Breathless, frenetic, utterly absorbing: Mexico was a 4-2 winner in the Gold Cup final, a score line that didn't seem quite to reflect its superiority, yet so open was the game that the U.S. had enough chances to have itself won the game by a two-goal margin. This was thrillingly end-to-end, a game in which midfields barely existed, settled by the porousness of the USA's back four. In the end, it simply presented too many chances to Mexico.
Jonathan Bornstein will probably take much of the blame and he certainly had a game to forget. Given he last saw action on May 4, though, he is perhaps due some sympathy, and the problem after Steve Cherundolo's 11th-minute injury was at least as much what it did to the back four as a unit as individual errors. Questions must be asked as well about the role of the midfield in not offering more support and at least stemming the tide of Mexican attacks.
The first quarter of the game would have been incredible, had we not seen it so often before in games between Mexico and the U.S. Mexico was all over the US, its pressing superb, never letting the U.S. settle and creating chance after chance. It was a consummate performance, with only one problem: 23 minutes into the game Mexico was 2-0 down.
Grant Wahl: Three quick postgame thoughts for U.S.-Mexico
On a macro level Mexico's tactics were perfect. The sides began with a similar 4-4-1-1-/4-2-3-1 shape but with a major change of emphasis when out of possession. While the U.S. was content to sit back, maintain its shape and let Mexico have the ball, Jose Manuel de la Torre's side snapped and snarled, pushing high up the pitch. The effect of that is twofold; it wins possession back, but it can also create chances as it did for Giovani dos Santos after six minutes. Jermaine Jones was caught in possession by Gerardo Torrado, and although Javier Hernandez was fouled, Dos Santos ran on to shoot just wide.
The U.S. had kept four clean sheets in its previous five games in the tournament, which may say more about the level of competition in CONCACAF than about any inherent quality. The back four was disrupted by the injury to Cherundolo, forcing Eric Lichaj across to right back as Bornstein came on at left back, but even before then they had looked vulnerable. There seemed a doubt as to high how the defensive line should be, and again and again simple diagonal balls caught the U.S. out. As early as the second minute Torrado almost laid in Hernandez with a simple angled pass and, while that came following a half-cleared free kick, when a little disorganization is perhaps understandable, the chances kept coming. Hernandez headed a Dos Santos cross over, then stabbed against the post as Pablo Barrera's angled left-foot cross form the right picked out his run.
On a micro level, though, things couldn't have gone much worse for Mexico early on. The U.S.' first attack, intelligently worked down the right by Cherundolo and Freddy Adu, won a corner, and when Israel Castro let Michael Bradley run unchecked to the near post, the midfielder glanced in Adu's delivery. Mexico has traditionally struggled to deal with U.S. set pieces and Carlos Bocanegra headed just wide form a corner five minutes after halftime with the goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera looking desperately shaky. The U.S.'s problem was that it wasn't enjoying enough possession to win the dead balls that might have undone Mexico.
The first goal was surprising enough, but what followed after 23 minutes was even more startling, and was testament to the fluidity of the U.S. forward line, and to the value of winning the ball back early. The Mexico left back Carlos Salcido, who had looked uneasy from kickoff and was soon substituted, a tacit admission that he perhaps shouldn't have been rushed back after his injury, played an aimless ball forward that Jones intercepted. Two passes later the ball was with Alejandro Bedoya on the right. He slipped a pass to Adu, who constantly pulled right from his position as a second striker, and he rolled the ball inside to Clint Dempsey, who'd come well infield. Donovan made a superb curved run from deep, wholly unchecked, and finished Dempsey's through-ball with style -- a classic example of the benefits of having players coming from midfield areas beyond the attacking line.
Andrea Canales: Mexico shows its newfound resilience
The interplay between Dempsey and Donovan, switching frequently between the center and the left was one of the many attacking delights of an astonishingly open game. Dempsey cracked a snapshot off the bar in the second-half U.S. surge, the move having began with Bornstein for once overlapping on the left, making use of the space left by the left-sided forward tucking in.
It didn't take long after the U.S.' second goal for sanity to set in. Oddly the Mexican comeback came as its early pressing -- as it had to, for the full press simply isn't sustainable for more than about 20 minutes -- lost its intensity -- the emphasis perhaps switching to intelligent use of the ball. So erratic was the U.S. back four, though, that Mexico didn't need anything too sophisticated to break through. This time it was Hernandez playing the simple angled ball, Lichaj was caught dawdling, playing Barrera onside, and he finished at Howard's near post.
After Cherundolo's departure, both fullbacks struggled, and when Dos Santos cut infield nine minutes later -- past Bornstein - he was allowed space on the angle to shoot. Howard saved, but the ball cannoned off Lichaj for Guardado to stab in the equalizer. The nightmare continued after halftime. When Guardado found space 30 yards out four minutes after the break, Bornstein was sucked toward the ball, leaving Barrera in space and onside. A simple pass and a cool finish with the outside of the right boot by Barrera and it was 3-2.
Bornstein had a shocker, but there were other failings. The memory of the U.S. at the World Cup -- the first half against Slovenia aside -- was of a solid side with two disciplined central midfielders, of whom Bradley shuttled forward. Perhaps, given the general quality of opposition in the tournament, the U.S.' guard was down, but neither Bradley nor Jones offered much in the way of defensive support. Holes were punched repeatedly in the back four, but the midfield has to offer some protection.
Mexico, perhaps exhausted by its earlier pressing, eased back a touch having taken the lead, and for a time it seemed the U.S. may have the fitness advantage, but the game was settled by more sloppy defensive work. As Hernandez tried to hold the ball up and was dispossessed, the U.S. had three players and Mexico two in the corner. It should have been simple enough to work the ball out, but instead the ball broke off Bocanegra to Torrardo. He played a clever slip-pass, Dos Santos ran on and showed tremendous composure and ability to take the ball away from Howard, check back, wait for space to appear and the curl a finish over Lichaj on the line.
Even then the U.S.' back line was haphazard enough that Hernandez was wrongly called offside and Castro drove wastefully wide when clean through. And that really was the truth of this game. For all the inspired technical play -- and Dos Santos, Torrardo and Barrera were all excellent -- however impressive Mexico's pressing early on, the game was decided because Mexico's inability to defend set-plays mattered less -- or at least was tested less -- than the U.S.' inability to hold a defensive line.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor ofThe Blizzard.