[USA CONFIDENTIAL] While perusing accounts of Mexico’s scintillating 4-2 triumph in the Gold Cup final Saturday in the Rose Bowl, I read again the assertion that Ghana “upset” the USA in the round of 16 at last summer’s World Cup.
That wasn’t true then and it’s less true now, yet the myth persists. Somehow, a game that the U.S. “could” have won quickly became – thanks to rampant hysteria among press and other observers who should know better – a game the U.S. “should” have won. This is presented as fact, as if all those anointed with an opinion agreed en masse that no way a pesky little African nation could slay the mighty Concacaf Goliath had the coach known what he was doing.
Offered as proof were the dubious selection decisions of Coach Bob Bradley, who sent out midfielder Ricardo Clark and striker Robbie Findley. Clark coughed up a ball in midfield from which Ghana scored its first goal of a 2-1 overtime victory while Findley struggled to make an impact. Both players were eventually substituted, and those choices as well as Ghana’s winning strike early in overtime will haunt Bradley and U.S. Soccer for a very long time.
Yet Ghana also exuded a sharper, stronger, tougher and hungrier determination for much of that match, as well as superior skill throughout its lineup. There’s no guarantee a different U.S. starting lineup would have produced a different result.
Outside the contiguous 48 states – plus Hawaii and Alaska – the consensus opinion is that the winning team deserved to do so.
Those stark facts were revealed again Saturday as Mexico, like the U.S. burdened with fatigue and shorn of several important players, roared back from a 2-0 deficit. For the past decade, for whatever reason, the U.S. has been Mexico’s bogey team, but that stigma is fading quickly. During that decade, Mexico’s record against teams outside Concacaf surpasses that of the USA, which doesn’t dissuade American fans from citing a head-to-head advantage in home matchups and one victory in the 2002 round of 16.
In South Africa, it was defender Jay DeMerit, not Clark nor Findley, who couldn’t keep up with Asamoah Gyan as he powered up the middle to blast the winning goal past keeper Tim Howard. In the Rose Bowl Saturday, even before Steve Cherundolo left the game early with a sprained ankle, Mexico buzzed Howard’s goal. For every delightful touch and clever flick produced by Freddy Adu 2.0, someone in black -- Pablo Barrera, Giovani dos Santos, Javier Hernandez, Andres Guardado -- deked his way into space or wrong-footed an American challenger.
The ideal replacement for Cherundolo, Tim Chandler, wasn’t anywhere near the Rose Bowl. He had reportedly been “advised” by his German club, Nuremberg, to skip the Gold Cup so as not to jeopardize his chances at regular first-team Bundesliga action in the coming season. Lacking that option, Bob Bradley’s choices were few, but moving Eric Lichaj from left back to right back and bringing on Jonathan Bornstein blew up in his face.
What else could he have done? Here’s a few possibilities:
-- Jonathan Spector, chosen partially for “his ability to play anywhere along the back line,” hadn’t set foot on the field in the Gold Cup. Neither had Bornstein, who joined the starting lineup at the World Cup last summer for the Algeria game and played reasonably well. But that was then. Spector sat, Bornstein got the call.
-- In the post-match firestorm, amid much spluttering, some suggested moving Lichaj to right back should have been accompanied by bringing in Tim Ream with Carlos Bocanegra moving to left back. Yet in a group-phase 2-1 loss to Panama, Ream gave away a penalty kick and labored most of the game. If he couldn’t handle Luis Tejada and Blas Perez, why would anybody think he could come in cold off the bench and shut down Barrera, dos Santos, Guardado and Hernandez?
(Oguchi Onyewu, who looked awful in the final pre-Gold Cup friendly against Spain, didn’t play in the tournament and didn’t make the bench for the final. He has played well at times against Mexico, but against eager opponents flying forward and zinging the ball around, he’d probably have been shredded, too.)
-- Maybe Maurice Edu could have been drafted as a center back, with Bocanegra at left back and Lichaj on the right. Edu played center back for the 2008 Olympic team and has been used there occasionally with the national team. He hadn’t played much at the Gold Cup --- 50 minutes in relief of Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley and Juan Agudelo (in the semi against Jamaica) – but in that brief time he’d been confident and crisp.
(On another point, both Bradley and Jones looked exhausted in the knockout rounds. Both were badly singed by Mexico. Edu played only 31 minutes as their replacements in the Gold Cup.)
-- If Bradley believed his only choice was to move Lichaj and bring on Bornstein, he could have increased the chances of success by moving Landon Donovan to left mid to help out Bornstein and instruct him to defend, harass and chase after scoring to give the U.S.a 2-0 lead. Of all the U.S. attackers, Donovan has the desire and engine to contribute the most defensively.
Halftime would be a chance to work out the new alignments and consider the possibilities for further changes. Instead, by then Mexico had struck twice and despite a 2-2 score had firmly taken over the game. Five minutes into the second half, a terribly inept U.S. defense conceded again, and now Mexico led on the scoreboard as well, 3-2.
Bringing on Agudelo for an overmatched Alejandro Bedoya made sense in theory, but his entrance in the 63rd minute did little to help the U.S. in its most dire predicament, to keep possession and stem Mexico’s momentum. Thirteen minutes later, Mexico scored its second goal of the half to take a 4-2 lead, yet it took Bradley another 10 minutes to get Sacha Kljestan on the field with what was, in effect, a wasted substitution.
The insertion of Kljestan could have done much more to stem the Mexican tide and gain a foothold in midfield than marooning Agudelo up front. No coach can get it right every time with every sub, and Bradley had made some astute choices in this competition. But what’s the value of sitting on a sub when you’re down two goals?
The U.S. wasn’t completely ineffective offensively in the second half. Adu – whose left-footed corner kicks added a valuable weapon and produced a chance for Michael Bradley to head the opening goal -- troubled the Mexicans a few times before he sputtered to a stop, which brought on Kljestan. Clint Dempsey, moved into different positions and scratching to regain his effective play of the opening quarter-hour, clonked a shot off the crossbar with the score, 3-2. Sadly ineffective was Donovan; his inclination is to push the game rather than slow it down, yet amid chaos a player with touch and range and experience can’t drift in and out of the fray.
Perhaps Mexico’s superiority would have won the day regardless, but Bradley – as was the case a year ago against Ghana -- could have done more to give his players a better chance, and more of them needed to step it up.
Also as was the case a year ago, the better team won.