YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Raul Jimenez's goal keeps Mexico's World Cup hopes alive, but for how long?

His bicycle kick is the difference in Mexico's 2-1 victory over Panama on Friday, giving the team an outside chance to still qualify for soccer's top tournament next summer in Brazil. But the team can't afford even one misstep.

October 12, 2013|By Kevin Baxter

In Mexico, people may someday remember where they were the night Raul Jimenez beat Panama. Babies may be named after him. Statues could be built.

Or maybe not.

Because if Mexico falls again Tuesday in Costa Rica, the country's disappointing performance in World Cup qualifying could be noteworthy for having kept the team out of the tournament for the first time since 1990 and not for Jimenez's magnificent bicycle kick, which beat Panama, 2-1, on Friday to breathe new life into Mexico's flickering qualifying hopes.

Mexico has a long way to go to make it to Brazil next summer. The most likely path would start with a tie or victory Tuesday in Costa Rica, which would set up a two-leg playoff with Oceania champion New Zealand with a berth in Brazil on the line.

But none of that would be possible without the magical goal by Jimenez, who scored with five minutes to play.

Jimenez, who had entered the game two minutes earlier, was inside the penalty area with his back to the goal when he took a 15-yard pass from Fernando Arce. He volleyed the ball with his right foot, then back flipped toward the turf while rocketing a shot between defenders Harold Cummings and Roman Torres and just inside the right post.

It was the kind of gravity-defying, let-me-see-that-again goal that inspires legends. And it was made all the more spectacular by the fact Jimenez was carrying the hopes of a nation on his back.

"My initial intention was to hit it low, but then I had to improvise going in the air," Jimenez said. "It was a last-resort type of thing."

Added Victor Manuel Vucetich, who was coaching his first game for Mexico: "What a spectacular goal, really beautiful and above all very emotional."

While the Mexicans were playing for their World Cup lives, the U.S., which has secured its place in Brazil, was going through the motions, literally and figuratively, against Jamaica.

Late goals by Graham Zusi and Jozy Altidore gave the U.S. a 2-0 victory in Kansas City, Kan., assuring the U.S. will finish atop the CONCACAF standings for the third consecutive cycle. But that result was more an escape than a victory for the U.S., which was without injured regulars Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson and Omar Gonzalez, and played poorly and sluggishly, especially in the first half.

"It definitely wasn't our best half. It certainly wasn't my best half," said Landon Donovan, who was pulled in favor of Zusi after a lackluster 45 minutes. "It was frustrating for all of us, but in the end it's about finding a way to win games. A lot of the time you play poorly and lose and we still found a way to win even though we didn't play great."

Vucetich, known as King Midas for his skill at turning around losing teams in Mexico's domestic league, would agree. He took over the national team a month ago, becoming the third coach in a six-day span, and the task that faced him then seemed beyond even his magical powers.

Mexico stood fifth in the six-team standings. It had won two of 11 games and had scored once in five World Cup qualifiers at Azteca Stadium. Perhaps worst of all, the team Vucetich inherited was talented but dispirited, run by a national federation so dysfunctional that two of the country's biggest stars, forward Carlos Vela and goalkeeper Memo Ochoa, refused to play for Mexico.

So Vucetich worked first to change the mentality, extending olive branches to Ochoa and Vela — Ochoa accepted and started Friday but Vela declined — and reintegrating former national team captain Rafa Marquez into the mix to provide leadership.

For 85 minutes Friday, none of that seemed to make a difference. Despite outshooting Panama nearly two to one and dominating in time of possession, when Javier Hernandez blew a second-half penalty kick and Panama took advantage of a poor clearing effort to score in the 81st minute, Mexico's World Cup hopes were less than 10 minutes from extinction.

Enter Jimenez, a hard-working role player who came off the bench in Mexico's victory over Brazil in the London Olympics final. This time he entered in place of Jesus Zavala, dashed deep into the attacking zone and with one ragged but audacious leap rescued his country's World Cup hopes.

Jimenez's goal moved Mexico past Panama and into fourth place in the qualifying standings, three points behind third-place Honduras with one game to play. Only the top three teams in the CONCACAF tournament automatically advance to the World Cup, a route that remains mathematically possible for Mexico.

With a victory over Costa Rica and a Honduras loss against winless Jamaica, the latter extremely improbable, Mexico could book its passage. And if it loses to Costa Rica and Panama wins a one-sided game with the U.S., also extremely improbable, Mexico would be eliminated.

That leaves the extremely probable third possibility: Mexico avoids a loss and moves on to meet New Zealand in two games next month, the results of which will determine whether Jimenez's heroics are remembered forever or quickly forgotten along with the rest of a disappointing qualifying campaign.

"We haven't accomplished anything," Vucetich said. "We need to win the next match to get to the playoff."

Twitter: @kbaxter11

Los Angeles Times Articles