Midfield woes cause U.S. to fall to Mexico in qualifier at packed Azteca.
By Robert Wagman
(Wednesday, August 12, 2009) -- For 82 minutes, it looked as if the United States men were going to escape Mexico City's Azetca Stadium with a draw and a point in the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying standings, but then a defensive breakdown let Mexico pulled out its second consecutive 2-1 victory over the Americans before a capacity crowd of around 105,000.
Had the U.S. managed to have Charlie Davies' goal in the ninth minute be enough for a 1-1 draw, the Americans would have been lucky. Mexico dominated the midfield for the entire match, leaving the U.S. defense under constant pressure. Mexico utilized the wings in attacking and when the American midfield did not come up with stops, it was left to the back four to clear balls time after time. For the most part, the U.S. back four made those clearances, but often only to relieve pressure and not to start any sort of counter-attack.
In the meantime, the Mexican pressured in the midfield, prevented the American front line from receiving any kind of service and thus U.S. strikers were denied many chances.
Both Mexico goals were scored for essentially the same reason -- U.S. defensive midfielders were not where they should be at critical moments. On the first goal, Ricardo Clark moved far over to the right side to challenge Cuauhtémoc Blanco, who was already being marked by Michael Bradley. Blanco saw Israel Castro open, got him the ball in the space where Clark should have been. Castro had time to take a step and rip a 35-yard rocket that seemed to surprise U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, hitting the underside of the crossbar and crossing the goal-line for an equalizer.
On Miguel Sabah's winning goal in the 82nd minute, Mexico defender Efraín Juárez carried down the right side and beat U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan to the end line. When U.S. defenders moved to stop Juárez, Bradley abandoned Sabah and moved to the center of the goal, just a yard from the goal-line. When U.S. defender Jay Demerit's scrambling clearance bounced out to Sabah, he was unmarked and blasted the decisive tally over Howard into the roof of the net from point-blank range,
Generally, the U.S. did what it set out to do: stay compact, clear balls and look to a set play or a quick break to score a rare goal at Azeteca. That was accomplished early when Davies ran onto Donovan's pass and beat Mexican keeper Memo Ochoa with a classic finish into the right corner of the net.
From that point on, the Americans could do little offensively.
In other qualifying results, the home teams prevailed with Honduras thrashing Costa Rica 4-0 and Trinidad & Tobago edging El Salvador 1-0. Costa Rica (4-2) remains first with 12 points, followed by the U.S. (3-2-1) and Honduras (3-2-1) each with 10, Mexico (3-3) with nine, with T&T and El Salvador brining up the rear at 1-3-2 with six points.
When all is said and done, the U.S. did not play particularly well, but Mexico had to struggle to get a win it desperately needed. While the Americans came close to bringing home a point from Azteca, much more is expected of this U.S. Close is not good enough.
U.S. Player Ratings
Goalkeeper Tim Howard - 5.5: While he can't be faulted on either goal, both were probably savable with outstanding efforts. Was under pressure constantly, but really did not have to come up with any other difficult saves.
Defender Carlos Bocanegra - 5.5: Under constant pressure all day as Mexico attacked down its right side, he responded well and was rarely beaten. He was out of position on the play that led to the winning goal and on the first was hesitant to charge out on Castro, likely out of fear the Mexican would drive around him.
Defender Jay DeMerit - 6: He played a very strong game, marking some very quick Mexican strikers and moving well out to the flank. Was unlucky not to have cleared the ball that rebounded out to set up Mexico's winning goal.
Defender Oguchi Onyewu - 7: Cleared ball after ball as he moved all over the defensive end. On a number of occasions, he was the last man back and he always made the clearance. Did not deserve the yellow card that will keep him out of the next U.S. match in September.
Defender Steve Cherundolo - 5.5: Might have done more to prevent the first Mexico goal, but otherwise played a strong match. Cleared the ball repeatedly, but often not to a teammate..
Midfielder Ricardo Clark - 3.5: Out of position when Mexico scored its first goal, spent much of the day running around but accomplishing little. Did not play with confidence and it showed.
Midfielder Michael Bradley - 4.5: The few good plays that he made today were mainly on the offensive end, but he is counted on to make stops and his defensive play was questionable at best.
Midfielder Landon Donovan - 5: Great pass to set up the U.S. goal, but then had one of those games where he seemingly disappeared for long stretches. Was closely and heavily marked all afternoon and could not shake himself free..
Midfielder Clint Dempsey - 4.5: Never in the match except for a few defensive stops. Added little to the U.S. attack.
Forward Charlie Davies - 6.5: Scored a wonderful goal and was a constant threat. Got little quality service, but still managed to create a few opportunities. .
Forward Brian Ching - 5: Was called on to do a lot of the dirty work up front, often trailing deep into his own end to make defensive plays. He also got little service and thus was not much of an threat on attack.
Midfielder Benny Feilhaber (57th minute for Ching) - 5: Came into the midfield to try to link up with the forward line and was not very successful in that effort. He played 90 minutes twice in the last five days in Denmark and it looked like he didn't have much gas in the tank.
Midfielder Stuart Holden (57th minute for Clark) - 5: Late in the match, he made two wonderful crosses that were not converted. Otherwise, he did a lot of running around, but generally to little avail.
Forward Jozy Altidore (75th minute for Davies) - 4.5: Rushed in as an injury replacement, but had no impact on the match.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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