Mexico beats U.S. to win the Gold Cup
PASADENA, Calif. -- A prodigal son came of age Saturday night. But no matter how good the long-lost Freddy Adu was for the U.S., it wasn't good enough to beat Mexico in the 2011 Gold Cup final. Even if he did help his side build a 2-0 lead.
In a mind-bending first half, the U.S. ran out to a lead by the ninth minute, when Michael Bradley was free to head home a corner from Adu. By the 24th, incredibly, the Americans had doubled the score when the outstanding Adu fed Clint Dempsey. He zipped the ball into space for Landon Donovan, who made it 2-0.
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Until then, the U.S. had been playing it by the book against Mexico, absorbing enormous amounts of pressure by sitting deep and trying to maximize chances on the counter. But therein was the flaw to coach Bob Bradley's strategy, as it became quite evident that Mexico's pressure was always going to be too much to handle. The inexhaustible Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez ran rampant off the slow U.S. defense and found Pablo Barrera on the right in the 28th minute. Barrera blew by substitute Jonathan Bornstein, who had come on after Steve Cherundolo left in the 12th minute because of an injury, and wrong-footed Tim Howard by playing the ball to the near post, making it 2-1.
Not long thereafter, Michael Bradley, who had earlier allowed Chicharito the space to connect with Barrera, lost track of Andres Guardado, who ran onto a Giovanni Dos Santos cross that was first blocked by Eric Lichaj at the far post. That made it 2-2 in the 35th.
As the first half progressed, the U.S. seemed to be getting more of a hold on possession, keeping the ball better and leaving itself less prone to Dos Santos' tormenting runs. Adu, playing up front with Donovan, started to drift wide, which allowed him to hold the ball long enough for his teammates to catch up and for Alejandro Bedoya to dive under him. This also gave the U.S. defenders a breather. But as the U.S.'s grip on the run of play tightened, its grip on the actual scoreline turned to mush. By the end of the half, it was Mexico playing on the counterattack, as the reversal of form and approach became complete.
In the second half, Mexico burst forward when it could, leaving the U.S. to take control of the ball once more. On a poor U.S. clearance in the 49th minute, Barrera got way too much space on the right, as Bornstein was nowhere to be found, and whipped the ball with the outside of his boot past a surprised Howard to make it 3-2.
That sealed it. The euphoria that engulfed a preposterously pro-Mexico crowd of 93,000 seemed to sap all the belief from the scrappy and gritty U.S. team. Although Mexico sat deeper, the U.S. was hardly ever dangerous after that, with only a Dempsey shot thundering off the crossbar and Bradley hitting it wide of an open goal.
Mostly, this defeat was the design of Dos Santos, who had carved up the U.S. midfield and defense with such gleeful chops. He emphasized this in the 76th minute when he received the ball deep in the U.S. box ahead of (again) Bradley. Dos Santos kept it away from Howard as the U.S. keeper frantically scrambled on all fours, before skipping past Carlos Bocanegra and curling the ball into the far upper 90 for Mexico's fourth goal.
It was a fitting exclamation point to a masterful performance by Mexico, which never panicked, never wavered and, ultimately, never did look like it would lose this match.
With that, here are the grades for the U.S. players:
Grades: (1-10; 10 = best)
GK Tim Howard, 4.5: Howard had his worst night in a U.S. uniform in some time. He looked flat-footed on the 2-1 and surprised on the 3-2. A few good stops did nothing to change that.
D Steve Cherundolo, 6.5: In 11 minutes of action, Cherundolo dished out a hard challenge from which he picked up an injury, spraining his left ankle. But he also combined well with Adu to win the corner that would lead to Bradley's goal. He was badly missed after his departure.
D Clarence Goodson, 5: The lanky defender was constantly outrun. While he was strong in the air, he couldn't keep up over the ground.
D Carlos Bocanegra, 5.5: Like Goodson, he was outrun almost at every turn, even if he was positionally strong enough to intercept a lot of attacks.
D Eric Lichaj, 5: A difficult night for a young wing back who found himself swapped from the left side of the back four to the right after Cherundolo came off.
M Michael Bradley, 4: Bradley was partly to blame on three of Mexico's four goals. On the first, he left Chicharito too much space to set up the 2-1. Then he let Guardado beat him to make it 2-2. Finally, he allowed Dos Santos to take possession of the ball deep in the U.S. box that eventually resulted in Mexico's fourth tally. Bradley tracked back as always, and he did nod home the U.S.'s first goal. But overall, a disappointing night for him.
M Jermaine Jones, 4.5: Jones was merely passable on defense, even if he too failed to shut down Dos Santos. And he was only effective going forward in short spells.
M Alejandro Bedoya, 5: He made runs coming under Adu from the wing and put in a strong shift, but it wasn't much use most of the time and he ultimately didn't have a big impact on the game.
M Clint Dempsey, 6: He drifted into the center to become the de facto playmaker, combining well with the strikers and setting up the 2-0 for Donovan. Unlucky, too, when he smashed the crossbar with a shot.
F Freddy Adu, 8: Adu was by far the best American on the night. He had a big hand in both goals with strong service on the corner that set up the first and good hold-up play to help create the second. He was the only player on U.S. side who could match the Mexicans' technique.
F Landon Donovan, 6: Donovan was very isolated, playing higher than he probably should have for much of the game. He did do well to finish on his one chance.
D Jonathan Bornstein, 2: Took over for Lichaj on the left after he moved to right to replace Cherundolo. Bornstein was dreadful, failing at all his defensive tasks.
F Juan Agudelo, 5: Came on long after the U.S. had abandoned all semblance of organization. He had a few touches but was uninfluential and not dangerous.
M Sacha Kljestan, incomplete: Came on in the 86th minute, so he had little time to have an impact.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @LeanderESPN.