The United States came out like the real banditos Saturday night, but left instead as their victims.
Guns blazing, with the pride of Nike Soccer (Freddy Adu, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey) all taking turns leading the line, the States took it Mexico with their best of-ball movement yet of the Gold Cup tournament early in the first half.
Twenty minutes in it was 2-0 Yanks with Michael Bradley skipping a header off his bald pate on a Freddy Adu corner and Landon Donovan slicing horizontal across the goal face to deposit an Adu-Dempsey 1-2 set up dish. The pro-Mexico Rose Bowl crowd? Muffled.
Little did Bob Bradley know that the States fate was sealed before their second goal. Rock steady Steve Cherundolo went down with an ankle injury and Bradley made a critical decision on his replacement that he probably wishes he could take back.
Bradley reached into the hat and pulled out Jonathan Bornstein. He wasn’t the same rabbit that Freddy Adu was against Panama.
With Bornstein inserted, youthful Eric Lichaj was moved over the right flank and the United States went with two players at new positions the rest of the way in the Final; three actually if you count that Carlos Bocanegra started the Gold Cup at left fullback.
With the US backline disorganized, Mexico quickly turned the tables and struck for two goals to even up the match.
New sub Jonathan Bornstein was culpable on the first playing too narrow and giving up a lead pass to Pablo Barrera who mowed the grass pass Tim Howard on the left.
Moments later Andrew Guardado lit the lamp as Gio Dos Santos drove in and fired across the goal. Eric Lichaj made the block, but looked like he was trying to tap back for a Tim Howard clearance. Instead the marble found Andrew Guardado and Mexico had clawed their way back. The half would end deadlocked in a thriller at 2-2.
The drama soon became a tragedy for the Yanks in the second.
The US central midfield got stretched frequently in the first half and the leak became a full blown incident in the second stanza. First, Giovanni Dos Santos–who had an electrifying match–dinked in a lead pass for Barrera who sliced a gorgeous ball past a diving Howard and into the right corner pocket, 3-2 Mexico on Barrera’s second.
El Tri stretched it to 4-2 in the 70th decade as a dancing Gio Dos Santos controlled and retreated against Tim Howard who had come out of goal. Howard’s backline failed to contest Dos Santos and he fluttered a gorgeous chip into the top left corner.
The US would have their chances in the second–a Clint Dempsey bender off the bar and a Clarence Goodson toe poke–but it wasn’t to be as the States skidded out of the Gold Cup tournament and lost an invitation to avenge their Confederation’s Cup final meltdown of 2011 in Brazil in 2013.
Your snap judgements:
Lack of true depth–and a questionable call by the manager–does in the US backline.
Hard not emphasize Bob Bradley’s selection of Jonathan Bornstein at leftback twelve minutes in when steady Steve Cherundolo went down–and not just because of the personnel choice.
To understand the peculiar decision, the past month’s history needs to be investigated. As the US roster came out for the Gold Cup, the name of nascent Timmy Chandler was left off the roster. It was felt by Bob Bradley that bringing in Chandler–arguably the Yanks most promising prospect for Cherundolo’s successor–was not a dire necessity as Chandler’s club team, FC Nurnberg, protested the call-up due to the youngster’s heavy 2011 workload.
The US would enter the tourney with Jonathan Spector , Jonathan Bornstein and Eric Lichaj instead as their flank back-ups.
Once Tim Ream proved too unseasoned for a permanent role centrally, Carlos Bocanegra slid to the middle. In his stead went Eric Lichaj, who spent the last quarter of his club time at Leeds playing the left back role. With a backline of Cherundolo-Goodson-Bocanegra-Lichaj, the States reeled off three straight shutouts to enter the final Saturday in Pasadena. The US backline appeared stout.
With Cherundolo coming out Saturday, Bradley summoned Jonathan Bornstein–arguably the more experienced to Jonathan Spector with two World Cup starts under his belt–to come in on the left. Lichaj would move to the right.
The decision proved catastrophic. With Bornstein showing well behind game speed and Lichaj disoriented on the right the States couldn’t work together in the back. The chances for El Tri started coming in abundance. With US midfielders either hustling to get back in position late or failing to pressure on Mexico’s servicemen, the US backline was bombarded and could not withstand the onslaught.
Instead of being a force as it was the past three matches, the back four for the States were reactive and slow. Getting forward in the attack? Rarely consuming their minds.
Getting back to Bradley’s decision, it was an exceedingly curious one in that in flew in the face of a conventional coaching axiom of, “Solving Peter’s problem by creating one for Paul,” so to speak.
The US manager had a young Lichaj on the left getting very comfortable with his position.
He moved the youngster across the field to a role he had not played previously for the Yanks in the tournament. As Lichaj told TSG previously, defending on the left versus the right is very different at fullback.
Second, Lichaj had proved adept at closing down attackers on the left in the tourney, even if he was trailing them and especially if they dribbled horizontally across the top of the box. With Mexico’s Dos Santos adept at cutting in on his stronger left foot from the right, it would be thought that having Lichaj’s strong right foot to deal with that an advantage.
Bornstein as well was an interesting call. The former Tigris player had played little for his club in 2011 and had not featured for the Yanks since March, however back-up rightback Jonathan Spector at least played a few weeks earlier against a team of similar (or more impressive) speed in Spain.
Bradley, it would show, weakened both positions.
With Bornstein unfamiliar with his teammates on the pitch and Lichaj unfamiliar in his role, the US backline seemed unsure about whether they should come up and press Mexican’s attackers–risking a run behind from Chicharito–or sit deep and compact. The confusion both personally and as a whole wreaked havoc on the Yanks shape and the States paid dearly.
A younger US central midfield did not pressure their elder counterparts.
After a grueling path to the finals for both teams, it was the thought the United States would have an advantage in central midfield where Michael Bradley (23 years old) and Jermaine Jones (29) were matched up with El Tri’s Israel Castro (30) and Gerardo Torrado (32).
The question TSG posed in the preview: Can the USMNT central midfield tandem of Michael Bradley-Jermaine Jones hold up for one more game and find the hold-up player?
The answer? A resounding no.
After an early goal by Michael Bradley signaled differently, both he and Jones had a rough evening. Their play exascerbated more by the fact the tandem was supposed to outperform their opposite numbers.
Both players were sluggish on defense, Jones resorting to his early tourney defensive lapses both centrally and in helping to cover for the inserted Bornstein.
Bradley showed signs of fatigue early and had himself a stinker after having several solid performances throughout the lead-up games. The coach’s son was guilty in giving away possession on multiple occasions, frequently trailed the play, and was left ball-watching on goal number two as his mark Guardado swept a ball away from Howard.
The signs, to this writer, were of a player who had not been given adequate rest to perform against a team that played at a higher speed.
The duo of Jones and Bradley failed to boss their zone and left gaps that a backline already challenged in synchronicity didn’t need.
The Yanks mixtures of forwards with no true strikes showcased their best off-ball movement and attack….with an asterisk.
The States best offball movement and offensive harmony of Gold Cup 2011 came in the first twenty minutes on Saturday.
With Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan interchanging and Freddy Adu holding up the ball in a very Rafael Van Der Vaart way on the fight flank, the United States manufactured a host of early chances against Mexico.
With that said, the lack of a true striker–one that is distinctly a target man or distinctly challenges the opponents back four–left much more on the table both Saturday and during the tournament for the States.
The Yanks are at their best when Donovan and Dempsey are given space centrally to attack the goal. On Saturday, a striker to drag central defenders to the flank–as Chicharito did ad nauseum with US captain Carlos Bocanegra–would have proved invaluable in making the flow of opportunities a steady one.
Instead the Yanks tried Donovan up top to little success in a striker role and then tried Clint Dempsey but his teammates couldn’t provide him service. US teenager Juan Agudelo would enter halfway through the 2nd half, but looked more–to use a baseball analogy–like a pitcher aiming his pitches instead of “just throwing.”
The US early movement is to be commended, but beyond regressing to protect its defense, the Yanks stagnated without a true striker doing work ahead of its forwards.
The silver lining: Is the “comeback” for Freddy Adu complete?
Nothing short of amazing the work that Freddy Adu in this game. It was Adu–who looks bigger physically than last time he sported the Yanks jersey in 2009–that held up the ball or challenged a defender as the match dictated better than any other attacker for the Yanks.
What makes this impressive is that this was only Adu’s second game on the pitch during the Gold Cup and he was playing the fastest team in the tournament. Adu at times looked almost nonchalantly with how well he held or moved the ball.
If Saturday’s match had any glimmer of excitement when over for US fans, it was the re-emergence of US soccer’s prodigal son Freddy Adu as a possible long-term difference maker.