PASADENA, Calif. -- The seeds for Mexico's stirring comeback and comprehensive victory in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final were planted at the start -- before Michael Bradley's header gave the U.S. an eighth-minute lead, before Landon Donovan doubled the advantage not long after, and well before Giovani dos Santos ran riot, again and again, through the American defense.
Right back Steve Cherundolo was “caught in a tackle” not four minutes into Saturday's showdown at the Rose Bowl, departed seven minutes later, and it was all downhill from there.
Even as the U.S. added to its lead.
Without the German-based defender, who has been to three World Cups and started every U.S. match in 2006 in Germany and last year in South Africa, the Yanks couldn't contend with El Tri's dynamism up front, and Dos Santos, Pablo Barrera, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Andres Guardado repeatedly carved up their archrivals en route to a 4-2 triumph that thrilled the vast majority among the 93,420 on hand and gave Mexico its sixth regional title and a berth in the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup.
Cherundolo, among the Americans' finest performers during the tournament, rolled his left ankle when he was caught between teammate Jermaine Jones and Dos Santos, and his departure in the 11th minute considerably weakened the U.S. backline and attack on the right flank.
Coach Bob Bradley sent on Jonathan Bornstein at left back, moved 22-year-old Eric Lichaj from left back to right back, and then watched Mexico dictate terms the rest of the way.
How big was the loss?
“Big,” said Donovan. “His leadership, his instincts as a defender, his passing ability … it certainly didn't help.”
“Losing Steve hurt,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said, “because he's a player that's just going to bottle that player up on his side of the field. We didn't expect [him to get hurt]. You have to roll with the punches, but it hurts.”
It stung badly. Bornstein, too often isolated on the left, was overrun by Dos Santos and Barrera, Lichaj had few answers for Guardado, and El Tri's ability to create at lightning pace dizzied the Yanks. “They had us twisting and turning,” Howard said. “It was tough.”
“They're as dynamic as any [Mexico] team I've ever played against,” Donovan acknowledged. “They just have a few guys who can change the game in a heartbeat, between Guardado and Barrera and Giovani and Chicharito. They can make special plays. They're explosive, and if you give them a lot of space, they're going to make plays. And especially on a big field like this, it certainly played to their advantage.”
Bornstein was victimized on Mexico's first goal -- a glorious Hernandez ball from midfield finding Barrera for a simple finish in the 29th minute -- Lichaj's inability to clear the ball enabled Guardado's equalizer in the 36th, and Bornstein was beaten again by Barrera for El Tri's go-ahead strike five minutes into the second half.
“Obviously, they have a lot of skilled attackers and fast players,” Bornstein said. “I thought we did well with it for a good part of the game, but they broke us down eventually, and they got their goals. We could have done better as a back four, maybe as a team defense, but it didn't work out.”
Bornstein, the former Chivas USA captain, was making his first appearance in this Gold Cup after playing sparingly for UANL Tigres during the Mexican Primera Division spring Clausura season.
“It had been awhile since I played on the field,” he noted. “It was a tough game to go into, but I tried to do my best.”
Captain Carlos Bocanegra, who played in the center, next to Bornstein, took the blame for the Yanks' defensive shortcomings.
“You know, defensively we didn't do well enough,” he said. “And I'll take a lot of that on my shoulders, because we need to organize better and have our team shape better, and that's my job in the back. Tonight, defensively, we let the team down, unfortunately, because our attackers scored two goals. You can't expect to let in four goals and win a game.”
Bradley said he thought his side was “figuring out ways to deal with” Mexico's intense pressure just as Cherundolo was hurt.
“Certainly, Stevie's an important part of our backline,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. “And when you play Mexico, because of the way they play, it's a real challenge to the back four, and we felt our back four had played well in this tournament, had some shutouts. … Losing Stevie hurts in that moment. Not having that experience at that point is a tough one.”
Cherundolo said it was tough to watch from the bench, but that it's not about him.
“My personal feelings have no room in team play, and we're a team, and we get things done together, and we lose together,” he said. “I try to put my own personal feelings aside.”
His departure changed the game. A fair assessment?
“I don't know,” he said. “It was very early in the game. It's difficult to assess. That's your job.”