Mexico advance to Gold Cup final but impressive Haiti show they belong

GLENDALE, AZ -- Haiti defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste struggled at times to get his words out after his team fell 1-0 to Mexico after extra time on Tuesday. The 27-year-old New York native didn't stick in MLS and currently plays his club soccer in the Swedish third tier at Umea FC, but he had just managed to keep one of the Premier League's best strikers last season, Wolves' Raul Jimenez, quiet in a Gold Cup semifinal.

The former Portland Timbers centre-back's performance was remarkable, but his disappointment at a soft penalty call in extra time -- from which Jimenez netted the game's only goal -- reflected a genuine collective belief that Haiti could pull off the unthinkable against a Mexico team playing in front of another bumper 60,000-plus crowd.

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"It was great playing with these guys, it hurts [to go out]," said Jean-Baptiste. "It's not a club team, not like I'm going to see these guys next week, to separate is a little heartbreaking. I'm choking up."

Mexico's performance to reach the Gold Cup final can and will be dissected. There will be criticism. On the glass-half-full side, this was a case of getting the job done after a quick turnaround following Saturday night's 120-minute plus penalties quarterfinal against Costa Rica. The alternative narrative is that Mexico's performances have declined as the tournament has gone on and that El Tri lacked the invention to put away a stubborn but inferior Haiti side in Arizona.

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"The intention is that the boys recover for the final on Sunday," said Mexico assistant Jorge Theiler after the game. "The intensity of the games is high because Gerardo Martino's style is to press and constantly attack and the players get worn out. There are times that you play as you'd like and others you don't because the opponent also counts."

Haiti certainly fulfilled its task of frustrating Mexico. The Caribbean side has been the Gold Cup's most astonishing story and will be the team of the tournament, whatever happens from here on in and regardless of who wins the trophy in Chicago.

The wins against Costa Rica and Canada to reach the semifinal turned heads and, on Tuesday, Mikael Cantave struck the crossbar in the 119th minute, which would have taken the game against Mexico to penalties.

This is a country that the World Bank considers the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, is ranked 101st by FIFA and whose starting team against Mexico contained an unattached goalkeeper, a St. Mirren forward, a USL defender, a French fourth-division player, one player featuring in Armenia and a midfielder currently playing in Haiti's top flight.

"Maybe because of where we are from, people write us off," said Jean-Baptiste.

It contrasts with Mexico's highly-paid stars, who are treated like rock stars as they travel from city to city in the United States, with fans awaiting their arrival at hotels and every match a home game.

That gap between the differing realities was narrowed on the field, however, even if Mexico dominated possession and had the better chances. In the end, the result came down to one penalty call in the second minute of extra time. Jimenez beat Haiti's Herve Bazile to a challenge and collapsed to the ground hugging the ball. The contact from the Haiti player was minimal, but did exist and Qatari referee Abdulrahman A l Jassim pointed to the spot.

"I was probably the closest person to it, closer than the ref because there was a person blocking his view, at least from what I saw." said Jean-Baptiste. "It's one of those situations where he's waving play on, but did you even see contact? Did you hear contact? There are two guys going for the ball... he made the call and it was unfortunate. He wouldn't have called that foul in the middle of the field, let alone in the penalty area, and, whatever, he put it away and now we're out."

Haiti's style is as ingrained as El Tri's, even if it is the almost polar opposite and Les Grenadiers have provided a reminder that CONCACAF's less renowned teams are on the rise. One of the central storylines of this Gold Cup has been the rise of the Caribbean sides -- fueled by the newly created Nations League -- with Curacao, Haiti and even the likes of Bermuda punching above their historical weight. The Caribbean sides are not done either, as Jamaica will face off against the United States on Wednesday for the right to play Mexico in what would be a third consecutive Gold Cup final for the Reggae Boyz.

"The future is bright, as long as we keep our head straight," said Jean-Baptiste. "World Cup qualification is possible."

As for Mexico, it's on to Chicago and a chance to play for regional supremacy and a trophy on Sunday at Solider Field. But El Tri's players leave Arizona knowing that they were given an almighty scare by a Haitian team that had the youngest average age of any team at the tournament.