"There's suffering in every [qualifying campaign]," Mexico coach Gerardo Martino said. "We took a good step tonight to take back our confidence."
Mexico did so with the added handicap of not exploiting home-field advantage to the fullest. Though the sight of an empty stadium has become commonplace over the course of the pandemic, Mexico's hallowed home ground was left without fans not because of COVID-19, but as punishment for the anti-gay chant heard in multiple matches during the Olympic qualifiers in Guadalajara last April.
Facing no added pressure from fans, the Reggae Boyz took the pitch at the Azteca -- a stadium where they've never won in World Cup qualifying -- far from full strength, as a dozen of their Europe-based players were held back due to a COVID travel ban. On the other side, Mexico missed stars Raul Jimenez, Hirving Lozano and Johan Vasquez due to the same circumstance. To cope, Martino tasked a young core to replace his missing stars. El Tri presented a starting lineup featuring seven players who recently won a bronze medal at the Tokyo 2020 games.
Jimenez's understudy, Rogelio Funes Mori, nearly broke the game open after 25 minutes. The Monterrey striker was unable to steer a header past Andre Blake after a pitch perfect cross from Jorge Sanchez saw Funes Mori receive at the edge of the six-yard box. It was the only noteworthy chance from a tenuous first 45 minutes.
Despite marveling in Tokyo, several of the players coming back from the tournament underperformed in their newest challenge.
"In a qualifying campaign, there are no easy games," goalkeeper Memo Ochoa said. "I've lived through some very complicated campaigns, and this one won't be any easier. A lot of the [Mexican] players tonight had their first taste and they realized you go through a lot."
However, early in the second half, one of Mexico's Olympic heroes answered the call to give El Tri its first lead of the game. Vega took advantage of a blocked shot that came to him inside Jamaica's box, and the Chivas forward launched a powerful right-footed finish past Blake to make it 1-0.
The goal appeared to write the remaining script for the match: forced to attack, Jamaica created counterattacking opportunities for El Tri, who created two big chances at will in the following minutes. In the 63rd minute, again on a counter, Funes Mori drew Blake off his line, before passing to a wide-open Roberto Alvarado. The Cruz Azul attacker clanged his shot off the post despite having an empty net in front of him.
Spared by Mexico's lack of finishing, Jamaica parlayed its only big chance of the game into an equalizer. A long, looping cross into the box from Cory Burke forced Jorge Sanchez to lunge and defend with a header. The contact was weak, and allowed Nicholson to barrel in and blast a goal past Ochoa.
"We manage games well for long periods of time and create goal chances, but we're not clinical," lamented Martino. "Sometimes you suffer through misfortune and you have situations like Jamaica's goal."
Forced once again to go on the offensive, Martino took Vega off in favor of a second striker and fellow Olympic vet, Henry Martin. With less than two minutes before injury time beckoned, and the story of 2013 looked to repeat itself, Martin fired past a diving Blake to give Mexico the win. In keeping with one of the night's main storylines, only players representing El Tri at the Olympics built and finished the game winning play: Cesar Montes launched a forward pass that was clipped by Luis Romo. The change in direction was enough to allow Martin to run onto the ball and score almost from the spot as Vega did earlier in the half.
"I'm happy to contribute, to score and help the team get three points," Martin said. "When I saw the ball [come my way], I just thought to kick it toward the goal."
Following the win, Mexico will go on the road for two straight games to round out its first batch of qualifiers. Adding to its list of missing players, El Tri will have to face both of its remaining matchups without Martino himself, who will undergo surgery to correct a detached retina. Jamaica -- the only team to lose on the first match day -- will play Panama at home on Sunday before travelling to Costa Rica on Wednesday.