A long run of competitive games in June and July broadened and deepened the U.S. national team pool, and global notoriety greeted a stunning 2-0 defeat of Spain and narrow 3-2 loss to Brazil in the Confederations Cup.
A pair of defeats to bitter rival Mexico in the Gold Cup final and sixth game of the Hexagonal erased a lot of those good vibes generated during a busy stretch of 14 competitive matches in 70 days.
"There's a little bit of a different attitude, because this summer I think both in the Confederations Cup and in the Gold Cup final, we've been in quite a few very tough matches as a group," said goalkeeper Tim Howard prior to the Azteca showdown. "That can only harden you, and give you a lot of experience and our aim is to take the lessons that we've learned and put them to good use going forward, not just for the Mexico game but for the rest of qualifying. That's why we play the big games, and hopefully we can learn those lessons."
As the Azteca match turned out, some players failed to heed the message of those lessons.
Most of the Confederations Cup players returned to take on Mexico in Mexico City after a mostly MLS squad finished second at the Gold Cup. Though the Americans took an early 1-0 lead, the rest of the game ran to form. Goals by Israel Castro and substitute Miguel Sabah erased a tally by Charlie Davies and though the USA had clung to a 1-1 tie for more than hour, it could not withstand the constant pressure applied by Mexico throughout the second half.
In 24 matches played against Mexico south of the border, a 0-0 tie in 1997 remains the only game not to end in a U.S. defeat.
True, very few national teams, even the major powers, have found success at Azteca since it opened in 1966. But as they succumbed to defeat, the Americans reverted to bad habits that have often recurred in 2009.
There's been progress collectively and individually by this collection of players selected by coach Bob Bradley, as the courageous wins over Egypt and Spain at the Confederations Cup attest. Yet a busy schedule began in early June with a 3-1 thumping at the hands of Costa Rica at Ricardo Saprissa Stadium in San Jose, and ended with a pair of stinging losses to its bitterest rival, including a 5-0 pounding at Giants Stadium in the Gold Cup final that ended nearly a decade-long winless streak for Mexico in the USA.
MEXICAN FIGHT-BACK.How much that victory restored Mexico's faltering confidence can't be quantified, yet it did reply quickly after falling behind at Azteca when Davies latched onto a diagonal pass from Landon Donovan and pierced the left side of the penalty area to evade Daniel Osorio's challenge and sting a shot inside the far post.
Had the Americans protected that 1-0 lead longer than 10 minutes, perhaps the crowd's buzzing intensity might have turned ugly and vindictive. But in the 19th minute Mexico scored a stunning goal by exploiting a midfield giveaway and poor decisions. It's the kind of goal the U.S. has conceded consistently this year; in Costa Rica and at home against Honduras in the Hexagonal; in the first two games of the Confederations Cup; and in the Gold Cup final. The names may change, but the mistakes persist.
Donovan burst past a challenge on his own side of the midfield line, but his heavy touch enabled Castro to block the ball toward Cuauhtemoc Blanco, and as Ricardo Clark and Clint Dempsey tracked players moving away from the center, Castro stepped into the yawning space to take a pass from Blanco and belt a sensational shot of more than 25 yards that glanced off the underside of the crossbar and dropped over the goal line.
Great goal? Yes. But avoidable? Absolutely. A shirt tug on Donovan as he touched the ball might have been ruled a foul, but he'd have lost the ball anyway, and play continued. And lessons learned by Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley and other players in earlier games should be heeded: bad touches in vulnerable spots lead to bad outcomes. Donovan tried to dribble through a double-team in his own half of the field. Bad idea.
Dempsey really had no choice - Efrain Juarez had already raided up the right flank a few times and had to be monitored by the left mid - but Clark turned his back on the space he is supposed to be covering, a glaring positional error Mexico ruthlessly punished.
Laboring through the smog, heat, humidity and thin air of Azteca always takes a severe toll, but these are not factors in the 19th minute, nor were they present when a careless giveaway on his own side of the midfield line by Dempsey against Honduras was turned into a goal, or when Brazil - in the group stage of the Confederations Cup - pounced on a lazy touch by Beasley on a U.S. corner kick to counter and score a vital second goal.
In the final group game of the Gold Cup, Haiti stubbornly held onto a 2-1 lead fashioned on U.S. mistakes until a searing strike in stoppage time by Stuart Holden salvaged a 2-2 tie.
The Americans' ability to rally, which it did after Dempsey's gaffe at Soldier Field to beat Honduras, 2-1, in the Hexagonal, doesn't mitigate a worrying tendency to give up preventable goals. The goals by Castro and Carlo Costly were spectacular, long-range blasts, yet both were set up by U.S. errors, not slick play by the opposition.
And regardless, is any scenario - aside from going down to nine men - sufficient excuse to permit Haiti to score twice, even against a team of mostly MLS players, three minutes after halftime? No. The second goal, by Mones Cherny, resulted from a poor touch by Jay Heaps and traveled about 25 yards before dipping under the crossbar. Sound familiar? When there's a turnover in the defensive third, and cover is absent, goals are scored.
Fatigue certainly played a role when Mexico scored its winning goal at Azteca in the 82nd minute. Right back Efrain Juarez, who played the right side of midfield for much of the second half, blew past Donovan into the penalty area and reached the goal line to cut the ball back at the same moment as did a lunging tackle by Jay DeMerit. The ball caromed off DeMerit right to substitute Miguel Sabah, and nobody could close him down as he controlled the ball with a balletic touch and rifled a shot over a static Howard and into the roof of the net.
MOVING ON UP.After DeMerit and Davies confirmed their credentials in the Confederations Cup, Holden celebrated his coming-out party at the Gold Cup with a pair of goals and other defining moments, such as a corner kick and square ball with which he set up Clarence Goodson and Kenny Cooper, respectively, for goals against Honduras in the semifinals.
His serves produced good chances for Brian Ching and Cooper in the Gold Cup final, and had either produced a goal, the Americans might have been able to withstand Mexico's surges and repeat as champion. Instead, a relatively inexperienced team collapsed after conceding a goal on a questionable penalty kick and allowing a second shortly thereafter.
Holden entered the Azteca game as a sub and whipped a dangerous cross from the right flank that a headlong dive by Davies just failed to direct into the net.
Goalkeeper Troy Perkins played a very solid run of games in the Gold Cup until erring on two of Mexico's five goals at Giants Stadium, but he did establish himself as one of the likely backups for Tim Howard on the World Cup team. Unless Howard or No. 2 Brad Guzan is injured, Bradley most likely won't take an MLS goalkeeper to South Africa.
Central mids Kyle Beckerman and Sam Cronin enjoyed productive Gold Cup performances and Beckerman nailed a first-time strike into the net to help the U.S. down Panama, 2-1, in the quarterfinals. A Cooper penalty kick provided an overtime winner, and he scored again in the semi against Honduras. A move to German club 1860 Munich gives him a chance to dislodge Ching or another forward from the final squad.
The Hexagonal resumes Sept. 5 in Sandy, Utah, against El Salvador, and four days later at Trinidad & Tobago. Both games are winnable, and victories in both are vital if the USA wants to finish in the top three and avoid a November playoff.
Said Donovan of the Azteca defeat, "I said this week that I didn't want people to get carried away. This wasn't a live-or die-game for us; it was for them. Now, it puts us in a little bit more of a difficult position, but our next game is home with El Salvador, which we expect to win, and away to Trinidad, which we expect to win. We still feel if we win those two games, we're going to qualify."
A tie in Azteca would have harmed the host's qualification chances more than helped those of the U.S., but regardless of the U.S. record (3-2-1) in the Hexagonal, the double defeats to Mexico left Bradley and his players plagued by problems they have yet to resolve.
(This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)