Unheralded Guardado leaves Gold Cup Mexico's brightest star

Written By Ives Galarcep
andres-guardado-ftr-getty-072615
(Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA — If you stopped a minute to look around the packed stadium of mostly Mexico fans at Sunday's CONCACAF Gold Cup final, you could see any number of different El Tri jerseys. There were tons of Chicharito and Giovani dos Santos shirts, and even some Hector Herrera jerseys. One jersey you didn't find many of were of the player most responsible for helping Mexico lift its seventh Gold Cup title.

Andres Guardado left the 2015 Gold Cup final in the 61st minute in part to protect an injury, but the midfielder managed to once again do what he had done all tournament. He played at a high level, and he put the ball in the net. The big difference in Mexico's 3-1 win against Jamaica was that, unlike the past five matches, his teammates actually showed up to play as well, and the result was El Tri's best performance of the competition.

MORE: Mexico's journey from the semifinals | Mexico wins 10th CONCACAF title

Once again, Guardado led the way, scoring the opening goal to help Mexico take control against a Jamaican side that offered little resistence after a promising first 15 minutes. Guardado's brilliant left-footed volley in the 31st minute helped an already surging Mexico team grab the match by the throat, and by the time he left the match, El Tri enjoyed a three-goal lead.

Guardado's contributions in the Gold Cup weren't limited to his six goals, which were second only to Clint Dempsey's seven. His movement and passing helped El Tri slice through Jamaica's midfield and keep the Reggae Boyz on their toes for much of the match. Guardado managed this despite a left ankle injury suffered in the semifinal win against Panama.

It was the kind of work on both sides of the ball Guardado did all tournament. On the attack, the 28-year-old scored or set up a combined eight goals, most in the tournament, and he created a total of 20 scoring chances, also the best total in the Gold Cup. Defensively, Guardado was among the tournament's leaders in recoveries (fifth most) and was tied for seventh among all players in successful tackles with 12.

"Guardado played a great tournament," Mexico coach Miguel Herrera said. "He’s reaching the peak of his career at 29 years of age."

Mexico needed every bit of that immense production after a tournament where no other player came close to playing at his level. Jonathan dos Santos was probably the second best Mexican player in the tournament and won Man of the Match honors in the final, but it was telling that even in a game when he was hampered by an ankle injury, Guardado made the match-turning play with his volley finish, scoring with his injured ankle.

This Gold Cup wasn't supposed to be Guardado's tournament. In the lead-up to the competition, players from Herrera to Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez, to Carlos Vela and Gio dos Santos were generating more interest and anticipation as the stars who would determine Mexico's fate. One by one, those stars fell by the wayside -- whether it was injuries that took out Chicharito and Hector Moreno before the tournament began or Gio's fateful abductor strain. Then you had what were simply disappointing tournaments for Herrera and Vela.

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That left Guardado to pick up the slack, and that's exactly what the veteran did. While other European-based players, like Herrera and Vela, struggled to shake off the rust from their preseasons, Guardado came into the tournament like a man on a mission. He scored in five of Mexico's six Gold Cup matches, and while three of his six goals were penalties, two of those penalties were converted in extremely high-pressure situations, late in matches where a miss could have meant disaster for El Tri.

Guardado received his due credit when the Gold Cup awards were handed out before the trophy itself. As he picked up the Golden Ball Award, he got a loud and grateful round of applause from the pro-Mexico crowd to go with it. And he also received praise from his coach.

"I’m very happy, very happy, with what Andres has done," Miguel Herrera said. "Very deserving to be the player of the tournament because throughout the entire tournament he was extremely competitive, and even more, as a midfielder, to challenge for the scoring title is very good."

The victory not only meant Mexico's seventh Gold Cup title, it also means a chance to face the U.S. national team in October with a place in the 2017 Confederations Cup on the line. Though there weren't many Andres Guardado jerseys at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday, his Gold Cup heroics should lead more El Tri fans to don Guardado's number the next time Mexico plays an important match.

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