June 26, 2011

Recap: 2011 Gold Cup Final. Mexico 4-2 USA

Photo via Flickr user proforged. Photo used with the CC BY NC-ND 2.0 Creative Commons License.

As Freddy Adu orchestrated a slick pass to Landon Donovan, which led to a jarring 2-0 lead for the United States, I reacted in the same manner as the few fellow American soccer fans did, got up halfway and felt it was a sucker punch to the extreme heavyweights, Mexico.

However, note how I said half way. It hit me. The last time the United States national soccer team went up so unexpectedly, and so early was two years back. Yes, I'm talking about the 2009 Confederations Cup final, when the Yanks bagged two goals inside half an hour, stunning Brazil 2-0. 

And what followed?

Yes. Brazil would rally and nab a 3-2 victory. The unsettling thought seemed practically inevitable. Before I could complete the entire thought and scenario, the United States' impressive, yet shocking lead, evaporating, as the score leveled of at 2-2. 

Rather than being stunned, or unsettled about the Mexican comeback, I just rolled my eyes and subconsciously thought to myself how it was only to come. As the match progressed in the second half and El Tri rallied to score four unanswered goals, the classic problems marring the United States could not have been more evident.

There's a reason for a large coalition of Bornstein haters

Before the match even concluded, the Twitterverse was already hopping on the Jonathan Bornstein hate train. Such angry reactions claiming that Bornstein was the culprit for Pablo Berrera and Jose Guardado's two goals, allowing the Mexicans to draw level with the Americans. Granted, Bornstein's arrival in the match was incredibly abrupt and I'm sure Bornstein was not expecting to get much playing time. If not, none at all. Still, such excuses are not acceptable, and his lack of positioning allowed players such as Guardado, Berrera and especially dos Santos to burn down the right flank of the pitch, time and time again.

Now, that's not to say the rest of the U.S. back line is off the hook, nor does it mean that every goal Mexico scored was at the fault of Bornstein. As dos Santos clearly exhibited by back dribbling from Tim Howard and skipping around Carlos Bocanegra, all before chipping the ball above Eric Lichaj exposed the worst of the American defense. If anything it makes the word "horrendous" boldfaced and highlighted.

Soccer games last 90 minutes

Apart from their match against Jamaica, the United States did not play the top of their game for the whole hour-and-a-half. In fact, they rarely even played to their top half of their time. In case anyone needed an explanation, the United States was not up to par for nearly 60 minutes of the match. They were timid the opening five minutes, until they scored the opening goal. From there, they dictated the run of play until Mexico drew things level again. Alas, a total of about 25 to 30 minutes.

The trend continued well into the second half, and it wasn't until Mexico made it a 4-2 advantage that the United States went back to dictating the possession of the match and creating goalscoring opportunities. Problem being, there was only 15 minutes remaining, and they had their share of bad luck. That being said, it is relishing to know how scrappy and gritty of a team the United States is, and it represents that classic, blue collar hardworking team, but the question that looms: why can they only come out at their best for only partial minutes.

As we saw against Panama, the United States has to be on top of their game the whole time. They did so against a mighty Jamaican side, and cruised to a 2-0 victory, one that might of turned a few heads. The only times their partial play worked was against Guadeloupe and Canada, mainly due to the fact that these teams are far inferior in skill.

Neutralizing one player does not solve the problem

One of the most critical assignments Bob Bradley most likely gave to his defenders was to neutralize Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez. That meant, closing in on him the moment he gained ball possession and stop the flow of passing to him. Well, Bradley somewhat got his wish. Hernandez did not score, and frankly, that surprised me. In spite of the fact the U.S. defense had an extra eye on Chicharito, I would have thought he would have somehow scored.

Still, the leaky back line conceded a total of four goals, the most the team conceded in the Gold Cup altogether, and twice the number of goals they conceded in every match prior to the final. The United States defense would have been better off playing a more of a zone defense than focusing on a specific person. I noticed later on that the back line did install more zone play, and it worked. Just like it did from the get go. If anything caused miscommunication to allow the defense to collapse, it had to have been the abrupt switch of removing Cherundolo for Bornstein. You could immediately tell something was not clicking. Consequently, all four of Mexico's goals were scored from their right flank of the field. El Tri realized that it was weaker side of the back line and capitalized on it, rarely bring the ball down the left flank.

In spite of the defense mishaps, the poor gaffes and lack of concentration that doomed the United States, when they had their bright spots, scattered mainly in the start and end of the match, they looked like a menacing team. Personally, I felt their start against Mexico was the best soccer the Yanks had played since the 2009 Confederations Cup.

Compact defense, counterattacking is venomous

One of the most notable things that has made the United States respectable and fearsome has been the ability for the side to counterattack. For the first five minutes of this match, Mexico looked destined to kick it into cruise control and repeat 2009's hellish nightmare. However, the compact defense, mixed with zone play allowed Mexico to rarely penetrate the box, and forced attacks such as dos Santos and Chicharito to stay on the wings. If the two were able to break a cross into the penalty area is was immediately cleared or saved.

With my notion on their counterattacking, its first piece of evidence was revealed on the first chance the United States had on goal: a corner kick following the first dangerous attack the Yanks had on El Tri. The sheer speed of Landon Donovan's corner to Michael Bradley quickly saw the ball hurdle into the side netting giving the Mexican defense, but primarily Alfredo Talavera, a sheer expression of shock. In fact, it wasn't until Mexico's head coach, José Manuel de la Torre, took out Carlos Salcido and replaced Salcido with Jorge Torres Nilo, that the Mexican defense was able to cool down and the attack was able to spring into action, negating the shortcomings the defense, but primarily Talavera had early on.

Scrappy and gritty effort and performance

I think with most international teams, as well as club teams, the moment you go down two goals with such little time remaining results in hitting the panic button or mentally shutting down. Not for the United States. If anything, Mexico had play on the top of their game to conclude the match. Seeing from the look on the faces of Freddy Adu, Clint Dempsey and so many others, if a few flaws worked to the Americans advantage, it would have likely resulted in either 4-3 win for Mexico, or we'd be talking about an unbelievable comeback to counteract Mexico's to begin with. That didn't happen, however, there was some luck with it, along with the midfield reacting quickly enough to clear the ball far out of harms way.

It's a matter of reflecting on key moments that could have been game changers. For instance, the incredibly aggravating shot Dempsey took that whacked the crossbar and resulted in Talavera catching a nasty case of the concrete shoes. Or Bradley's wicked half volley that only veered inches wide of an open net. They were the few flashes of some bad luck, but sheer determination from a U.S. side that just could not finish what they started.

This article was also featured in The Pursuit of Victory.

About the Author

Tyler Walter

Author & Editor

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