Originally Published: July 24, 2017 5:59 a.m.
PASADENA, Calif. — After Kemar Lawrence ripped and exquisite shot over Mexico’s five-man wall and into the top corner for one of the biggest goals in Jamaican soccer history, the defender hushed his teammates and refused to celebrate.
These Reggae Boyz are staying cool, even after a goal that sent them into the CONCACAF Gold Cup final with a chance to make history.
Lawrence scored on a clutch 24-yard free kick in the 88th minute, and Jamaica advanced to the final with a 1-0 upset victory over Mexico on Sunday night.
“I think our guys were hungry,” Jamaica coach Theodore Whitmore said. “They needed it more than the Mexicans, and we did what we had to do.”
Jamaica will face the United States on Wednesday night at Santa Clara, California. With a victory over the home team, the Reggae Boyz would claim their first championship in soccer’s North and Central American and Caribbean region.
“The best way I could put it is the Biblical story,” Whitmore said. “David slew Goliath.”
The Reggae Boyz have reached the final for the second straight Gold Cup, but this stunning upset at the Rose Bowl ranks among their biggest international wins. Mexico has won seven Gold Cup titles, the U.S. five and Canada one.
“That’s a cycle we want to break,” Whitmore said. “That’s something we sit and discuss. It’s always Mexico, U.S. We want to be in that group. We want to be a team, a country that someone can talk about, and that’s what we’re working toward.”
Jamaica goalkeeper Andre Blake kept this game scoreless with a series of impressive saves while Mexico dominated possession with a lineup missing most of El Tri’s most-accomplished players.
But after Lawrence repositioned the ball in a bit of shifty gamesmanship, his late strike froze Mexico goalkeeper Jesus Corona. The ball curled over the wall and slipped just below the bar for the New York Red Bulls defender’s third international goal and first in three years.
The 24-year-old Lawrence doesn’t take free kicks for his MLS club, but Whitmore knew his quality from recent practices.
“The New York Red Bulls probably have a better kicker than Kemar Lawrence,” Whitmore said with a smile. “Now, Jamaica’s team needs Kemar Lawrence in dead-ball situations. It’s a totally different thing. Probably when the New York Red Bulls see this tonight, they might (want him) to take free kicks.”
Trying to win its second consecutive Gold Cup and fourth in five tournaments, Mexico used the deeper reaches of its player pool following the World Cup qualifiers and the Confederations Cup last month. While teams were allowed to make up to six substitutions for the knockout rounds, El Tri coach Juan Carlos Osorio said he was blocked by Mexico’s clubs.
Mexico hadn’t trailed in the tournament before Lawrence’s late goal, but El Tri also hadn’t been impressive — no player scored more than one goal.
“This is a process, and it takes a lot of work to get a team that can compete in a World Cup,” assistant coach Luis Pompilio Paez said. “This is not a sufficient result, but this is the middle of the process. I saw a team that gave everything. We always respect what the other team does. We just needed to get a goal, and we didn’t have the right circumstances. Embarrassment, sadness — as a team, we feel it.”
Blake also starred 11 days ago when Mexico and Jamaica played to a 0-0 draw in Denver. With the Philadelphia Union keeper playing exceptionally well, Jamaica has allowed only two goals in the tournament.
The semifinal crowd was dominated by Mexico’s vast Southern California fan base, yet the Rose Bowl was less than half-full with just 42,393 fans. The absence of Chicharito Hernandez and other top Mexican stars, combined with El Tri’s unattractive performances in the Gold Cup to date, apparently kept many of their usual faithful at home.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino watched the semifinal from the Rose Bowl stands. So did Osorio, who served the fifth game of a six-match FIFA ban for his conduct toward officials during the Confederations Cup.
Mexico beat Jamaica in the 2015 Gold Cup final, and El Tri also defeated the Reggae Boyz 2-0 at the Rose Bowl just 13 months ago during the Copa America. Jamaica finally got one back, beating Mexico for the first time in the teams’ eight Gold Cup meetings.
Blake made two brilliant saves in succession in the 12th minute, diving twice to stop close-range chances by Jesus Duenas and Erick Torres, the Houston Dynamo star and the only player on the current roster from outside Mexico’s domestic leagues.
Blake did it again in the 25th minute, stopping Torres’ point-blank header from the top of the 6-yard box with improbably quick reactions.