EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For 56 minutes, the U.S. men's national team stood toe-to-toe with Mexico, creating chances, breaking up Mexican sequences and giving the heavily pro Mexican crowd few reasons to cheer. For 56 minutes it looked as though this match would be another closely contested battle in this fiercest of rivalries.
Then Mexico scored a goal, and the confident and steady U.S. team we saw all Gold Cup suddenly turned into a tired and overwhelmed mess.
Gerardo Torrado converted a 57th-minute penalty, and before the Americans could regroup, Mexico had slotted two more goals past U.S. goalkeeper Troy Perkins to make the score 3-0 in an 11-minute span. The Mexicans added two more goals against a lifeless U.S. squad to put an exclamation point on a 5-0 drubbing that gave El Tri its first win on American soil against the United States since 1999.
"I could make excuses, but when it comes down to it, I think we just lost our composure," U.S. striker Brian Ching said. "They're a good team and they punished us. We just couldn't get our composure back. Be it a young team, be it guys playing a lot of minutes. No real excuse."
It can be argued that the penalty call that opened the scoring was questionable, or flat-out wrong, but it cannot be argued how thoroughly and mercilessly the Mexicans demolished an American team that was picked apart by the fast and skillful feet of Mexican phenom Giovani dos Santos.
The United States had its chances to score first and put the pressure on Mexico in the first half, but every American shot went wide or high. In fact, the Americans probably enjoyed the better of the play in the first half, but had nothing to show for it.
Mexico didn't fare much better early on, with Dos Santos struggling to find teammates to connect with, or finding teammates capable of finishing (such as Alberto Medina, who was replaced at halftime). El Tri managed just three shots to the U.S. team's seven, and looked far from dangerous.
Things changed after halftime, when Mexican head coach Javier Aguirre inserted Carlos Vela at forward and gave Dos Santos the freedom to attack from the wings. The Mexicans began finding cracks in the U.S. defense immediately. The Americans still had their chance to take control, with Robbie Rogers missing a close-range chance in the 48th minute, but that was the last good chance the U.S. team had before a call that set the tone for Mexico's romp.
Dos Santos received a pass in the penalty area with his back to goal and with Jay Heaps on his back, and as Dos Santos turned to his right, he caught Heaps in the face with a clear elbow. Heaps collapsed backwards, as did Dos Santos when he attempted to lean on the U.S. defender. Referee Courtney Campbell called the penalty against Heaps, giving Gerardo Torrado a penalty in the 57th minute and Mexico momentum that it would take full advantage of.
"The area where we didn't do well enough was our response to the first goal," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "I think the first half we played pretty well, and now when the second half starts you obviously want to build on that.
"We had one very good chance at the start of the second half when Robbie Rogers hit one over. But now, when we get down, it's about your ability to make sure that the game doesn't become a free-for-all, where the other team has all sorts of space and opportunities, where your numbers aren't good enough in the back when the ball turns over."
The U.S. midfield that had been so steady throughout the tournament suddenly lost its composure and began turning the ball over to a Mexican team built to counterattack. Perkins kept the Americans in the match with two clutch saves just three minutes after the opening goal, but the blood was in the water and Mexico never let up. When Stuart Holden lazily lost a ball in the Mexico half of the field, Dos Santos raced toward goal before feeding Vela for Mexico's second goal.
The turnovers kept coming for the Americans, who chased Mexico's attackers helplessly in the final minutes of the match in a scene that looked more like a USA-Mexico match from 20 years ago than at the tail end of a 10-match stretch of domination on American soil by the U.S. team against Mexico.
"We didn't help ourselves," Perkins said. "We were very discombobulated and our shape just wasn't there.
"We felt we were where we wanted to be and had control of what we wanted to control at halftime. We exposed ourselves way too much in the second half. Just silly things and they punished us for it."
In the end, the U.S. Gold Cup team was exposed for the inexperienced and attack-deficient squad it really was. The departures of Charlie Davies and Benny Feilhaber stripped the Americans of much of the attacking quality on the squad, and only a pair of gutsy team efforts in the quarters and semis allowed such a short-handed U.S. team to reach the final. In fact, it can be argued that the U.S. team didn't face any of the tournament's best teams until the final, with Costa Rica and Canada on the Mexican side of the bracket.
Even with all that, the U.S. team still had its chances, but was finally punished for squandering quality scoring chances, something the team did throughout the tournament. Rogers, Holden and Kyle Beckerman all missed open looks on Sunday after having converted similar opportunities during the Gold Cup. The forward tandem of Ching and Davy Arnaud was also ineffective and applied little pressure to a Mexican defense that could hardly be called imposing.
The Mexico victory not only snapped Mexico's 10-year, 11-match winless streak vs. the United States on American soil, it gives El Tri some confidence heading into the World Cup qualifier vs. the Americans on Aug. 12. How the defeat will impact the U.S. team remains to be seen considering only one or two of the U.S. players who played on Sunday are expected to even be with the team on Aug. 12, but listening to Ching talk, he believes Sunday's loss will provide the United States with plenty of motivation.
"I'm not in that locker room and I don't know what they're thinking, but if they think the next game's going to be anything like this they've got another thing coming," Ching said of what Mexico will take from Sunday's victory. "You look at anybody in the United States, this loss has got to anger you.
"I'm pissed. If you're an American and you're not pissed then there's something wrong with you. We've just got to channel this anger, use it, and bring it with us on Aug. 12."
Player ratings (scale of 1-10):
GK, Troy Perkins, 5.5 -- Saved the U.S. team repeatedly but he had no chance of stopping the onslaught. Definitely did well enough in the Gold Cup to lock up the No. 3 U.S. goalkeeper slot.
D, Jay Heaps, 2 -- Just when you thought his performance versus Haiti couldn't be topped for horrendousness. The penalty call on him was harsh, but he was severely overmatched.
D, Heath Pearce, 3.5 -- Worst performance of an otherwise good Gold Cup.
D, Clarence Goodson, 5 -- Couldn't be blamed too much for Mexico's counterattack overrunning the defense. Enjoyed an impressive tournament, though this last game is certainly forgettable.
D, Chad Marshall, 5 -- The U.S. team's best defender all tournament, he shackled Dos Santos in the first half but even he couldn't slow Mexico's onslaught on the wings.
M, Stuart Holden, 3.5 -- For the first time this tournament Holden looked like the inexperienced player he is. Some inexcusable turnovers during the Mexico deluge.
M, Kyle Beckerman, 3.5 -- Did well in the first half but disappeared in the second half and looked overwhelmed by the game. Worst showing of an otherwise very good Gold Cup.
M, Logan Pause, 3 -- Never seemed to get a grip on the game.
M, Robbie Rogers, 3 -- Had two good chances, including one great look, but couldn't finish. Was largely invisible otherwise.
F, Brian Ching, 3.5 -- First game this tournament where he didn't create any chances.
F, Davy Arnaud, 3 -- Second straight poor performance makes you wonder if he'll ever get another shot with the national team.
F, Kenny Cooper, 3 -- Invisible, but mainly because the midfield melted down and disappeared.
M, Santino Quaranta, 3 -- Also a victim of the disappearing midfield.
M, Sam Cronin, N/A -- Came in too late to do anything.
Ives Galarcep covers the U.S. national team and MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.