Panama 1, Mexico 2 | CONCACAF Gold Cup Match Recap
For 88 minutes through the second of two CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals in Atlanta on Wednesday, it appeared that neither the US nor Mexico would be in the final for the first time since 2000.
But two penalties scored by Andrés Guardado, the first awarded under controversial circumstances just before the end of regular time, and a second in the first half of extra time, gave Mexico the edge over 10-man Panama in a 2-1 win, meaning El Tri will face first-time Gold Cup finalists Jamaica for the regional championship.
For most of the second half, it appeared as if Panama would force the second upset in the semifinals that day, as Román Torres scored the breakthrough for Panama just before the hour mark.
Both teams were coming into the match less rested than usual, as they were extended to 120 minutes in their respective quarterfinal games on Sunday. Former MLS striker Roberto Nurse replaced Blas Pérez in the starting lineup.
The game was physical and heated from nearly the opening whistle. Mexico's Carlos Vela was given a yellow card in the fourth minute for a forearm shot to the midsection of an opponent in Mexico's box before a corner kick.
Quality chances were hard to come by in the first half, but LA Galaxy goalkeeper Jaime Penedo made a low save on Paul Aguilar's shot in the 17th minute.
It appeared the turning point in the match would come in the 25th minute, as an elbow to the face by Panama's leading scorer, Luis Tejada, on Francisco Rodriguez led to a straight red card from referee Mark Geiger. Both teams erupted into a scuffle immediately after the ejection, and it took several minutes for Tejada to ultimately exit the field and for play to resume.
But Panama did not put their heads down after going down to 10 men. Midfielder Valentín Pimentel came close to scoring the opener in first half stoppage time on a looping header, but Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa pushed the chance over the crossbar.
Los Canaleros continued to push for a goal after the break, and their captain Torres found the breakthrough in the 57th minute, as his run up to the far post was successful, meeting Erick Davis' corner kick with a header, and the trajectory of the ball tricked Ochoa and went into the net.
Ochoa was again forced into action in the 74th minute, as Armando Cooper's stinging shot was parried aside. But as the minutes ticked by, Panama played more of a bunkered approach to try and ride out the result.
But there was one more twist in the game yet, as Torres was judged to have handled the ball in Panama's box after falling down, and Geiger pointed to the spot, giving Mexico a much-needed lifeline. Before the penalty could be taken, there was a bench-clearing scuffle between the squads and Panama refused to return to the field for more than 10 minutes.
For the second consecutive game, Guardado stepped up to take the penalty with his team's survival on the line, and he coolly converted to tie the game up and send it to extra time.
Another penalty was called in Mexico's favor in the 104th minute, as two defenders converged on substitute striker Javier Orozco in the box, and Harold Cummings upended Orozco to give Mexico a chance at the lead. Guardado stepped up once more and scored his second of the match, his third straight penalty and goal for his side.
Mexico will play Jamaica in the Gold Cup final on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia (7:30 pm ET, FOX Sports 1, Univision in US, Sportsnet in Canada), while Panama will face co-hosts US on Saturday at PPL Park in the consolation game (4 pm ET, FOX Sports 1, Univision in US, Sportsnet in Canada).