Soccer

USA Falls to Mexico, Bradley's Failures and Other Soccer Thoughts

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It's been nearly 14 hours since Mexico defeated the U.S. 4-2 in the 2011 Gold Cup final at Azetca Junior, the Rose Bowl. In that time all that keeps replaying in my mind is an orange-glad Tim Howard flopping on the grass like a fish out of water, Gio Dos Santos chipping an inch-perfect 99-of-100 shot into the upper 90, followed by Howard punching the grass in a show of unchecked emotional agony.

Yep, it came to that.

Howard's emotional angst summed it up beautifully, tragically. He realized instantly the magnitude of what just happened.

What better sums up where the two nations are at the moment?

This, friends, was the worst nightmare scenario for the U.S. at the Gold Cup unfurling in sunny Pasadena. All the ingridents added up to a humbling, depressing, soul-searching defeat for the U.S. -- one even the most ardent USSF lacky would have a difficult time finding a silver lining, aside from cashing their slice of the revenue from CONCACAF selling 93,000 tickets. You can't spin a positive when U.S. Soccer Czar Sunil Gulati is on the podium having to hand out awards to the Mexican players while keeping a straight face, while 92,000, flag-waving Mexican fans cheer them on.

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You almost couldn't script this:

* In the first five matches the U.S. didn't overly impress, but the team circled the wagons and found itself in the final against its eternal rival.
* Somehow, lo-and-behold, despite constant Mexican offensive pressure, the U.S. had scored twice in the first 25 minutes against the action.
* Jonathan Bornstein comes in for the first time all tournament, less than 15 minutes into the game.
* Freddy Adu, STARTS, plays well and the U.S. still gets beat by two goals.
* Dos Santos' once-in-a-lifetime chip -- the golazo of dreams -- clinches the game.
* Chicharito doesn't even score, despite being the focus of the broadcast and cameramen.
* Final insult: Despite being played in California, it was a home game for El Tri -- the most popular barnstormers in America, as it were.

So add up that bitch's brew and you have El Tri positioned as the swaggering kings of CONCACAF -- again. The U.S. misses out on the 2013 Confederations Cup, meaning between today and June 13, 2014 the team will arguably play two relevant games -- home-and-away with Mexico in the final CONCACAF Hexagonal. (As bad as it might seem for the U.S., it's still going to qualify for Brazil, right? Right?)

But hey, at least Adu played, no?

In the only game that mattered -- something we all knew coming into the Gold Cup -- the U.S. came up on the wrong side of a 4-2 equation. When you're as advanced as the U.S. is in terms of the rest of the CONCACAF landscape, there is only one grading system: pass/fail. Against Mexico, the U.S. failed. The loss pushes Bob Bradley's record in Cup finals to 1-3, including coughing up a 2-0 lead in the 2009 Confederations Cup to Brazil.

For the sake of fairness, it needs to be said: Mexico is good. Potentially scary good(*) with it's young, rising attacking core of Chicharito, Dos Santo, Andres Guardado, Pablo Barrera -- all 24 or younger. That's not even mentioning Arsenal's Carlos Vela, who's a bit overrated anyhow.

(*) Are Mexico a bit of a bully team, though? Away from Azteca or in America with 50,000 fans are they as good?

Mexico was down 2-0, with the legend of "Dos a cero" firmly in place. It didn't even take halftime before El Tri was even, almost ripping a page directly from Bob Bradley's rah-rah, backs-against-the-well comeback playbook at the 2010 World Cup. Seriously, up 2-0 on goals from Michael Bradley off a corner and a nifty one-two combo from Clint Dempsey to Landon Donovan did any U.S. fan feel safe?

Especially with Bornstein in the mix? Not to pick on Bornstein -- because anyone who's watched the U.S. in the last five years knows trouble simply seems to find him. He's not good, despite a capable showing at the World Cup. There's simply bad mojo, for better or worse, when he's on the field ... unless you're from Honduras.

Saturday Bornstein was the piece of soft filet mignon, while the Mexican attackers were the knife at the carving station, repeatedly slice-and-dicing him.

Steve Cherundolo's injury forced Bradley's hand. Compounding issues, since the U.S. had to beat Guadeloupe in the final Group game after losing to Panama, Bradley played the starters and didn't get either Bornstein or Jonathan Spector a chance to play in the tournament. Granted, neither are world beaters, but throwing them into game action for the first time since May isn't going to yield the best results.

Bradley, to his credit, usually gets in-game substitutions right. This failed spectacularly. It wasn't just playing Bornstein, but moving Lichaj from left back to right to change two positions at once, when Carlos Bocanegra and Clarence Goodson aren't exactly fleet of foot to begin with. Long story short, the U.S. can field a pretty good starting XI, but depth is an issue -- hell finding starters at forward or wide positions is a borderline ongoing crisis for the Stars and Stripes.

To say Bradley's decision to play Bornstein was the only reason the U.S. lost is foolish and short-sighted. Mexico was penetrating the U.S. defense with regularity before Cherundolo limped off, with Chicharito given two chances on a platter.

No, the greater issue -- one I worried about midway through the tournament -- why does Mexico play with such attacking verve, when the U.S. basically had to rely on the heroics of Donovan, Dempsey, Adu (later) or set pieces? Down two goals Mexico didn't panic and went at the U.S.'s sieve-like backline with the fervor of a Great White chasing down a wounded seal.

Mexico, in the midst of 2010 World Cup qualification, faced some major soul searching when it nearly missed out on South Africa. Their federation made the bold move, fired Sven Goran-Eriksson and moved forward. Now with Chepo de la Torre in charge, Mexico rediscovered its swagger and seems to have a very bright future, which now includes the 2013 Confederations Cup.

There's stagnation and then there's an hesitance to embrace new ideas and change. Mexico, also eliminated in the Round of 16 at the last World Cup, seems to have gone forward. The U.S. thanks to Asamoah Gyan's extra time strike seems to be spinning its wheels from top-to-bottom.

Maybe why that's why this loss didn't sit well.

There's nothing worse than getting your hopes up (early 2-0 lead) only to have it ripped out, rubbed out, thrown in the gutter, flushed down the sewer in embarrassing fashion an hour later. Couple that with having to face facts that Mexico's talent is flat out better than what the U.S. has to offer and it's a tough pill to swallow.

Again, this was the worst nightmare for the U.S.: losing to Mexico with the money on the line, but losing in spectacularly soul-crushing fashion.

There was one objective for this Gold Cup: Beat Mexico, get to the Confederations Cup.

Call it another swing and a miss.

With any hope, enough people take notice at this and don't try to justify it, or worse -- sweep it under the rug.

Random Thoughts:

* Thank goodness for Clint Dempsey. Glad there is at least one player on the current U.S. National Team little kids watching the game can aspire to play like. Any coincidence he didn't come up in the established USSF feeder system, with grinds out creativity like a cigarette into an ashtray. If only that shot off his left foot was an inch or two lower.

* Of course that inch when to Dos Santos, who's goal had soccer pundits mentioning Ronaldinho's (remember him) name in a positive light for the first time in years.

* Chicharito's best play of the game? Not touching Guardado's equalizer on the goal line when he would have been ruled offside. Just a brilliant footballing brain on him. Nice pass to split the U.S. defense to set up Barrera, too. Hope Jozy Altidore was taking notes on how to be effective as a striker without scoring.

* Bradley the Elder probably made the right call with Juan Agudelo on the bench, starting Adu and moving Donovan and Dempsey (interchanging) forward. Shame Stuart Holden was reduced to commentator on FSC. He's not the missing link, but there is clearly a place screaming out for the Bolton player in either a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 midfield spot. Get healthy, Stu.

* Another conundrum for the U.S. as currently instituted. Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley make a perfectly good midfield tandem, say 85 percent of the time: think of them like a backcourt on a Mid-Major NCAA hoops team. Neither was especially effective vs. Mexico, with Bradley reduced to chasing Dos Santos et al down from long stretches away in the midfield. Problem is, against the elite of the world, the pair's passing limitations are exposed, as U.S. struggles with possession. As long as Bradley the Elder remains the coach, he can't be married to these two as automatic starters. (Worth mentioning, three games in six days for these two is asking a lot. Why Maurice Edu didn't play a role? Beats me.)

* So much for the great Tim Ream experiment, eh? That's a joke. He was dreadful vs. Panama, but it's too soon to cut him out of the National Team picture. If Goodson and Bocanegra is the central defensive pairing heading into 2014, the U.S. has issues. Devil's Advocate: how many high-level, pressurized spots with any possible new American defenders get to audition against between now and then?

* The U.S. entered this tournament with three players listed as "Strikers." None of those three started the Gold Cup Final. Agudelo did come on in the 62nd minute. Marinate on that.

* Not sure what the future holds for Adu, but he made the most of his opportunities. He's in the rotation, at the very least.

* Is Tim Howard one of the best 10 goalies in the world? Probably not, but 99 percent of the time he's an asset for the U.S. He keeps the team in games and rarely costs them on a soft goal. Saturday he was beaten twice on semi-saveable balls. He was straight up fooled by the wicked spin Barrera put on his second goal, which made it 3-2. The Dos Santos play? His defense didn't help him, but Howard defined the term, "at sea" there.

* Sure, people are going to call for Bradley the Elder's head. That's probably not happening so long as Gulati remains pulling all the strings of U.S. Soccer, though this loss isn't going to sit well with the American public, which actually seemed to care about the Gold Cup Final. Problem is, with a new coach, who wants the job -- it doesn't pay great? The talent pool isn't super, either.

The bigger issue, by the time there is the next USSF President Election, can we get somebody to oppose Gulati, who's just as despotic as Sepp Blatter. In fact, Gulati's got his fingers in more pies that he probably should, serving as President of the USSF and the New England Revolution. Kind of a conflict of interest, sitting in Robert Kraft's pocket, isn't it?

* It's a bit of apples-to-oranges, but after a string of coming up short in tournaments, the U.S. Women National Team hired a foreign coach, Pia Sundhage and the world didn't end. Obviously the Women's World Cup is this month, so we'll see if it was a smart move. I'll say this, waiting at around 2:45 a.m. to see how "Sportscenter" presented the Gold Cup highlights, there was an interview with Sundhage and in those two minutes got me more excited than five-plus years of Bradley. (Unfair, since personality isn't a be-all, end-all, but it's worth pointing out.)

* Maybe a loaded question, or a thought for a boring summer day, but does the U.S. have a "style" of play to fall back on? With most of the core players of this team scattered across Europe in different places, it's difficult to build a common mentality.

* The actual Gold Cup itself is the RC Cola of international soccer trophies. Lame.

* If anything, this game probably re-energized the U.S./Mexico rivalry, since the balanced has shifted firmly South of the Border. I actually liked Sacha Kljestan going in hard with a dirty slide tackle late in the game. At least it shows a little vim and vigor.

* No, JP Dellacamera, reaching the Gold Cup final if you're the U.S. in the year 2011 isn't "quite an accomplishment."

* Worth saying, thoroughly enjoyed watching most of the Gold Cup on Univision -- even if it seems the station's entire mission statement is to use the Mexican National Team to sell crappy lite beer. Looking forward to the Copa America.

* Oh right, Mr. Gulati, why is the U.S. never invited to play in that tournament?

Final thought:

There always seems to be a Murphy's Law black cloud hovering over the U.S. National Team, or U.S. Soccer in general. When something can go wrong, it does go wrong.

Up 2-0, the U.S. simply didn't know what to do and eventually capitulated to the rampant Mexican attack.

The U.S. appears in a backslide from where it was in 2010, with the same questions lingers about an aging defense, an ineffective possession midfield and a glaring -- almost comical -- lack of viable international strikers.

Long story short, Clint Dempsey, never get hurt and try not to get any older while you're at it. You're our only hope.