Thursday August 13th, 2009

MEXICO CITY -- This isn't your father's U.S. soccer team.

It's a team that this summer alone has taken leads against Italy, Spain, Brazil and Mexico in games that matter, a cause for optimism among U.S. soccer fans. But it's also a team that has gone only 1-3 in those contests, a sign that while these Americans are improving on the world stage, they're still not yet at a level where they have the poise and maturity required to slam the door on a quality opponent once it's down.

The latest example took place on Wednesday (RECAP) here at Estadio Azteca, the U.S. house of horrors, where the Americans took their first lead in the history of the stadium on Charlie Davies' stunning ninth-minute goal. Suddenly, it looked as though the U.S. might end decades of misery with its first victory in 20 tries in this suffocating soccer cathedral.

When Davies curled his shot past Guillermo Ochoa, 105,000 Mexicans went silent. "It was amazing," said Davies, who endured a hail of projectiles as he danced at the corner flag. "This is what you live for, especially as a striker: scoring big-time goals."

For a moment, it was tempting to imagine the shock and horror of Mexican fans if their team had lost to the hated U.S. on home soil, a loss that would have put El Tri in danger of not even reaching the World Cup. But, just as the U.S. lost its leads to Italy and Brazil earlier this summer, the Yanks gave up not just an equalizing goal, but a gut-punch game-winner as well.

Mexico's Israel Castro hit a remarkable long-range strike in off the crossbar 10 minutes after Davies' goal to start the comeback. "The guy hits a bomb," said U.S. goalie Tim Howard. "We were kind of chuckling tongue-in-cheek: in the last three qualifiers the first goals have been goals like that. I think I must have pictures of somebody's wife or something. Because, I mean, I'm at full stretch. When a ball passes over me, it's over me, which means it's over the crossbar. But he hit a great shot."

Still, it appeared that the U.S. was heading for a 1-1 tie that would have been a historic result in its own right, only the second time in 20 games that the U.S. had even tied at the Azteca. But Miguel Sabah hit the game-winner in the 82nd minute on a good finish after the ball had bounced to him in the box.

"It was one of those players where [Efraín Juarez] makes a very good individual run, splits Landon [Donovan] and Carlos [Bocanegra], and Jay [DeMerit] comes over really good, and on another day it just trickles out of bounds for a corner," said Howard. "How the ball pops up I don't know, but it just pops up and [Sabah] turns on it quick and smashes it as hard as he can."

After the 3-2 loss to Brazil, the U.S. players were quick to say that if Brazil had led 2-0 at halftime there was no way the five-time World Cup champions would have lost the game. They were right, of course, but it's one thing to say that and quite another to do it on the field. When I asked the U.S. players after the Mexico loss if there was more they could do to hold leads, they were at something of a loss.

"Probably," said Howard. "I don't know exactly what it is right now ... You don't want that to become a trend. When you get leads, you want to make sure you can see them out, particularly in this game. A 1-1 would have been a very good result for us."

Donovan, for his part, had a hard time imagining what more the U.S. could have done. "Look, [Castro] hits an absolute dream goal," he said. "You give that guy 1,000 shots like that, he's not going to score that goal. So it's a little unfortunate for us that he scored that goal, and then at the end maybe they get a little lucky with a bounce in the box. It's frustrating."

It's frustrating because the U.S. knows it could have won here today, could have fashioned a result that would have stayed in the history books forever, could have followed up Davies' goal with another, just as they did against Spain. (Davies himself had a golden opportunity in the 71st minute, failing to get his head on a wide-open chance in the box.)

Granted, this was hardly a death knell for the U.S.'s World Cup chances: the Americans are still in third place of a tournament in which they need only to finish in the top three to qualify automatically for South Africa.

"I said this week I didn't want people to get carried away," said Donovan. "This wasn't a live-or-die game for us. It was for them. Now it puts us in a little bit more difficult position, but our next game is at home to El Salvador, which we expect to win, and away at Trinidad, which we expect to win. We still feel if we win those two games that we're going to qualify."

He's right. But the U.S. knows that for the World Cup to be successful it can't afford to build leads and give them away. This 2-1 loss in the Azteca is just another reminder.

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