DAVID SMITH - Sunday, June 26, 2011
The US bent over to accept a third straight loss to their arch-enemies, blowing a two-goal lead to spectacularly lose the Gold Cup final to Mexico in front of more than 90,000 spectators in the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
Despite tournament filled with unexpected allegations and surprise results, the predictable pair of CONCACAF's two powerhouses fought through the fray to reach the final of the 2011 Gold Cup for the third straight time, and much like two years prior, one team proved they were no match for their opponents over which they had much dominance in the soon to be forgotten years gone by.
The two knockout games leading up to the final had seen the US apparently overcome their earlier difficulties during which they acquiesced their 26-game unbeaten streak in the group stage. On the other side of the ball, Mexico's road to the final had proven tougher than their controversy-ridden cakewalk through Group A, with the team needing an inspired overtime performance to finally pass Honduras in their semifinal matchup.
While the early minutes of Saturday's final initially looked to have the US on the ascendancy and headed for a date in the 2013 Confederations Cup, both teams quickly returned to their earlier level of play, with Mexico ripping a hapless Stars and Stripes defense for four unanswered goals.
US head coach Bob Bradley's starting lineup included one major wild card which few had expected, with forgotten son Freddy Adu earning his first national team start in nearly two years after a strong substitute performance three days before in the team's semifinal win over Panama.
His confidence in the young playmaker was quickly rewarded, as the forgotten Benfica man perfectly delivered an eighth-minute corner from the right side which Michael Bradley managed to get his polished noggin on just inside of the near post, sending his header across the face of goal and inside the far post for the early 1-0 lead.
While the goal gave the US the clear upper hand with barely any time gone by, an injury and subsequent lapse of judgement in the following minutes ultimately opened the door to the lopsided end result.
An apparent leg injury to Steve Cherundolo three minutes after Bradley's goal forced Bradley to pull his most consistent defender over recent memory from the game. Faced with an unexpected wrench in his plans, he reverted to habit and called upon long-time favorite Jonathan Bornstein - who had yet to take the field in the Gold Cup - to fill in the gap, shifting left-back revelation Eric Lichaj to take Cherundolo's place the right side while giving Bornstein the duty of defending the left side of the field.
Mexico quickly recovered from the early setback and looked to have gained control of the proceedings until a slick showing momentarily gave the US a two-goal advantage in the 23rd minute.
Adu hit a short pass to Clint Dempsey midway between the center circle and the edge of the penalty area, which the Fulham attacker slipped forward to the onrushing Landon Donovan just inside the penalty area.
Donovan's run carried him left of the defense and backup Mexico keeper Alfredo Talavera, and a cool finish just inside the left post gave the US the familiar 2-0 lead.
The second goal seemed to momentarily take the wind out of the Mexicans, however they pulled one back on the break six minutes later in the first exploitation of Bradley's poorly-judged substitution.
Javier Hernandez hit a pass from near the center stripe directly into the path of Pablo Barrera, who had somehow slipped past the hapless Bornstein and into free space.
With Bornstein unable to recover in time, Barrera's first touch was a low blast which flew past the reach of keeper Tim Howard and just inside the right post to cut the lead to a single goal.
Mexico then pulled even in the 36th minute as Bornstein and Lichaj teamed up to practically serve up an equalizer on a silver platter.
Bornstein momentarily lost Giovani dos Santos in the right side of the penalty area, which allowed the former Barcelona player to rocket a dangerous shot towards goal. Lichaj did get a foot on the ball to reverse its momentum, however it rolled directly into the path of Andrés Guardado, who barely beat Howard to send it rolling slowly over the line for 2-2.
With Mexico having clearly gained the upper hand on all fronts, the US needed to tighten the defense and hope to hold onto the even scoreline, however were dealt the ultimate death blow five minutes into the second half.
A weak clearance by Carlos Bocanegra placed the ball directly in front of Guardado, who chested it to the ground before hitting a short pass to the right edge of the area to Barrera. The West Ham forward one-timed his shot to the left post, just out of Howard's reach and into goal for the 3-2 lead.
Dempsey nearly pulled the game on even terms when he struck a rocket towards goal seemingly from nowhere in the 59th minute, but his shot was inches off target, bouncing off the crossbar and keeping the scoreline in favor of El Tri.
Bradley brought on Juan Agudelo in the 63rd minute in place of Alejandro Bedoya in hopes of generating a spark at the top of the attack, however the only true electricity came off the foot of dos Santos with 14 minutes left as the game was put on ice.
Howard lunged off his line to try and grab the ball from the 22 year-old's feet, however was a touch too slow, and the headband-sporting youngster lifted a spectacular volley which flew seemingly in slow motion towards the far post, just over Lichaj's attempted headed clearance into the upper left corner, to bring the score to its final 4-2 standing.
With the win, Mexico secure their place in the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil and leave the US with their second straight Gold Cup runners-up consolation prize.
The Stars and Stripes will be left with many questions to answer from their largely underwhelming tournament performance, and will have a series of friendly matches until they enter the third round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup next summer.