(Sunday, June 24, 2007) -- Mexico is simply cursed when it comes to defeating the United States men on American soil. Or, at least the players must believe they are.
For the first hour of today's United States' 2-1 victory at Soldier Field in Chicago, Mexico was clearly the better team. For long stretches of the first half, the speedier and seemingly more determined Mexicans dominated the action. However, as the clock struck one hour, American striker Brian Ching who, to that point, seemed more a candidate for substitution than becoming a hero, roared into Mexico's box and was taken down. Landon Donovan converted a penalty kick for the fourth straight match and suddenly the Americans were on their way to an unexpected, but crucial victory.
Ten minutes later, midfielder Benny Feilhaber tucked a volley from outside of penalty area into the left corner of the net for a 2-1 lead in the 72nd minute.
The importance of the American triumph was threefold -- the U.S. earned extra prize money, the prestige of being the champion of the CONCACAF region and laid claim to a berth in the far more lucrative Confederations Cup, which will be played in South Africa in 2009. The Americans made $150,000, compared to $90,000 for Mexico from this tournament but, equally as important, will get a chance to check out firsthand a year in advance the venues which will be used in the 2010 World Cup.
The U.S. and Mexico lurched into this afternoon's final with neither team dominating its early matches in the manner expected. Mexico struggled to get out of Group B, while the Americans had difficulty protecting two-goal leads before escaping with 2-1 decisions against past Panama in the quarterfinals and Canada in the semis.
It was immediately clear hat Mexico had been under-achieving in earlier matches and today its real team showed up.
Mexican coach Hugo Sanchez made some changes, mainly putting in several players with more pace in the midfield. Andres Guardado, who looks to be Mexico's next great player and will likely move to a major European club this summer, and Nery Castillo, who plays for Greek giant Olimpiakos, not only combined for the Mexican goal, but had pace and skills that caused the U.S. problems from the opening kickoff.
U.S. coach Bob Bradley made four lineup changes from the team that defeated Canada Thursday. Tim Howard was back in goal, replacing Kasey Keller, as expected. With defender Frankie Hejduk (yellow-card accumulation) and the coach's son, midfielder Michael Bradley (red card against Canada), suspended, Jonathan Spector took Hejduk's place at right back and Feilhaber was inserted for Bradley. Finally, with neither Taylor Twellman nor Eddie Johnson doing much at forward, Bradley decided to give Ching his chance.
In the final analysis, one of the key moments might have come in the 42nd minute when highly effective Mexico striker Jared Borgetti injured himself in a non-contact situation and had to come off. He was replaced by Omar Bravo, which actually gave Mexico more speed up top, but also caused the team to lose some of its shape without its big target forward in the match. Bravo was never the factor Borgetti had been.
The amazing part of the U.S. comeback today was that the two players perhaps most responsible for the turnaround -- Ching up front and Feilhaber in the middle -- were frankly awful in the first half. Ching looked slow and Feilhaber was being outplayed. As poorly as the two played in the first half, they were good in the second, especially over the final 30 minutes.
The center of the U.S. defense was strong with Carlos Bocanegra the best of all Americans, while Oguchi Onyewu also excelled, except for Mexico's goal-scoring play when he was pulled to the outside and then beaten around the corner by Castillo. The play of the two outside backs, Jonathan Bornstein and Jonathan Spector was sub-par all day and it perhaps actually became an advantage when Spector was hurt in the 88th minute and replaced by Frank Simek.
Both teams received terrific goalkeeping. Tim Howard made four wonderful saves for the U.S. and his counterpart Oswaldo Sanchez registered an equal number. Without their stellar play, the match could easily have seen several more goals with who knows who winning.
Both sides tired at the end from the intense pace, but the U.S. simply had the greater will to win. Both sides had their chances, but it was the U.S. that managed to capitalize and come away the winner. Or maybe, it was just a curse that has allowed the U.S. to go 8-0-1 in its last nine home matches against Mexico, conceding only today's goal in those nine meetings. Just as the Americans have never won at Mexico City's Estadio Azteca, going 0-12-1 and being outscored 44-6, Mexico simply cannot seem to win -- or even score -- in such places as Columbus, Ohio; Phoenix, Houston, Los Angeles, Denver or now Chicago.
U.S. player ratings:
Goalkeeper Tim Howard - 7: Had a terrific match. Was not called on often, but was there every time it mattered. Was technically solid and turned in one of his best national-team performances.
Defender Jonathan Spector - 4.5: Was taken to school by Guardado again and again, both to the outside and to the inside. He could not handle the pace and was nowhere to be seen when Guardado scored Mexico's goal. He came close to a serious injury when the he was involved in a late clash of heads in the final minutes.
Defender Oguchi Onyewu - 6.5: Stood out, except for being beaten by Castillo when he was forced outside on the Mexico goal, he was a tower of strength, especially in handling Jared Borgetti in the first half.
Defender Carlos Bocanegra - 7.5: He was simply everywhere, making tackles and heading away balls. He saved the match from going into overtime when booted away Mexico's final shot, one that might have beaten Howard, deep in stoppage time. He worked especially well with Howard.
Defender Jonathan Bornstein - 5: Had a few good moments, both defensively and offensively, but seemed back on his heels much of the afternoon and often in need of being bailed out. Still young and learning.
Midfielder Landon Donovan - 6.5: He stepped up the tempo of his game in the second half and that made much of the difference for the U.S. over the final 30 minutes. He seems to like the outside, but is a bigger help when he can get into the middle.
Midfielder Pablo Mastroeni - 5: Just didn't have the pace to match up with the Mexican midfield. He was a step behind at critical times and was often surrounded by several Mexican players, causing him problems. Was replaced at the half by a player with fresh legs and more speed..
Midfielder Benny Feilhaber - 6.0: He scored the match winner and etched himself an important spot in the history of U.S. Soccer. What won't be remembered is he had a number of defensive problems in the first half and seemed a step slow in the first half. To his credit, he picked up his game in the second 45 minutes and overall had a positive game.
Midfielder DaMarcus Beasley - 5.5: Played extremely hard and was involved in numerous physical challenges, a number of which he won. But in the end, after receiving a perfect lead pass from Donovan, he missed a wide-open net from nine yards when he could have put the match away, one of the worst misses in memory.
Forward Clint Dempsey - 5.5: He was up and down. He had some good touches and twice nearly scored, only to be denied by great saves by Oswaldo, but seemed to tire and was not happy to be taken out in the 68th minute.
Forward Brian Ching - 6: He was simply awful for 45 minutes, contributing almost nothing in the first half, but came out of intermission a changed player. From then, he not only became an offensive threat, but ranged far back to make defensive stops. His best U.S. match in a very long time.
Midfielder Ricardo Clark (46th minute for Mastroeni) - 6: Came on with fresh legs and immediately gave the U.S. a lift in the second half. He was able to stay with Mexico's midfield and worked hard to get to the right place at the right time.
Forward Taylor Twellman (68th minute for Dempsey) - 6: Did not add much offensively in his 20-plus minutes, but did some hard work in the midfield to help preserve the U.S. triumph.
Defender Frank Simek (88th minute for Spector) - 5.5: Only a brief appearance, but did his part to help kill off the match.
SoccerTimes U.S. Player of the Match: Carlos Bocanegra.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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