U.S. perseveres despite losing the midfield battle
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Sometimes one can't help but marvel at how much the play on the field doesn't match a game's result. Wednesday night's 2-0 victory by the United States over bitter rival Mexico was a prime example of such an encounter. The visitors dominated for long stretches, yet the Americans came out on top, leading to the following conclusion: While the Americans' play has a long way to go, they have gotten so far inside their rival's collective head that not even Dr. Phil would be able to help Mexico.
The Americans had few if any advantages in this match. They were playing in front of a largely pro-Mexican crowd. Their opponent had the more experienced and talented roster. Mexico also had Hugo Sanchez, a new, inspirational coach ready to take the team to new heights.
None of it mattered. It didn't matter how many chances Mexico created. It didn't matter how many American defenders were shredded by Mexico's Andres Guardado. It didn't matter how many times the American midfield tandem of Pablo Mastroeni and Ricardo Clark gave the ball away. The U.S. was going to find a way to win this game, and they showed plenty of mental toughness in the process.
Forward Landon Donovan -- whose stoppage-time goal iced the match -- said that was one of the differences.
"I think mentally we do have an edge [over Mexico]," Donovan said. "We were also a little bit lucky. There were times where they could have scored, and we did well with our chances in front of goal. But mentally we were good tonight."
The Americans needed every bit of mental fortitude on Wednesday, as the hosts struggled to keep the ball for any appreciable length of time. Not only was the play of the U.S. midfield mediocre, but the balls they served into the forward tandem of Donovan and Chris Rolfe seemed better suited for Andre the Giant. As a result, the plan to use the speed of both players never materialized.
Defensively, the U.S. held firm -- that is, until the halftime introduction of Guardado, who proceeded to roast every American defender who had the temerity to get in his way. Jimmy Conrad's 52nd-minute goal from a Donovan corner kick seemed only to spur on the Mexican winger and signaled a spell of near-total domination by the visitors.
"We contributed to that a little bit," Donovan added. "We had some errant passes and some bad plays in midfield. But those are times you have to weather. We got through it, and after that we calmed down a little bit."
The U.S. did weather it, and it was left to Donovan to seal matters with a goal that no doubt left the Mexicans muttering to themselves. Defender Carlos Salcido's pass comically deflected off referee Mauricio Navarro straight to Clark, whose first-time feed to Donovan sprung him on a clear breakaway that saw him round goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez before burying the ball into an empty net.
For Mexico, it capped yet another failure on American soil, and the extent to which it rankled was clear. Whether it was the Mexican side's staunch refusal to shake hands afterwards or Sanchez's shameful lunge at Eddie Johnson as he began to celebrate Donovan's goal, the frustration was evident.
For the Americans, there was no such disappointment, although they weren't getting carried away, either. The fact that they had scored a psychological victory was tempered by the knowledge that they had been largely outplayed. Head coach Bob Bradley admitted that his team's ability to hold the ball was "something that needed to improve," while Donovan noted that if Mexico defeats the U.S. twice in qualifying, Wednesday's match will be largely forgotten.
But surviving a shaky stretch of play and securing a win in an unfriendly environment are experiences that will serve the U.S. well down the road -- and, unlike Mexico, won't send them to Dr. Phil.
Player ratings (out of 10)
Tim Howard, 6 -- Aside from an early gaffe that saw him flail at a routine high ball, Howard's play was solid and his positioning was flawless. Good thing given Mexico's tendency to shoot the ball right at him.
Jonathan Bornstein, 6 -- An improved performance for the Chivas USA defender, especially considering the pressure Mexico put on him in the first half. There were times when he did get caught in possession, but at least he tried to do something useful with the ball whenever he got it. He also had several key shot blocks at important times.
Carlos Bocanegra, 6 -- A classic case of bending, but not breaking. The Fulham defender was solid in the air, and after some shaky passes in the first half, he improved his distribution as the game went on.
Jimmy Conrad, 7 -- Simply put, he made the plays that mattered, especially his second-half goal. Although Jared Borgetti got away from Conrad a couple of times, the Wizards' defender got the better of his adversary.
Chris Albright, 4 -- The Galaxy defender had an excellent first half, but a miserable second. He was torched by Guardado, yet saved his team's bacon with a vital tackle on Omar Bravo in the 66th minute. Still, Steve Cherundolo and Jonathan Spector should stay close to the phone.
Bobby Convey, 3 -- The Reading midfielder gave some good support defensively but had a miserable night in the attacking half, continually carrying the ball into traffic. His set-piece delivery was nightmarish, as was his finish in the 74th minute when he failed to convert a one-on-one that was gifted to him by defender Gonzalo Pineda.
Pablo Mastroeni, 4 -- Played with great energy and tenacity but couldn't stop giving the ball away. On a night when the game was going 100 miles an hour, the U.S. needed more composure from their captain.
Ricardo Clark, 4 -- Took care of the ball a bit better than his midfield running mate Mastroeni, but not by much. Still, this is the kind of game that will make Clark a better player. If I were Bradley, I'd keep sending him out.
Clint Dempsey, 4 -- His play was disappointing and the lack of familiarity with his teammates was obvious. Had one teasing cross in the first half, but was otherwise silent. Was one of many players to be beaten by Guardado.
Chris Rolfe, 4 -- Had little impact, although to be fair, the service he was getting in the first half did not play to his strengths. That said, he still could have done a better job of finding open spaces on the field. I'd like to see him play in a game in which he was paired up top with an actual target man.
Landon Donovan, 6 -- Also struggled in the first half, but Donovan turned it up a few notches in the second. No matter how lucky his breakaway was, you have to admire the way he finished it off. Donovan showed more aggressiveness and also did some admirable work on the defensive end.
Eddie Johnson, 5 -- Gave the Americans some badly needed hold-up play and had a nice shot in the 71st minute that stung the palms of Sanchez. Not an eye-popping performance, but one that offers a glimmer of hope.
Josh Gros, 4 -- Proved to be no more adept at stopping Guardado than Albright was. His international future would appear to lie elsewhere than at right back.
Brian Carroll, 5 -- Forced to play right midfield, Carroll seemed out of his comfort zone, but he at least provided the kind of defensive presence the U.S. needed.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.