It had been 21 years since Mexico faced Canada in the Gold Cup knockout stages. In 2000, Mexico lost 2-1 after a golden goal scored by Richard Hastings, which set the stage for Canada's first (and only) Gold Cup title to date.
El Tri was determined not to have history repeat itself but needed a 98th-minute goal from one of its most experienced veterans, midfielder Hector Herrera, to stave off a tough Canada side that tested the mettle of the reigning Gold Cup champions.
On an emotionally charged night that saw multiple scraps between players on both sides, fans again singing an anti-gay chant, which caused a stoppage in play, and Mexico midfielder Jonathan dos Santos starting despite learning about the death of his father shortly before kickoff, El Tri moved on to its record 10th Gold Cup final with a 2-1 win.
After his father Geraldo Francisco dos Santos (better known as Zizinho) passed away on Thursday afternoon, Dos Santos opted to play and was used for 60 minutes before being subbed off for Erick Gutierrez. "Zizinho was a great person," said defender Hector Moreno after the match. "I hope his family is okay, and from here, we send our most heartfelt condolences."
When Orbelin Pineda slotted a penalty past Maxime Crepeau in the first half to open the scoring, the Mexico team embraced Dos Santos in recognition of his heartache. For long stretches of the semifinal clash, it seemed the entire team -- not just Dos Santos -- was playing with its heart on its sleeve.
After overwhelming its opponents early on with an offensive onslaught similar to how it beat Honduras in the previous match, Mexico were under pressure as the Canadians found ways to use their aggressiveness against them, eventually breaking through with a superb goal from Tajon Buchanan on a counter-attack in the 57th minute.
"I think you're seeing that Canadian grit, that Canadian resilience," said Canada manager John Herdman in the postmatch news conference. "We can play and go toe-to-toe with the best in CONCACAF."
Buchanan's goal was the first allowed by Mexico's defense in the Gold Cup, snapping a streak of 417 minutes without conceding. Despite grabbing hold of the match early in the second half, Canada nearly put themselves behind again with a self-inflicted wound just five minutes after the equalizer. Mark-Anthony Kaye steamrolled Jesus Corona at the edge of the penalty box, gifting El Tri their second penalty kick of the match after referee Daneon Parchment confirmed the call through VAR.
Despite Pineda's superb attempt in the first half, it was defender Carlos Salcedo who took on the responsibility, but the Tigres star had his shot blocked by Crepeau to keep the game at 1-1.
"The players decide on the field," said Mexico manager Gerardo Martino on why Salcedo took the penalty. "Salcedo had all of the support from his teammates and from [the coaching staff]. He had the confidence to take the shot and it was saved. It was relevant to the game, but I have no comment on the kick taker."
Not long after Salcedo's blunder, it would be the Mexico fans at Houston's NRG Stadium who took center-stage for the wrong reasons once more. The Mexico FA had already been sanctioned and fined by FIFA last month, but a second occurrence of the infamous anti-gay chant prompted Parchment to implement CONCACAF's anti-discrimination protocol and halt the game in the 88th minute.
The stoppage unintentionally allowed both teams to gear up for the final stretch, one punctuated by hard tackles on both sides and the last batch of substitutions from managers attempting to gain the upper hand.
Rodolfo Pizarro nearly put Mexico ahead with a header inside the six-yard box in stoppage time, but then the striker -- a late addition to Mexico's roster after Hirving Lozano's injury in the group stage -- came up with a key pass to find Herrera at the top of the 18-yard box in the final minutes.
"We had four clear chances after [Canada tied it], that's more than enough to think we deserved to win the game," Martino said in postmatch. "I would love to dominate every game for 90 minutes, but you can't always do that."
After Herrera smashed the ball past Crepeau to score the winner, he ran toward the sidelines to embrace Dos Santos. Herrera's mother, Maria, passed away in March due to complications from COVID-19 and the Atletico Madrid midfielder has bonded over shared grief with his teammate.
This coming weekend -- barely a month after their 3-2 defeat in the CONCACAF Nations League final on June 6 -- Mexico will face United States in search of their ninth Gold Cup title. Despite a shaky start and a general lack of authority in the tournament thus far, El Tri has found a way to succeed despite adversity and now have a chance for revenge over their rivals.