Note: I originally had no plans to write about this match. Then it decided to go ahead and get insane on me. Read below for my recap of the game and get excited for Sunday.
The CONCACAF Gold Cup: where crazy happens.
Now that's not the official slogan of the biennial tournament that features the best teams of North/Central American and the Caribbean, but after Thursday night's wild semifinal between regional powerhouses Mexico and Costa Rica at Soldier Field, tournament organizers may want to switch to a new marketing plan.
In a match that was highlighted by non stop attacking play - and marred by some bad fan behavior - Mexico outlasted Costa Rica 5-3 on penalty kicks to advance to Sunday's Gold Cup final against the U.S.
The game remained scoreless for the first 89 minutes of action but Mexico was finally able to breakthrough and end the deadlock when a Guillermo Franco shot barely eked over the line of Costa Rica keeper Keilor Navas (who by the way played a fantastic game, coming up with what seemed like a hundred fantastic saves and even stopping a 57th minute PK) sending the Mexican faithful in the stands (and in the press box...) into complete pandemonium.
Costa Rica looked all but done and it seemed like only a matter of time before 'El Tri' would be celebrating a semifinal win along with their fans. But deep into the three minutes of stoppage time, Costa Rican striker Froylan Ledezma came up with a miracle.
The play started with goalkeeper Navas playing a long ball up the field to Alvaro Saborio who neatly flicked his header directly into the stride of a sprinting Ledezma. Ledezma, who at this point was just outside the area and to the right of the goal, spun, brought the ball onto his left foot, and blasted a left footed rocket past Mexican keeper Guillermo Ochoa to the upper 90 of the far post, tying the match at 1-1 and silencing the pro-Mexico crowd.
The game moved into the first period of extra time and the match's frenetic pace only continued. Both keepers were tested and Navas came up huge for the 'Ticos again, barely getting a palm to a Mexico shot that looked destined for the side netting.
And so we went to the second period of extra time at 1-1. Both teams looked visibly tired now and all signs were pointing towards the match being decided (cruelly, in my opinion) by penalties. And for once in this roller coaster of a match, nothing surprising happened. The period ended and the two teams headed to PK's amidst a chorus of applause for the effort and an audible buzz in the press box.
Another note: Unlike the rest of the piece, I wrote this next portion in real time. Just wanted to clarify that before everyone gets confused at the tense change... Oh and in case you were wondering I thought that the real time bit would be a cool way to capture the excitement at the game.
Then PK's went down.
PK 1 - Mexico's number 10, Guillermo Franco stepped up to take the first shot and he buried it. No doubt. 1-0 Mexico.
PK 2 - Costa Rica answers. Saborio sends Ochoa to his right and beats him to his left. 1-1.
PK 3 - Mexican Wonder Kid Giovani Dos Santos sneaks it just inside the right hand post. 2-1 to 'El Tri.'
PK 4 - Celso Borges feels the weight of a nation on his shoulders and coolly blasts it into the top corner. 2-2.
PK 5 - Mexico's captain, Gerardo Torrado, just sneaks it by the feet of a diving Navas. 3-2.
PK 6 - The Hero for Costa Rica, Ledezma steps up. My fingers are shaking as I type and OCHOA SAVES IT!!!! The Mexican fans go bonkers as Ledezma has his left footed shot saved at the right post by Memo Ochoa. Ledezma is consoled by his teammates. 3-2 Mexico
PK 7 - It's Efrain Juarez's turn at the spot. He can put 'El Tri' at a real advantage here and he does! 4-2 Mexico and things do not look good for Costa Rica.
PK 8 - It's all on the line for Costa Rica here. Miss and they go home. Make it and they survive for another kick. And Christian Oviedo hits it off the bar and in. Wow, that was close. 4-3 Mexico.
PK 9 - Arsenal's Carlos Vela steps up with the game in his hands and he makes no mistake. It's all over folks. Mexico wins 5-3 on PK's. What. A. Game.
The Mexican players go nuts and the fans go nuttier. Costa Rican players are devastated. Some seem unable to leave the field.
Safe to say this was the most exciting soccer game I have every attended. A real thriller at Soldier Field tonight. I'll post a link to highlights as soon as they become available and if you saw that one you should feel lucky. It's not every day that one gets to see a match with that atmosphere, passion, and theatrics.
So it'll be the match everybody wanted to see on Sunday. U.S. vs. Mexico for all the Gold Cup marbles; and it comes only a couple weeks ahead of the massive World Cup Qualifier between the two rivals at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. Excited yet?