On July 20th the Georgia Dome had the honor of hosting 2 quarterfinal matches in the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament; Panama vs. Cuba and Mexico vs. Trinidad & Tobago.
Panama were heavy favorites in the first match as they beat highly-favored Mexico to open up the tournament. An interesting thing to note: for those that aren’t aware the Georgia Dome is the home of the Atlanta Falcons and artificial turf. But for this competition earlier last week grass was placed on top of the artificial surface, so it was interesting to see how it fared in 2 straight games.
As the game began the sides were pretty even in play, but it was in the 21’(minute) that the Cuban side broke through with a goal. A beautiful cross by Jaime Colome found a sliding Jose Alfonso Cipriani. Unfortunately for the Cuban side, their celebrations were cut short as the referee gave Panama a penalty kick off of a bad Jorge Corrales foul inside the box. Gabriel Torres fired it home into the bottom corner to make it a 1-1 game for the Panamanians. Cuba had more than a few scares before halftime but Panama finally had another breakthrough in the 38’ when hot-footed Gabriel Torres made the game 2-1 for the Panamanian side. At halftime the game was 2-1, Panama, but as the 2nd half progressed things quickly spiraled out of control for Cuba.
As Panama applied the pressure and upped their physicality to open the 2nd half, the Cuban side were doomed after Ariel Martinez was issued a red card. Martinez was carded after a high kick to Blas Perez of Panama who immediately fell to the ground in pain. It was clear that Cuba was shaken after that ejection, and never recovered afterwards. Being cut to 10 men for the final 32 minutes, Panama was able to score not 1, not 2, but 4 goals before it was all said and done. Carlos Rodriguez and Jairo Jimenez were credited with a goal apiece while Blas Perez was able to find superb form this game and put in 2 goals.
To show just how aggressive Panama was in the 2nd half, they scored their 6th goal in the 87’! They never stopped applying the pressure and continued to make the Cuban side work throughout the entirety of the match into stoppage time. Although Cuba was down a player much praise has to be given to Panama for their play. If they were more accurate with their onslaught in the 2nd half the final score could have very well been 8 or 9 to 1. A deflated Cuban side gave their best but just couldn’t recover after the red card in the 58’. You could hear the large crowd of Panamanians with horns, flags, and songs cheering after every goal and celebrating after the victory. Some of the players, after leaving the pitch, walked to their fans in the stands and shook their hands, thanking them for their support.
So now the stage has been set for the highly anticipated match between Mexico and Trinidad & Tobago. The winner of this match will face Panama in the semifinal of the Gold Cup tournament.
MEXICO VS. TRINIDAD & TOBAGO
Finally, the time has come. The main event, the highlight of the night, the match with so much meaning to it. A win for Trinidad & Tobago would mean advancing further than they ever have in their country’s history in this tournament, and would undoubtedly be the biggest upset in the tournament. Mexican fans are so critical of their team that a win or a loss could bring about the same disdain. After a disappointing Confederations Cup performance it seemed like all the pressure in the world was on Mexican head coach Chepo de la Torre. The ideal situation for Mexico? A big win. A big win would equate to happiness for the team, calm for the fans, and an ease of pressure off the shoulders of de la Torre. Mexican fans don’t normally think of a loss. To consider a loss is not the Mexican way of approaching football. Another reason why this game has so much riding on it and why it’s the highlight of this round.
It was absolutely impossible to ignore the shift in the stadium. By around the 80’ of the first game, the Georgia Dome was slowly turning green (Mexican flag colors are red, white, and green). If you didn’t notice the influx of fans you weren’t watching the game. By the time El Tri came to the pitch for practice the entire stadium erupted in cheers. Flags, horns, vuvuzela’s, and costumes galore were in sight all around the dome. Prior to the match, their head coach had these words to say:
“We’re not forced to do anything, we are committed to achieve our goals, we work for it, sometimes we succeed, sometimes not, but we’re working on it.”
At the start of the first half you could see flashes go off all over the Dome. It was a quiet first half to start. Mexico upped their pace while Trinidad & Tobago tried a more organized approach with their offense. The tide gradually changed and fouls were being called left and right. In fact, by the 25’ there were 9 fouls called on Mexico compared to Trinidad’s 2. That was the summary of the first half, fouls, fouls, fouls. Things got testy heading into halftime and with so much riding on the outcome of this game you could see why. After a scoreless first half you could tell the fans were thirsty for a goal. Mexico definitely dominated possession but had a mere 3 shots on goal. T&T didn’t fare any better with only 2 shots on goal. So after we all enjoyed a halftime performance by El Dasa we just knew it had to get better.
In the 57’ Cornell Glen was tripped up by Carlos Pena and earned a free kick. The free kick was deflected and led to a corner which was unsuccessful as well. Tensions were still running high and led to double cautions in the 61’ to both Luis Montes (Mexico) and Keon Daniel (T&T). We’re inching closer towards the end of the 2nd half and the game was still goalless. At the 72’ a bit of exciting news was announced; the official attendance for the days’ matches was 54,229. This is the largest crowd for a soccer match in the Georgia Dome’s history. This announcement got the crowd riled up and for the next 10 minutes the cheering was constant. The game stepped up the excitement too as both teams had their chances but just fell short. Mexico’s captain Joel Hiqui, despite his size, was doing an excellent job in marking T&T’s giant striker Kenwyne Jones. At one point Jones took on 2 men right outside the 18-yard box but his shot attempt went out of bounds for a corner kick. Then on another drive to goal Jones takes a header but goes just off target. As we entered the 80th minute and having already used 2 substitutions, fatigue was starting to set in for the Soca Warriors (Trinidad).
Hope came in late in the game in the 84’, when Raul Jimenez scored off of a ground cross by Miguel Layun. Although it took a deflection it was good enough for Chepo’s side as it ended up being the only goal for the team and the game. 3 minutes of added time weren’t enough for the Soca Warriors as they ended up falling to El Tri 1-0.
With a record attendance it was easy to see that Atlanta has been starving for a soccer tournament to make a stop within city limits. The Gold Cup was a good look for the city and an amazing experience for the 50,000+ that attended. No matter where you looked you could see children, families, couples, professionals, and soccer fans in general enjoying themselves. We hope CONCACAF makes a return to our great city where we can takeover the Dome once again!
The semifinal has been set, with Panama facing Mexico and the USA taking on Honduras tomorrow. All the action starts at 7pm EST on Fox Soccer.
Photography by Anna Lira