Monday, June 27, 2011

Gold Cup Final: US v Mexico Summary & Player Ratings

Well, that was one of the most memorable experiences I have ever been a part of.  I started off the day spending the pregame hours at the American Outlaws tailgate (even saw Ives Galarcep and thought about asking him about his aforementioned article mistakes) and ended up marching with them to the Rose Bowl through tens of thousands of the enemy, a surreal experience to be sure.  Being surrounded on all sides, it felt like part parade and part death march to the Roman Coliseum for the condemned.  And it could not have been more fun.  In fact, the whole day, up until the 29th minute that is, could not have been better.

Before this tournament, I had serious anxieties (June 7th post) about our chances of winning it all, especially if we had a showdown vs Mexico.

My concerns then:
1) Backline gave away cheap goals, especially early - Mexico's 1st two goals were bad defensive errors.  The game-winner came early in the 2nd half, before we got settled and we were chasing the game once more.
2) At LB, Bornstein is still Bradley's primary speed backup option - I will save my wrath for later.
3) Central midfield beside Michael Bradley not settled - Jones has had a decent tournament but badly failed vs Mexico.
4) Situation at Forward in flux - with Jozy out vs Mexico, we had limited striker options.  Both goals came from midfielders and Agudelo was way out of his element.
5) Chicharito - nothing's new here - he always makes the correct runs at the correct time.  But his presence perhaps gives Mexico a confidence lacking in the past.  Along, with Guardado and Barrera, Mexico's fleet attack was clearly superior.  But the best player on the field was Dos Santos.  His nail-in-the-coffin chip goal was truly deserved and wholly indicative of the match.
6) Overcoming Concacaf level opponents in the tournament is not a true indication of the overall play of our team.  We had been outscored 10 goals to 3 in the previous 6 games (with 1st team) pre-Gold Cup and won none of them.  Even the semifinal match vs Panama, we were out of ideas offensively and only won on a great moment of counterattack.  Bradley undoubtedly recognized this, which is why Adu was deployed to begin this game.


Tim Howard 4 - In huge games like these, we need our keeper to have outstanding performances.  Ultimately, we are still waiting for Howard to put his mark on US Soccer history with a truly brilliant game.  This game, in which they overpowered our backline and peppered our goal constantly, needed to be that moment.  1st goal - he looked like he was not set for Barrera's shot which came right off a substitution.  Albeit close range, the shot was directed near post just to his left and Tim didn't react.  The 2nd goal was off a Dos Santos cross and subsequent scramble in which I thought Tim reacted too slowly to dive on the loose ball and Guardado got to it first.  The 3rd goal was Barrera's curling shot far post.  This was the moment that I thought Timmy had to shine to preserve the game.  I will say that the 4th goal was simply a moment of Dos Santos genius - Tim couldn't have done any better without fouling him.  After that back-breaking goal, I've never seen him so upset, realizing that the game was all but lost.  In the end, Tim sometimes seems to be just as occupied about how the defense failed in its job as he is about goaltending.  You could argue that he wasn't primarily at fault for all those goals, and you'd be right.  But could Friedel, especially in his prime, have done better in this game?  I think probably.  Keller?  quite possibly.  Howard still needs that moment to seal his legacy in US lore. 

Steve Cherundolo - no rating - his injury so early in the game essentially became the biggest moment for the US.  As I said before, he may have been our best player in the tourney thus far and we needed his consistency and experience.  His early cross did lead to the early corner from which Bradley scored.  Now we know that this final was the moment in the tournament in which we needed Tim Chandler on the bench.  In the past, we would've brought on veteran warrior, Frankie Hejduk, who's wily feistiness may have made all the difference. 

Clarence Goodson 4 - Mex's frontline speed gave our slower CBs serious problems, but we've never had speedy CBs before.  Goodson was repeatedly and decisively beat to spots by Chicharito early on and was lucky that "little pea" couldn't get his shots on goal. 

Carlos Bocanegra 4 - I predicted that Boca would score and he nearly headed one in early 2nd half that would have changed everything.  However, defensively the backline was completely out of sorts all game and could not maintain the compact, unified and solid line that the US is so well known for in the past.  Boca was slow to step to Barrera on the 3rd goal and allowed him to shoot.  The fact is, the Mex attack came on the left side the entire game, as did all 4 goals. 

Eric Lichaj 3 - Lichaj had played at LB for his club and country for the past half year.  To ask him to transition over to the right just minutes after the beginning of the biggest game is questionable.  He might not have been the answer to shut down Dos Santos, but at least we know he worked to prepare for him.  True, it may have not have made a difference, since we were under assault from the opening whistle, but we don't know.  Lichaj was then torched on the right side and was so overwhelmed that he kept Mexican players onside several times when the rest of the backline stepped up.

Michael Bradley 5 - Bradley has now scored 3 goals in the last 2 significant home games vs Mexico.  Bradley worked hard to control the middle today, however, he and Jones did not do a good enough job in shielding the back 4 from those diagonal through balls.  Mexico's first goal was a result of Chicharito being left completely alone in the middle of the field and having the time to receive, turn and pick out a streaking Barrera.  However, there is no questioning his work rate in this game.  Also memorable was his blast that narrowly bent away from goal at the end of the game.

Jermaine Jones 3 - Jones was essentially nonexistent in this match, especially in comparison to Bradley.  He was no help to Bradley in dispossessing Mex's creative midfielders, the primary function in which I thought he would be great (and for which he was recruited for), and he offered no offensive linking either.  The 4th goal, he can be seen walking around Dos Santos as the man of the match backed off Howard and chipped in.  Jones could've easily stepped to DS to stop that shot.  A massively disappointing game.

Alejandro Bedoya 4.5 - Bedoya's energy did not amount to much this match as he couldn't really get involved in the attack.  At least he got a good taste of what to expect next time around.

Clint Dempsey 6 - Dempsey probably should have played as lone forward the entire match as his interplay up top with Landon led to the best moment of US play on the day.  His 2nd half left-footed cannon blast was unlucky to not miss the crossbar - a goal that would have tied the game and changed everything.

Freddy Adu 6.5 - As shocking as it was to see Freddy in the starting lineup, it was more revelational to see him as the only US player (possibly besides Clint) with the ball skills to keep possession in traffic.  He did have role in both US goals and nearly scored on a curling free kick, which lacked only pace.  It will be interesting to see how he is used going forward in WC qualifying.

Landon Donovan 6.5 - Donovan always shows up against Mexico and his left-footed goal was a moment of class - decisiveness and precision on showcase.  However, it was curious to see him as the lone forward because of our need for a target.  It ought to be noted that the goal came when Dempsey was at top.  Perhaps the plan was to play long balls over the top and use Donovan's speed against Mexico's D, but this never materialized.  This is one of Bradley's tactical mistakes.


Jonathan Bornstein 1 - Okay.  On the positive side, he was an okay option going forward, even sending in a few dangerous crosses.  On the negative side, he was the worst player on the field.  Both first half Mex goals were directly a result of Bornstein being caught badly out of position.  Its not as if Bornstein doesn't have the speed like Bocanegra - in fact JB is pretty fast.  So when he gets beat the way he does, its a clear indication of plain inferior soccer ability.  To be clear, we lost because of Dolo's injury and Bornstein's subsequent substitution.  This was unquestionably Bradley's 2nd tactical mistake.  There is no way I would have inserted him into this game.  I would have left Lichaj there and brought in Spector at RB.  Even being slow-footed, Bocanegra would've been a better choice at LB because he'd know what defensive positions to be in.  Tim Ream or even Maurice Edu at CB would have my choice off the bench instead of Bornstein.  Once and for all, even with the paucity of options at LB, I hope this performance keeps Bornstein off the US squad.  And I like the former Bruin - a nice guy to be sure.

Juan Agudelo 3.5 - There is no question Juan ran hard this game but his awful first touch repeatedly sabotaged the US attack at the end.  We needed a workmanlike veteran in the mold of Brian Ching out there today to hold up the ball.

Sasha Kljestan - no rating -  He didn't and couldn't impact the game in limited minutes besides a nice pass to Landon at the endline whose assist was just blocked by a defender.

Bob Bradley 4 - Another tactical error besides Donovan as lone forward and Bornstein's substitution: because we were under constant pressure right from the start of the game, it was even more reason that we should have adopted an extremely defensive position after our 2 goal lead.  Our aim at that point should have been to get to halftime with a shutout.  Our defensive midfielders should have parked right in front of the defense and our midfield wings should have been constantly tracking back to help out our clearly outmatched fullbacks.  Had we bunkered in the way we did so memorably vs Spain in '09, it would've been hard to envision them scoring more than 2 goals.  In addition, we would be perfectly setup to do what we do best - score off counterattacks.  Also, we should have been extremely compact and tight in the middle and just about given up the flanks so that even if they attacked with crosses, we'd be set to readily handle those as we always do.  Goodson and Bocanegra are better in the air than they are on the ground.  However, because we were so extended, it allowed Dos Santos & company so much space on the flanks and behind us.  When they scored their first goal so soon in response, I knew we were in trouble. 

 Ultimately, there is no doubt that they were the superior team on the day.  Their defense isn't actually that great - our 2 goals in 23 minutes exposes that - however, their midfielders were able to control the flow of play which, along with superbly skilled attackers, wreaked havoc on our scrambling backline.  It must be noted that they missed several other golden chances to score and further our embarrassment.  In the end, a 2 goal lead should be enough in any final to win.  Losing that lead to Brazil is one thing, but allowing 4 unanswered goals to Mexico on US soil, even if it did feel like Azteca, is simply incomprehensible.

2 years ago, a 5 goal whooping of our C team meant relatively little to the US program, but this loss with the full 1st team is the worst moment in Bob Bradley's US Soccer career.  This is the first time he has really failed to achieve what he needed to achieve.  In the last cycle, he won the Gold Cup that mattered, beat Spain in CC, qualified 1st overall for the World Cup, won the WC group for the first time in US Soccer history and developed new core talent along the way.  This cycle however begins with indeed his first real failure.

Where do we go from here?  The US trademarks have always been fitness, work ethic and solid defense.  Sure, developing our young forwards is important, but the focus now must be on fixing our defense.  We must regain our identity.  En route to Brazil 2014, we have to not only refresh our aging backline pool, but battle-test them with WC qualifying games.

For now, Mexico is the new king of Concacaf, and with their strikeforce, they could continue to be so for the next generation.  Perhaps this is their time to dominate us they way we've dominated them since 2000.  But US Soccer is no stranger to being an underdog and as evidenced by South Africa 2010, we have a never-say-die spirit.  By the way, "Never Give Up" is a much more fitting slogan for us than "Indivisible".  Just saying.  Anyway, we'll be back.

The way I saw it:
93,420 was the official attendance at the Rose Bowl.  It was definitely the fullest I have ever seen the Rose Bowl.  The AO section in 23 was the only real section of US supporters that I saw in the entire stadium and it was only about 6-7 rows deep.  Unfortunately, the ushers wrongly allowed Mexico's general admission to sit in another US supporters section - the section that I should have sat in (22H) and we US fans were forced to scatter into the next section over to the left.  Fortunately, it was an upgrade - so we can't complain.

Surprisingly, there seemed to be a good turnout for US fans - perhaps 15-20,000 US fans scattered throughout the stadium?  Perhaps it was the upgrade in seats but the Mexican fans surrounding us were good-natured, easy to talk to, and generally fun to watch a game with.  Make no mistake, they were boisterous and loud, but then again, so were we when we scored our 2 goals.  However, everyone was respectful - no beers were thrown.  I was actually expecting to have something thrown at me at some point in the day - word is a couple AO supporters were hit with glass bottles over in section 23 - but our section was calm, probably because we weren't dumb enough to provoke anyone with stupid bravado.  As for the seating fiasco, we banded with a few more US fans - 7 of us in all - and managed to avoid getting exiled from our row by ticket wielding Mexico fans.  As we left, many even shook our hands - not exactly what I expected.  All in all, a great experience for sure.  Next time we play Mexico, the best thing to do is avoid the cheap seats.  That's what I've learned.  But ultimately, I don't ever feel the need to visit Azteca, this was more than good enough.

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