the top of the group, setting up a quarterfinal with either Costa Rica or Haiti in Houston on Saturday.

As is customary in the competition, El Tri will avoid a potential meeting with the U.S. until the final. If CONCACAF’s two behemoths do meet, Gregg Berhalter’s side will have plenty to be concerned about.

The USMNT may have racked up two big scores so far in the tournament, and they may be showing signs of improvement, but Martino’s side have the guile and attacking impetus to cause real problems for a side that has not been tested since embarrassing warm-ups with Jamaica and Venezuela.

Of course, the USMNT will be encouraged by the fact that Martino’s side has conceded three goals to lesser opposition in the tournament, and they will look to expose the kind of defending that led to Martinique’s second goal.

But Tata’s new-look young guns will likely remain favorites to secure their fourth Gold Cup title of the past decade.

Ryan Bailey is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and broadcaster. Follow him on Twitter @RyanJayBailey.

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