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Feb 7, 2008

Mexico game provides more questions than answers

HOUSTON -- We all know by now what to expect from a good ol' U.S.-Mexico donnybrook: lots of scrappy and scruffy stuff, unmemorable for producing mounds of style but yielding plenty to write and talk about.

In that regard, Wednesday's 2-2 draw hit the usual sweet spot. On the other hand, the latest version of this frequently acrimonious rivalry delivered something a tad less familiar for the Americans: a bit of an empty calorie effect.

One the one hand, U.S. coach Bob Bradley's men did get a decent feeding from the "friendly trough." They took in some experience against a good team, held off the nerves beneath the bright lights of a lively atmosphere and perhaps developed a better feel for approaching a big game.

But of course a win would be nice, too. Especially in a series the Americans have dominated lately. The United States now has eight wins and two draws in its most recent matches against Mexico on American soil.

While U.S. Soccer will benefit from a fatter wallet, the take from a vibrant crowd of 70,103 inside impressive Reliant Stadium, the Mexicans got a foothold in reversing the recent American dominance, scoring twice on set-piece plays to manage the draw. Coach Hugo Sanchez's men deserved it, if not better, by looking a little more comfortable inside Houston's climate-controlled arena.

Bradley, meanwhile, responded with a sort of indifferent, verbal shrug of the shoulders when asked to assess the match. He was happy to identify areas clearly in need of improvement, and he was thrilled to see the progress of young Jozy Altidore, who hardly looked out his element while becoming the youngest U.S. goal scorer of the modern era.

Still, Bradley couldn't feel great about the night. The second-year U.S. coach didn't say so, but the Americans clearly have some depth problems at outside back. Ramiro Corrales looked wobbly on the left, and he wasn't getting much confidence by watching the man in front of him. Bobby Convey made his first international start in a year but clearly isn't ready to seize the left midfield spot left bare by DaMarcus Beasley's absence.

On the right, Drew Moor set up a goal but was beaten twice on Mexico's goals, leaving unanswered questions about the backup situation behind currently injured Steve Cherundolo.

Bradley also saw a team that failed to deal with Mexico's pesky midfield pressure. His young team (average starter's age: 24.5) couldn't solve the little problems a game offers, like finding ways out of tight spaces. He wanted to see faster movement of the ball in a game that demanded it. He wants his midfielders to connect with forwards faster and then hurry into the supporting spots with more urgency.

In short, he needs to see players thinking two and three moves ahead instead of just one. Too many times on Wednesday, his team was playing checkers while Mexico played chess.

And then there's that other bothersome thing: "To have the lead twice and lose it," Clint Dempsey said, "that's tough, but it's the way it goes."

Even outside the two goals allowed, the Americans had trouble communicating defensively on set pieces. Howard struggled on two occasions to get his wall set properly and was visibly annoyed at Ricardo Clark and Dempsey on one particular occasion. Mexico did well at creating options around the ball on the free kicks, and the U.S. inability to react decisively underscores the value of rehearsing for these hurried, single-fixture dates.

The Americans simply must get those things sorted out in training, even if they have just two afternoons together. Get it wrong in a friendly and it's just something for the message boards to hash out. Get it wrong on a single-fixture date during qualifying and the road to a World Cup could get dicey fast.

For his part, Moor took responsibility.

"When it comes to set pieces, it's about winning your individual battles, and personally I need to do it better," the relative national team newcomer said.

Still, not all was grim. Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra look ever more comfortable as a pairing, backed by dependable Tim Howard in goal. No problems there. And U.S. Soccer scored a huge payday. Officials don't disclose numbers, but federation president Sunil Gulati said before the match a sellout crowd paying more than $50 in average ticket pricing ensured an all-time record financial score.

Only three starters (and only two more on the bench) had ever lost to Mexico. That stays intact, so there wasn't much of a psychological blast in the draw. Bocanegra, Onyewu and Landon Donovan were on the field when El Tri last triumphed in the rivalry in the mushy air of Mexico City in 2005.

Onyewu's 30th-minute goal awakened a game that had, to that point, been the typically congested CONCACAF battle. The match had lots of earnest chasing in midfield but was pretty hard on the eyes in general. Mexico did a little better in passing and moving forward, although balls to their forwards were usually turned away by Bocanegra and Onyewu.

The Yanks' first 30 minutes were a wasteland in terms of attack. No midfielder supplied any kind of useful ball for Dempsey or Altidore. While outside midfielder Carlos Vela was occasionally dangerous for El Tri, both U.S. outside mids were neutralized. Donovan and Bobby Convey switched sides after 10 minutes but returned to their opening roles soon when that proved equally fruitless.

Donovan released the hand break and got going a bit, although Convey never did. Still, it took some sketchy goalkeeping to help break open the contest. Onyewu's big, ballistic throw-in seemed to catch Guillermo Ochoa off guard. When the Mexican goalkeeper couldn't punch it far enough away, Donovan was around to control the ball and supply a lobbed cross that only a 6-foot-4 defender could love.

Altidore's goal was a far prettier sight, a sharply struck header off Moor's unchallenged cross.

The game didn't produce much acrimony until the 38th minute, when Carlos Salcido slid recklessly into Donovan from behind, drawing the game's first yellow. Before it ended, Howard and Convey had their combative moments. Even that produced a little opportunity for a lesson, as the Americans proved they could settle down quickly and get on with business.

"It was the kind of game that clearly helps us as we continue to try to grow as team," Bradley said.

Player ratings (scale 1-10):

Tim Howard, 6 -- No fault on the goals, although maybe you could maybe nitpick that he could have come for the first goal-producing service. He claimed the crosses that needing claiming, gobbled up the efforts from range and got after his defenders at the right moments.

Drew Moor, 4 -- A few things good, like setting up the second U.S. goal and reasonably efficient passing. But he's on the hook for two huge boo-boos, as Jonny Magallon got by him for both Mexican goals. That's hardly what Moor needed in making a case to understudy for Steve Cherundolo.

Carlos Bocanegra, 6 -- Bob Bradley's preferred center back pairing looks more comfortable together with each match. The Fulham vet was sure in the tackle and never beaten over the top.

Oguchi Onyewu, 7 -- The big man did it all on the first goal, causing havoc by heaving a mighty throw-in, then powering his way up for a huge goal. At the other end, Onyewu is beginning to look less like a young project and more like a leader.

Ramiro Corrales, 4 -- It's tough to see him as the answer at left back, even temporarily. He looked uncertain all night, like he was always about to make a mistake. His foul led to El Tri's opening goal, and he was never a threat going forward.

Landon Donovan, 6 -- The one U.S. player who did something from wide spots. Caused some limited trouble with pace on the right side and set up Onyewu's goal. Still, as the team's go-to, you'd like to see Donovan hunt and probe and find the ways to influence big matches.

Michael Bradley, 4 -- Not the best night for Bradley, despite a confident and active start. Never exploited his specialty, the late run into the penalty area. A bit sloppy after the break. And like the rest of the midfield, never supplied the forwards enough to work with.

Ricardo Clark, 5 -- A pretty average night. Not bad. Not great. Nothing special. His passing was typically competent, but rarely incisive. Clark did what he does best: competed hard.

Bobby Convey, 4 -- The U.S. left midfielder contributed absolutely nothing to the match. Never linked with Corrales, couldn't run at people, lost some early battles with Castro and never got into crossing spots. With DaMarcus Beasley injured, he had a big chance to seize the spot.

Clint Dempsey, 5 -- Scored a terrific goal that was called back for offside. Doesn't have much chemistry with strike-partner Altidore, which isn't surprising given limited time together. A pretty quiet night overall.

Jozy Altidore, 7 -- Probably the busiest man on the pitch. Certainly didn't look out of place despite being the youngest of 22 starters and playing in a somewhat pressurized environment. His goal was a cracker. All in all a promising show from the youngster.

Substitutes

Benny Feilhaber, 6 -- Had a settling effect on a team that needed it, giving the Americans a little more possession. Did mangle one late, routine possession, which nearly proved costly.

Freddy Adu, 6 -- Set up one of the Americans precious few dangerous free kicks by going at two defenders. Provided a useful delivery on his one corner kick.

Eddie Lewis, 5 -- At 35 years old, he isn't the answer going forward at left midfield. On the other hand, he delivered exactly what you expect in 20 minutes: a couple of good tackles and reliable possession.

Maurice Edu, 5 -- Played the last 11 minutes for Ricardo Clark and got immediately into the physical battles and didn't back down.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.