Gaffes cost point there for the taking

[MEXICO-USA] Losing to Mexico in Azteca Stadium again is a dreary repeat of past results, but more disquieting than the loss is a run of recurring errors.

A propensity to turn the ball over in bad spots, positional mistakes and inability to keep possession cropped up again Wednesday as Mexico rallied from a 1-0 deficit - the first ever inflicted by the Americans in Azteca - to beat the USA, 2-1, in Game Six of the 10-match Hexagonal from which at least three but no more than four Concacaf teams qualify for the 2010 World Cup.

Such gaffes - reminiscent of errors committed earlier in the Hexagonal, and at the Confederations and Gold Cups -- betrayed a commendable effort to fend off a desperate Mexican team at altitude amid an intense buzzing generated by more than 100,000 fans. Landon Donovan set up the U.S. goal with a superb pass but was partially culpable for both of Mexico's goals, and his Jekyll-Hyde performance typified those of most teammates.

Maybe Donovan was fouled when Gerardo Torrado tugged his jersey as Donovan touched the ball past him on the U.S. half of the field, but that touch ran so far away that Israel Castro easily stepped up to play the ball to Cuauhtemoc Blanco. Rather than plug up the middle when possession was lost, Ricardo Clark chose instead to track an opponent moving away from the ball. Castro strode into the vast gap to touch Blanco's pass forward and smash a shot over a flailing Tim Howard that glanced off the underside of the bar.

Coming just 10 minutes after Charlie Davies had stabbed a shot from Donovan's pass into the net past Mexican goalie Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico's goal wiped out any psychological edge the Americans might have gained from taking a shock lead.

Though Andres Guardado and Giovani dos Santos ran at the Americans repeatedly down the flanks, and Blanco's incessant probing and chipping from myriad positions forced them to scramble and scrap, they defended doggedly after conceding the equalizer. But -- critically -- they still failed to regain momentum by stringing passes together on more than a few occasions.

Only occasionally did the Americans shut down service when Blanco drifted left to combine and overlap with Guardado. They tried several tactics with limited success: Donovan dropped back, or Michael Bradley or Clark shifted over, or DeMerit helped out. They had to adjust again when Carlos Vela replaced Blanco early in the second half, though his blistering pace wasn't anything near the dominant force by which Vela terrorized the USA two and a half weeks earlier in the Gold Cup final.

Right back Steve Cherundolo, often left out there on his own, applied pressure and got in tackles to minimize the danger. DeMerit, as he's done in previous games, also stepped up into midfield in the first half a few times to cut out passes, but once Mexico discerned this tactic, runs behind the U.S. back line required Oguchi Onyewu, who played a tremendous game, or Howard to clear at the last moment. Onyewu also traded places with DeMerit briefly.

Though Mexico fielded a back four, right back Juarez pushed forward constantly, and the four-man U.S. midfield needed help it often didn't get from a defender or one of the forwards.

Howard pulled off his biggest save early in the second half, when a deep Guardado cross cleared a mistimed leap by Carlos Bocanegra, and Giovani dos Santos fired a hard, low shot Howard punched away at the base of the post.

Subs Stuart Holden (for Clark) and Benny Feilhaber (for Brian Ching) entered in the 58th minute yet couldn't establish a foothold in midfield, with Clint Dempsey moving up top. Their energy slowed down Mexico for a while, and after about 10 minutes on the field, Holden got free on the right to whip a trademark cross that Davies lunged headlong but just failed to connect with.

Nery Castillo added yet more pace when he replaced Guardado in the 70th minute, and Mexico reverted to slashing runs and dribbles against a rapidly fatiguing team of Americans.

When Juarez glided past Donovan into the penalty area with eight minutes left in regulation, Bocanegra - already cautioned and doubtless exhausted - decided not to risk a tackle. DeMerit left Miguel Sabah unmarked to put the ball out for a corner, but his slide tackle deflected the pass right to Sabah. Onyewu couldn't close fast enough, Howard held his ground rather than charge out to reduce the shooting space, and Salah took a touch before roofing a powerful shot.

Dempsey finally got a look at goal in the final minutes but an opponent blocked a weak left-footed shot from outside the box, and Mexico easily cleared a corner swerved by Donovan. His services on set plays were hit with bend and pace but not even the massive Onyewu could get a clean shot at goal, and Ching managed to pressure his markers enough to earn a corner only once.

While Davies' workrate and pace occasionally troubled Mexico, rarely did Ching collect the ball to draw a foul or buy time for his teammates to find their attacking positions. But both forwards suffered from a dearth of service from struggling midfielders and harried defenders, and the entire team labored in the harsh conditions as a constant stream of turnovers supplied Mexico with the ball.

Dempsey came back to help close down space and fill passing lanes. He rather brazenly "hatted" an opponent in a precarious spot, then regained the ball and switched the point of attack with a nice crossfield ball. But his attempts to cross thudded into opponents, and his dribbles ran aground. A move to forward didn't improve his contribution.

In 10 games at Azteca, the U.S. has tied once and lost the other nine times, so the result didn't surprise. Yet it must address issues of positioning and possession, otherwise qualification for the World Cup won't instill much confidence of success in South Africa.

Aug. 12 in Mexico City
Mexico 2 USA 1. Goals: Castro 19, Sabah 82; Davies 9.
USA -- Howard, Cherundolo, Onyewu, DeMerit, Bocanegra, Dempsey, Clark (Holden, 58), Bradley, Donovan, Davies (Altidore, 76), Ching (Feilhaber, 58)
Mexico -- Ochoa, Osorio, Salcido, Magallon, Juarez, dos Santos, Castro, Torrado, Guardado (Castillo, 71), Blanco (Vela, 56), Franco (Sabah, 79)
Referee: Roberto Moreno (Panama).
Att.: 105,000.

Shots: 4/15
Shots on Goal: 1/7
Saves: 5/0
Corner Kicks: 3/7
Fouls: 16/10
Offside: 1/2

Yellow Cards:
USA-- Onyewu 27
USA -- DeMerit 29
USA -- Bocanegra 45
MEX -- Juarez 75
MEX-- dos Santos 86

Costa Rica 6 4 0 2 9 9 12
Honduras 6 3 1 2 10 6 10
USA 6 3 1 2 11 8 10
Mexico 6 3 0 3 8 9 9
El Salvador 6 1 2 3 6 8 5
Trin. & Tobago 6 1 2 3 7 11 5
(The top three teams advance to World Cup 2010; the fourth-place team faces the fifth-place team from South America in a playoff.)

September 5
Costa Rica-Mexico
Honduras-Trin. & Tobago
United States-El Salvador
September 9
Trin. & Tobago-United States
El Salvador-Costa Rica
October 10
Honduras-United States
Mexico-El Salvador
Costa Rica-Trin. & Tobago
October 14
El Salvador-Honduras
Trin. & Tobago-Mexico
United States-Costa Rica
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