Create, battle, and squander sums up the 3-1 U.S. loss to Paraguay Monday night in Barinas, Venezuela. The defeat left the Americans with a 0-2 record, a minus-5 goal difference, and a very slim chance to advance.
Taking a "C" team to the Copa America preordained there would be promise tainted with disappointment, that effort and commitment were to be betrayed by miscues. Yet the searing starkness of two wide-open, point-blank headers failing to test the opposing keeper, and two capable players suffering brain lock within seconds of each other to concede the winning goal, converted concept into painful reality.
"This is why we are here," said goalie Kasey Keller, whose 102nd appearances is more than twice the number attained by any teammate at this tournament. "We are here to give these guys this experience. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to make mistakes to learn."
In maddening fashion so typical of international matches, those young men who for the most part played well, erred worst.
The debut of right back Drew Moor, who pushed up the flank to hit several of the best U.S. crosses and with one set up a goal, will forever be clouded by his tame header to Aldo Bobadilla.
A promising match by Sacha Kljestan is stained by his point-blank header that missed the target completely. Taylor Twellman set up the U.S. goal with a clever touch and fought off defenders to win several balls, but couldn't himself test the keeper no matter what he did. Justin Mapp's sharp runs opened up lanes to goal but his best chance floated over the crossbar and on another occasion he dawdled so long Paraguay closed in to block his shot. Eddie Johnson got to the byline to set up a good chance for Jonathan Bornstein but faltered when required to beat a defender and go for goal.
When Bornstein underhit a back pass to Keller 11 minutes into the second half, captain Jimmy Conrad could have rescued the situation but dozed off as Oscar Cardozo craftily timed his run behind him to collect it. Keller held his angle, and given additional time by Keller's stasis Cardozo brazenly ran around the ball to use his left foot to curl a shot past Keller just inside the far post.
It could have been a killer blow but the Americans refused to buckle. They played with confidence and spirit. But breakdowns are breakdowns, and despite controlling play for the first half an hour they fell behind, 1-0, when a one-two involving Roque Santa Cruz evaded several U.S. players and reached Cardozo, whose through ball split open the U.S. back line for Edgar Baretto to send a sliding shot past Keller.
Moor's driven crosses from the midfield flank had already tested Paraguay's three-man back line, with Johnson powering past Paraguayan defender Julio Cesar Caceres to stab at one ball and just miss. In the opening minutes, Ben Olsen cut the ball to his left foot in the right-wing corner and looped a cross that the unmarked Kljestan somehow headed past the upright just a few yards in front of him. Olsen's determined effort drained him, just as it had against Argentina, yet he came off the field angrily when Mapp replaced him in the 71st minute.
Benny Feilhaber knifed through Paraguay on the dribble and again displayed an amazing ability to thread balls through traffic. He sent Mapp up the left wing with a superb ball that the Fire midfielder took into the penalty area at a good angle, only to float his shot too high as Johnson arrived at the back post, aghast that the ball hadn't been played to him.
Feilhaber occasionally dwelt on the ball, and early in the match languished in the penalty area to hand Paraguay a half-chance that his teammates snuffed. But his ability to escape pressure and find the open man first-time sparked many promising sequences, and he also got back a few times to scrape balls away from unsuspecting opponents. After being cautioned in the 62nd minute, he maintained his intensity without boiling over into wild tackles or abusive arguing.
Ricardo Clark's business and quickness posed problems for Paraguay. He covered a lot of ground and confidently joined in the attack, netting one goal and narrowly missing another. While still prone to aimless touches and lapses in positioning he played smartly.
His penchant to shoot has logged a few goals in MLS, and with five minutes remaining in the first half, he struck a Twellman layoff first time with enough power to take a deflection and still sneak past starting keeper Victor Villar inside the near post. A rising blast in the second half forced an acrobatic save from Bobadilla, who entered the match after Cardozo's goal because Villar had strained his right adductor muscle taking a goal kick.
Sadly, few other Americans could deliver potent shots on target. A low shot from Bornstein in the opening minutes forced a good save by Villar, but flaccid finishing predominated.
The arrival of Lee Nguyen in the 80th minute sparked a brief flurry. Johnson drilled a shot from the right side over Bobadilla's fingertips, and substitute defender Danny Califf headed down a Clark cross that Twellman directed to the keeper with a difficult side volley.
Paraguay sealed victory in stoppage time with a Salvador Cabanas free kick, whistled for a foul on Califf that had him shaking his head. Cabanas' shot curled over the defensive wall and brushed Keller's glove before settling in the net.
â"I definitely thought we were the better team," said Twellman. "For a good stretch we had the majority of the ball, which was a lot different than the Argentina game. It's just frustrating because at the end of the day we make mistakes that shoot ourselves in the foot. Hopefully we get rid of those sooner or later."
The U.S. can still squeeze into the quarterfinals by beating Colombia in its final Group C game, but its poor goal difference means it will have to win by at least two goals and hope a third-place team with three points loses its final group game by at least the same margin. Even that might not be enough, a scenario this team is quite familiar with.