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Jun 24, 2007

U.S. thoroughly deserving of victory in Gold Cup

Over the years, every time the United States has beaten Mexico, the score has been accompanied by Mexican claims that the result was undeserved. "We're still better than you," was the underlying message. To be fair, there was an element of truth in this. On many of those occasions, Mexico owned the ball while the U.S. rode its luck, bunkering in for long stretches. But in the aftermath of the Americans' 2-1 triumph over Mexico in the Gold Cup final, there can be no such caveats. On this day, the U.S. was thoroughly deserving of its triumph.

That's not to say the U.S. dominated. On the day, Mexico probably edged the Americans in terms of possession, and in Andres Guardado and Nery Castillo, El Tri look to have an attacking duo that will torment the Yanks for years to come. But in this match, the U.S. was Mexico's attacking equal. If not for a string of stunning saves by goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez, it would have been the Yanks who found themselves in front at halftime, and not their southern neighbors.

That Mexico did take a 1-0 lead, only to lose it, is just the latest nail in their psychological coffin. In previous matches, it was thought that if only Mexico could have gotten their nose in front, then the U.S. would have capitulated, allowing a steady stream of unanswered goals. Instead, the Americans proved once again that their winning mentality is far stronger than that of their rivals.

Proof of this can be found in the second half performances of Benny Feilhaber and Brian Ching. At halftime, both players were prime candidates to be subbed. Feilhaber's passing -- normally his strong suit -- was well below par, while Ching's poor touch was negating his usually solid hold-up play. And when I saw Ricardo Clark entering the game to start the second half, I figured that Feilhaber was out with Ching soon to follow.

Yet both players remained on the field, and responded with remarkable turnarounds. Once Ching began throwing his body around Mexico's penalty area, it began to unsettle the opposing defense, and the penalty he won that was converted by Landon Donovan turned the game around. As for Feilhaber, his passes began to find their intended targets, and his jaw-dropping volley in the 73rd minute was a goal worthy of any cup final.

There were plenty of other heroes as well. Carlos Bocanegra capped an up-and-down tournament with an immense performance, constantly covering for other teammates that had been beaten. DaMarcus Beasley and Donovan both delivered the requisite amount of menace on the wings -- although Beasley's shocking miss in the 90th minute, after Donovan had put the ball on a tee for him, made the final minutes nerve wracking.

But perhaps the move of the match was U.S. coach Bob Bradley's halftime insertion of Clark. The Houston Dynamo midfielder provided some much-needed energy in the middle of the park, and helped blunt the considerable influence of Mexican maestro Pavel Pardo. It was the kind of substitution that most coaches dream of.

The sight of Clark and Feilhaber patrolling the U.S. midfield gives hope that a positive showing from the Americans in next week's Copa American is possible. But regardless of how the duo performs in Venezuela, the most encouraging sign of the entire tournament for the U.S. was the continued progression of its young players. Throughout the Gold Cup, Bradley has continued to give young upstarts like Feilhaber, Jonathan Spector, and Michael Bradley (his son) playing time, and players like Donovan and Beasley now appear ready to take on the attacking responsibilities that crushed them during last summer's World Cup.

It's a development that still has a ways to go, as witnessed by the Americans' continued struggles to put matches away when they have the chance. But the U.S. has also made considerable progress along this course, and is further along than its Mexican rivals. While fans of El Tri can point to Guardado and Castillo as signs that the team is evolving, the fact that they are still relying on the likes of Jared Borgetti and Cuauhtemoc Blanco means that Mexico head coach Hugo Sanchez has more work to do than his American counterpart. That might be the first time ever that such a statement can be made.

Player ratings (scale of 1-10)

Tim Howard, 7 -- The U.S. would not be hoisting the Gold Cup for the fourth time without Howard's immense save from Bofo Bautista in the 89th minute. He still seems too content to stay on his line at times, and let his defenders play the ball out, but Howard did plenty to earn his keep on this day.

Jonathan Bornstein, 4 -- Had a great surging run in the first half, but his marking was suspect. Raised his game somewhat in the second half, and got forward more, but defensively he seems to have hit a wall at the international level.

Carlos Bocanegra, 8 -- Best tournament game by a mile. He seemed to always be in the right place to clear up any messes, and his vital clearance from a Rafa Marquez cross in the dying seconds typified his day.

Oguchi Onyewu, 6 -- Beaten for speed by Castillo on Guardado's goal, but for the most part, delivered a more composed performance. Battled well with Borgetti and Omar Bravo, and avoided most of the fouls that plagued him earlier in the tournament.

Jonathan Spector, 4 -- Became the latest in a long line of American right backs to be shredded by Guardado, and his preoccupation with the Mexican winger limited his opportunities to get forward. An unfortunate clash of heads with Guardado ended his day.

DaMarcus Beasley, 6 -- His late-game miss will be remembered, but so should the tireless running he did on the left side -- especially on the counterattack. Beasley also provided a good threat early, but he was denied by Sanchez.

Pablo Mastroeni, 5 -- Didn't play poorly, but seemed to lack the needed spark to put his physical stamp on the midfield. It was a good decision by Bradley to replace him at half with Clark's fresh legs.

Benny Feilhaber, 6 -- He had a miserable first half, but a brilliant second. Looks set to play a huge role in the team's Copa America campaign.

Clint Dempsey, 4 -- A day to forget in front of goal for the Texan. Credit Sanchez with some fine saves, but Dempsey's inability to convert from close range nearly cost the Americans.

Brian Ching, 6 -- Not only could he have been subbed at halftime, but he looked set to come off for Taylor Twellman right before earning the penalty. Another guy who could have put the game away when he hit the post in the 76th minute, but he did a lot of unsung work in the second half.

Landon Donovan, 7 -- With Sanchez blowing him kisses, Donovan delivered, firing home the penalty kick with authority. Had his teammates been sharper in front of goal, he might have had three assists, but lifting the Gold Cup should provide sufficient comfort.

Subs:

Ricardo Clark, 7 -- Clark helped turn the match around with his energy and effort. A poor clearance in the 51st minute nearly gifted Castillo a goal, but that was the only blemish on a fine half.

Frank Simek, 6 -- The next time the U.S. plays Mexico, Simek should be at right back, because no else has done as well against Guardadao. Granted his opponent was suffering from the after effects of his collision with Spector by then, but the Sheffield Wednesday defender held up well.

Taylor Twellman, 7 -- Another substitute who delivered for Bradley, Twellman held the ball up well and looked sharp on the counterattack. There is a tendency to think that Ching and Twellman are competing for the same job, but the two have done well when they've played together. It's a combination worth seeing again.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.