"Nobody believed in us."
Considering this isn't Grantland.com, I don't want to make the following preview-o-rama about Saturday's Gold Cup final between the U.S. and Mexico at the Rose Bowl all about me. That said, I'd like to drop a small personal anecdote before we dig deep into solving the Chicharito problem.
Loyal readers of this site may or may not know that your humble author is actually gainfully employed -- don't live in my parents basement either. (High five!) Most of my "day-gig", which is actually mostly transpires at night, involves covering high school sports.
More often than not, in postgame interviews kids love -- looooove -- dropping the "nobody believed in us card." Half the time you'd think some of these kids were playing football for East Dillon High in the first year of Coach Eric Taylor's regime. Regardless, "NBIU" is arguably the most powerful force in sports. More powerful than a cocktail of anabolic steroids, EPO and Alex Rodriguez' "Bolle" -- less back-acne, too.
NBIU seems to be the operating agenda for the U.S. National Team under the regime of Bob Bradley. This is a strange NBIU. In 2002, you could argue, nobody really did believe in the team coached by Bruce Arena and all it did was come within a non-called Torsten Frings' handball from the World Cup semifinals.
What makes the 2009-2011 NBIU vis-a-vis the U.S. is that the non-belief is internal. It's not the media or general populace putting pressure on the team like most soccer nations. Rather, it's a small core of people on the Internet, for whatever reason simply don't like Bradley, despite yielding the hilarious @FakeBobBradley Twitter feed.
When the grumblings after the loss to Panama in the Gold Cup group stage grew louder and louder, creeping into the mainstream -- if only briefly -- whattdayaknow? The U.S. plays its best, dispatching Guadeloupe, brushing aside Jamaica and grinding out a win over Panama.
It's almost as if the official drink of the U.S. isn't Gatorade.
Nay, it's Haterade.
Whether it's been exciting or not, the U.S. is right where it needed to be: at the Rose Bowl pitted against Mexico with a trip to the 2013 Confederations Cup on the line. It could even be argued it's the most important, relevant game the U.S. will play until the World Cup kicks off in Brazil in three years.
And to achieve that goal -- remember, outside of the World Cup there's not many high-level competitive matches for the U.S. -- they have to get through their eternal rival, El Tri. (For video of the rivalry, consult yesterday's post.)
Naturally, when talking Mexico, the conversation immediately shifts to Javier Hernandez, Chicharito. Touched briefly on this yesterday, but the Manchester United star is almost a new breed of Mexican player. Yes, he wears the dreaded green (or black) shirt, but there's something a lot less mustache-twirling villain-y than his forerunners like Blanco or Hernandez or Garcia or Borgetti.
Simply put, it's difficult to dislike a guy like Hernandez who's turned scoring the insane goal into an art form. His butt, his face, his hip ... through his own legs.
There's a level of respect for his rare poaching instinct. Granted, he'd never scored -- let alone played -- against the U.S., so come early Sunday morning this sentiment is likely to change.
How much of a focus should the U.S. put on Chicharito? Difficult question. The genius of his play is that you could mark him for 89 minutes and 59 seconds, but that one second you blink, he makes a brilliant run and pops in a goal. He is a finisher, plan and simple -- the type of player the U.S. sorely lacks.
Mexico, during the two knockout games of the Gold Cup, have been even more dangerous when Chicharito has played off of traditional burly target strike Aldo De Nigris, giving the No. 14 shirt even more space. Chicharito has seven goals in the Gold Cup, yes five came in routs vs. El Salvador and Cuba, yet his international scoring record is 21 in 29 games, with tallies against teams like Spain, France, Argentina and the Netherlands.
Long story short, the kid is special at scoring goals.
The rest of Mexico seemed to struggle some in the knockout stages. Andres Guardado was ineffective vs. Honduras and subbed off. Gio Dos Santos tantalizes with his dribbling, but can be wasteful. Still, the U.S. coming off a half-speed game vs. Panama will be pressed to combat their speed on the wings. Pablo Barrera, forgettable at West Ham, is still an upgrade over who the U.S. has seen outside, too.
Where the U.S. might have the biggest issue is in the middle, dictating the tempo with Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley fighting for space against the veteran duo of Cruz Azul teammates Gerardo Torrado and Israel Castro. Through the first five games of the tournament the U.S. hasn't seen anyone comparable to these two. Not even close.
Throw in a back line of the still nefarious Rafa Marquez, as well as rising talent Hector Moreno flanked by Efrain Juarez and Carlos Salcido and the U.S. clearly has its work cut out for it.
This is the first time the U.S. is playing against comparable competition, so the big question is can they snap it into gear with a team that won't sit back and absorb pressure, instead pressing the issue and trying to force errant passes at the midfield -- a definite Achilles heel for this U.S. team. Even Jamaica didn't have the team speed, coupled with skill as Mexico.
As much as the deck seems stacked against the U.S. -- including nearly 100, 000 Mexican fans at the Rose Bowl -- if we've learned anything under the tenure of Bradley, when you expect the least, you get the most and vice versa.
Nike and the USSF concocted a fan-submitted slogan for the U.S. team -- "We Are Indivisible."
A more accurate ethos for this current squad is probably, "Haters gone hate."
* For whatever it's worth, Mexico has at least played Honduras -- which did qualify for the 2010 World Cup -- but was a shell of that team sans Wilson Palacios and David Suazo. El Tri also got Costa Rica -- also down -- in the Group Stage. Compare this to the U.S., which hasn't even played a team that qualified for the final 2010 CONCACAF qualifying Hexgonal. (h/t @30F)
* Almost ten years removed from the U.S. beating Mexico 2-0 in Columbus, tensions between the team seem to have cooled. The rivalry is still hot, but the Big Brother/Little Brother dynamic isn't what it once was. The U.S., over the last decade, has earned begrudging success South of the Border. Plus, with so many Mexican internationals moving overseas there seems to be more professional respect and less rah-rah nationalism at stake. The FMF and the Mexican League is so insular that it fostered a lot more Mexican pride, it would seem, in El Tri players. In Europe are they really worrying about CONCACAF superiority?
* Yes, the U.S. sent an almost C-level team to the 2009 Gold Cup, losing 5-0 to Mexico in the final. The only holdover for the U.S. who should start both games is Clarence Goodson. Other luminaries for the U.S. that day included Davy Arnuad, Jay Heaps, Chad Marshall and Logan Pause. Stuart Holden did play in that game, too.
Holdovers for El Tri include Juarez, Castro, Torrado, and Dos Santos -- the man of the match and his international coming out, as it were.
* Again, why is the final on a Saturday night as opposed to Sunday?
* A lot of the comments from the win over Panama included thoughts that Bradley the Elder lucked into his 4-2-3-1 formation, that was effective. Basically, he gets it wrong to start, then figures it out on the fly, re: bringing in Freddy Adu and Landon Donovan.
Not sure against a team that quality of Mexico Bradley can afford a mistake at the start. That's got 2-0 written all over it.
* By the same token, you could argue this is the trademark Bradley the Elder game. Sit back, absorb pressure, have Tim Howard stand on his head, and spring for a goal on the counterattack. Mexico is susptiable to two things: a) the counter b) getting frustrated against an organized defense.
* Big spotlight game for modified left back Eric LEEE-HIGH (Univision). He's been capable back there, but Mexico has threats out wide. His positioning and reactions tracking back will be huge. If I'm Mexico coach Jose Manuel de la Torre, this is my target for attacking, either at him or trying to wrong foot Goodson.
* Donovan needs to stop riding the chillwaves, and play like its June 2010, not June 2011. U.S. needs his pace on the left to keep Mexico at least a little bit honest.
* If the U.S. owns one clear advantage, it's in goal. Howard is about as good as it gets -- if only at keeping his team in the game via big saves -- whereas Alfredo Talavera has been shaky. U.S. needs to test him on coming off his line to field crosses.
* Is Nery Castillo still alive?
* Next time you hear anyone dropping an Andres Cantor, "Goooooool." Tell them it's not 1994 anymore. Pablo Ramirez's "Seeee laaaaaa peeeeeerdiiiiiiooooo" for missed chances is the most relevant Spanish language soccer call these days.
* Still miss ya, Max. Yessssssssssss.
* Apropos of nothing, the them of the opening essay was hate. Morrissey's first solo album was "Viva Hate." There are a lot of Mexican Morrissey fans. Felt like sharing.
Weird call here. The 4-2-3-1 has gotten two straight wins against inferior teams. Would the more pragmatic 4-4-2, with Clint Dempsey slipping up top make more sense against Mexico, mirroring how El Tri likely lines up? The personnel shouldn't be a surprise, even with fatigue involved due to a lack of options on either bench.
GK -- Howard
DEF -- Cherundolo -- Goodson -- Bocanegra -- Lichaj
DEF MID -- Bradley -- Jones
MID -- Bedoya -- Dempsey -- Donovan
FOR -- Agudelo
Although, from a pure skill standpoint, Mexico should have the advantage this game screams out for a cagey, taught affair. Throw in the tired legs and it could be a lot closer than it seems. Is this another case of the U.S. sucking us in and thinking they've turned a corner? Could be.
The one thing to remember, even if Mexico jumps out to a lead, the U.S. doesn't tend to roll over like, say, Cuba. In 2007 the U.S. went down 1-0 in the final and turned it around. If there's one thing Bradley's team is good at, it's circling the wagons.
Sure there will be 100,000 Mexicans rooting on the "home" team in Pasadena, but this is a veteran U.S. team, with guys who've played at Azteca. Nerves shouldn't be an issue -- except for Agudelo, alone up top. The kid seems confident, but at 18 who wouldn't get a little wide-eyed in this spot?
Problem is, the U.S. seems to be fighting against the inevitable of a new soccer cliche:
"In the end, Chicharito scores."
The pick: Mexico 2, U.S. 1 (a.e.t.)