Monday, June 27, 2011

Gold Cup Final Thoughts

So it's taken me a little while to get in the frame of mind to write this recap after the U.S.'s crushing loss on Saturday night. After jumping out to an improbable 2-0 lead just over 20 minutes into the match, the U.S. were slowly picked apart by a much faster, more talented Mexican side eventually losing 4-2 at the Rose Bowl. With the loss comes a missed opportunity to play at the Confederations Cup in Brazil in 2013, but also the harsh realization that any ground the U.S. had made up against their southern rival over the past decade or so has quickly been lost. The biggest things that jumped off the page to me on Saturday night were Mexico's speed and Mexico's depth. Pablo Barrera, Andres Guardado, Giovani Dos Santos and Chicharito all gave the U.S. fits while on the attack. They were composed on the ball, they were always making runs into space, and they just kept creating opportunity after opportunity. The U.S.'s back four, particularly after the loss of veteran Steve Cherundolo was ill-equipped to keep up and eventually the chances started becoming goals. Which leads into my next point. If losing our 32 year old right back was enough to swing this match, then we have a serious problem on the defensive end. Captain Carlos Bocanegra and Clarence Goodson are both great in the air, but don't have great pace. Eric Lichaj was serviceable on the left side, but isn't a natural, and while he presents promise, he certainly isn't as strong on the right as Cherundolo is. Jonathan Bornstein, brought on after Cherundolo's injury, failed to deliver, but in his defense he hasn't been getting playing time for club or country lately, so what'd you expect would happen? In hindsight, sure you could've gone with youngster Tim Ream or West Ham's Jonathan Spector, but who knows if those would've turned out any better. Bottom line, the U.S. has holes at the back that are going to need to be addressed. Keep in mind, Bocanegra and Cherundolo will both be 35/36 come 2014. Anyhow, Mexico meanwhile lost TWO defenders on Saturday night when both Rafa Marquez and Carlos Salcido succumbed to injury in the first half, but their defense actually got better when subs Hector Reynoso and Jorge Torres came on. Mexico has depth right now, the U.S. does not. It's not just in the back either. Look at our forward situation. We came into the tournament with 3 strikers on the roster, Jozy Altidore, Juan Agudelo and Chris Wondolowski. Altidore gets hurt, Wondo was ineffective and Agudelo, though a bundle of energy is still inexperienced. So here we are in the Gold Cup Final and we're starting Clint Dempsey up top. Which isn't bad obviously, Dempsey's terrific, but again, it speaks to our lack of natural forwards. But enough of the negatives, let's see what positives came out of this tournament as a whole. While the Cup ended on a sour note, it bears remembering that the U.S. still won 4 matches, all of them by shutout, so it wasn't all bad. Alejandro Bedoya, Sacha Klejstan and Freddy Adu all had breakout performances. Bedoya, who didn't even make the squad initially (he was the injury replacement for Benny Feilhaber) ended up starting by the end of the tournament. Klejstan also worked his way into the starting lineup and showed himself to be effective as an attacking midfielder. Adu was the real story for his strong play against the Panamanians and Mexico. On the verge of being an overhyped bust, Adu made the most of his opportunity and was perhaps the best 1 on 1 player for the U.S. His pass to Donovan set up the loan goal against Panama and he hit the corner kick that Bradley scored against Mexico. His name's been out there for so long that people forget he's just 22 years old and still has a lot of soccer ahead of him. With Donovan and Dempsey getting older, it's going to be crucial to develop additional playmakers and Adu's potential reemergence couldn't have come at a better time. It will be interesting to see what happens with Adu overseas this year- he was loaned to Turkey's 2nd division last season- as hopefully he's able to use this performance as a stepping stone to better things. In addition to the three midfielders, the U.S. was also able to get big minutes for youngsters Agudelo and Lichaj. Even Tim Ream got a fair bit of playing time in the center before the U.S. shifted Bocanegra back to his natural spot. These opportunities in high pressure situations are invaluable to the younger players and none of the three did anything to suggest they won't be given more opportunities moving forward. So what's next for the men's team? They've got a bit of downtime right now as there are no more matches on the schedule for this year. The MLSers will return to their clubs as they get ready for the All-Star Break and then the playoff push, while the European players will finally take a breather. While a 4-4-2 record is disappointing by U.S. standards, there have certainly been reasons to be optimistic for what lies ahead. That being said, this team is by no means a shoe-in for the 2014 World Cup, so they're going to have to continue to work.

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