Posted by: mdegeorge | June 27, 2011

U.S. anything but Golden against Mexico

Early in life, it’s well ingrained in most people’s lives that everything has a beginning, middle and end.

Stories, journeys, roads, they all pass through the same three phases.

That didn’t exactly dawn on Team USA, who turned in a great start but an atrocious middle and an indifferent end to their Gold Cup Final loss to Mexico, 4-2, Saturday. It was a performance indicative of the severe structural problems undermining this team, which contains only one group capable of performing consistency on the world stage.

First the game: The U.S. took a chance by naming a squad without a recognized striker in the face of Jozy Altidore’s injury and the continued ineffectiveness of Juan Agudelo and Chris Wondolowski.

The risk seemed to pay off. Michael Bradley, rather surprisingly not suspended for tournament finale, opened the team’s account in the ninth minute, and a counterattacking Landon Donovan pounced on a loose ball to slot home a second in the 22nd minute which appeared to book the flights for the team to Brazil for the Confederations Cup in 2013.

But once the middle rolled around, almost to the minute, things fell apart. Pablo Barrera got the opener on 29, and seven minutes later, Andres Guardado had things knotted up. Barrera and Mexico got off on the right foot in the second half with a goal less than five minutes in before Giovanni Dos Santos’s beautiful back-post volley eluded the head of Eric Lichaj with inches to spare to seal a stunning comeback.

The shock of the night for the U.S. wasn’t that they saw a big lead erased and had to play catch-up in the second half. It’s that they were able to jump out to a big lead to begin with. Once that first half spurt was over, a combination of taking their foot off the gas and Mexico stomping their own foot onto the pedal created a side that lacked creativity or potency. Mexico had the best of all worlds for the game’s last hour, taking the lion’s share of possession and being devilishly potent on the counterattack – that is how three of the goals materialized – to thwart a feeble American ending. It turned the match into a type of reverse alchemy, with the U.S. turning what appeared to sure gold back to lead.

The lack of balance in the game is indicative of the continued problems in the program. For a while, the U.S. has had a lamentable unidimensionality: The only unit remotely up to snuff is the midfield. Even that let them down to a degree Saturday. While Bradley and Donovan were effective at times – though Donovan did fade from the game as the night wore on – Clint Dempsey didn’t have the impact he needed to, Jermaine Jones was atrocious in the center of the pitch (watch him literally run away from Dos Santos when the latter had possession in the box on the fourth goal) and Alejandro Bedoya had one of the most ineffective games of the tournament.

But the midfield can almost be forgiven in light of the tremendous burden being carried by them. After all, it’s hard to operate as a midfield when you also have to be responsible for scoring and stopping all goals. The fact that the U.S. is unable to muster a single recognized striker for a continental championship game is embarrassing. Asking Dempsey to play as a second striker is allowable for short stretches. Putting him up front alone and asking him to fulfill the same responsibilities as a center forward like Altidore is ridiculous.

That formation may have staked the U.S. to an early lead. But it also torpedoed efforts later to infuse some life into the comeback attempt. Since I last checked in on the U.S. after the Panama loss, they have scored six goals as a team. That brings the total of goals by strikers over the last 24 matches in five major tournaments to a whopping seven. The midfield has accounted for 27. The disparity is bordering on the absurd.

It’s ironic that the shortcomings should be so glaringly illustrated against Mexico, a team with such a fluid attack and conception of what a forward should be. Dos Santos is exactly the kind of player the United States lacks: A thoroughly inconsistent, unpredictable, unbelievable talent who can throw off the strictures of whatever formation he’s in to produce with his immense raw skill.

Nominally, Mexico was playing a 3-4-3 Saturday. But that didn’t matter when their speedy attackers were blitzing the U.S.’s flat-footed defense from all angles. It didn’t matter that center forward Javier Hernandez was the trigger man for the first goal with a long pass to a streaking Barrera that originated near the midfield stripe. Or that he was the target at the back post the created chaos in the for Guardado’s goal. Or that he dragged the ball to the corner flag to open up space for Dos Santos on his tally. He has a tremendous amount of talent that will show through in any type of system.

(Once again, it bears mentioning that the substitution inadequacies that were trifling against Panama killed any chance of a comeback in this one. Bob Bradley didn’t have an efficient match on the sidelines by any stretch of the imagination. It certainly wasn’t the reason why the U.S. lost – that credit goes to Mexico’s rampant attack – but it left a lifeless side looking for a boost without recourse. The two most energetic and positionally-flexible players, Bedoya and Freddy Adu, were in the starting lineup. The bench was inexplicably populated by three defenders, Agudelo, outcast Maurice Edu, and Sasha Klejstan. He was hamstrung slightly by the injury to Steve Cherundolo, but he needed to withdraw the hapless Jonathan Bornstein in the second half. Why he waited until the 86th minute to put in Klejstan for Adu is beyond me; the move would have been to introduce either Kjestan or Edu for the woeful Jones early in the second half in an effort to get someone competent on the ball out there. Also, hanging on to four defenders throughout was quite foolish, though part of that may have been due to a lack of other options.)

That talent gave the United States defense fits all day, showing it too is not of the caliber necessary to compete at the international level. The departure of Cherundolo due to injury within the first quarter hour was a fitting harbinger of the future and will force the team to call into question the notion that the most dependable cog in their backline will be 35 when the World Cup kicks off (he will be 16 days younger than Netherlands captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst was in 2010).

Despite the obvious dearth of striking talent, the backline issues are jockeying for the top spot on Bob Bradley’s to-do list. Carlos Bocanegra was beaten several times and didn’t look his usual spritely self. The lumbering Clarence Goodson was by-and-large useless against the speedy counter attack of Mexico. While much to do has been made every time Lichaj uses his otherwise dormant left foot, it was his right that failed to get anything on a clearance that sat up perfectly for Guardado to tap it home. Bornstein was consistently out of place, lost or otherwise befuddled down the left. It wasn’t helped by a poor night from Tim Howard, who though usually above suspicion was caught on his heels and left flailing wildly far too often.

A defensive effort like this makes it quite obvious why the U.S. declined an invitation to play in Copa America, the championship of South America. An in-form Brazil squad would have put up eight on them Saturday. Any team for whom Bocanegra is the most fleet of foot defender will struggle when the play is taken to them with the kind of pacy energetic verve mastered by Mexico.

Alternatives in defense are scarce. Tim Ream has some developing left to do – as made clear against Panama. Jonathan Spector’s lack of a club puts the continuation of hid development up in the air. Oguchi Oneywu probably isn’t too pleased at being strung along for a month without as much as an appearance on the substitutes’ bench.

That turns the attention to Timmy Chandler, the supposed heir apparent and German-based savior of the backline who’ll be spoken of with the same unabashed reverence and unrealistic expectations that have done in many of those taking the pitch against Mexico Saturday.

Ultimately, though, the Gold Cup was always viewed as a means to an end rather than an end unto itself. It represented an early preparation against the type of talent World Cup qualifying will bring the team against as well as a chance to unlock the precious Confederations Cup bid in two years. Instead, they’ll now likely send a largely developmental team to the 2013 Gold Cup to play against CONCACAF B sides whose best players are exhausted from World Cup qualifying.

The Gold Cup final wasn’t a definitive transfer of dominance on the continent. But it was an incomplete game from an incomplete team and a harsh reminder that the clock is ticking to fix it.

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