MEXICO CITY -- The U.S. men's national team came to Estadio Azteca on Wednesday with a long list of agendas. The U.S. was aiming to make history, win its first game in Mexico, cripple an archrival and move within striking distance of a sixth straight World Cup berth. The Americans did make some history of sorts, but by the end of the match, the U.S. team was treated to more of the same in Mexico.
Although Miguel Sabah's 82nd-minute game winner came off a fortunate deflection of a Jay DeMerit block, he still buried the chance, giving the Mexicans a well-deserved 2-1 victory and dropping the Americans to 0-19-1 in Estadio Azteca.
"It's a tight game and a fair score," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "It's a tough loss to have so many guys work so hard and then give up a late goal.
"The feeling inside is one of great disappointment because the idea that now you can still walk away with a point and everybody gives everything they have is important for any team."
The U.S. had looked like it just might be able to finally win in Mexico when Charlie Davies scored a ninth-minute goal to give the U.S. team the first lead it ever held on
Mexican soil. However, rather than rattle the Mexicans, the goal sparked "El Tri" into a different gear. Mexico almost always wins the possession battle against the Americans, but on Wednesday the Mexicans dominated it. El Tri created countless dangerous chances as Giovani Dos Santos and Andres Guardado wreaked havoc on the wings.
The Americans were ultimately doomed by their inability to deal with Mexico's relentless attack and their inability to find any consistent or effective possession. Both were a direct result of the lost battle in midfield, where the quartet of Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark and Clint Dempsey delivered a disappointing performance. The U.S. deficiency in the middle of the field was compounded by the quality performances of its Mexican midfield counterparts.
Whether it was Gerardo Torrado winning countless tackles, Israel Castro burying a beautiful long-range equalizer, Guardado running the U.S. right flank ragged or Dos Santos putting on a show as a right-sided terror, every Mexican midfielder outplayed his opposite number.
That advantage gave Mexico the better of the play for the much of the match, put the U.S. back line under intense pressure and left the American forwards starving for service with the exception of Donovan's beautiful pass on Davies' goal.
That the match was still tied with eight minutes to go was a testament to the resolve of the U.S. central defense as well as Mexico's poor finishing. However, it was clear for much of the day that Mexico had come to win, while the Americans looked content to hold on for a tie.
There were some valid complaints about the officiating, which seemed to favor Mexico throughout the afternoon. However, the match wasn't decided by the referee, but rather by a Mexican team that played better and made a play when it needed it. Efrain Juarez's effort on his run and cross helped create the game winner, as did Donovan's defensive breakdown on the same play. It was a play that symbolized the afternoon perfectly.
Aside from the good early start, the U.S. team's best moment came midway through the second half, after Stuart Holden and Benny Feilhaber replaced Clark and Brian Ching. Their inclusion helped quell the Mexican dominance and give the Americans some sorely needed energy. For a brief while there was even a real feeling that the U.S. might be able to find a late game winner as the Mexicans grew more desperate for their own winner.
"We were pleased with the timing of the subs, with the energy they brought on, and when we made our last sub with Jozy, we felt there was an opportunity to get a goal," Bradley said. "Both teams were still thinking about a win there and yet, honestly, you're thinking about a win, but you're doing it also with the idea that as the road team in a World Cup qualifier a point today is very good."
However, with the Americans looking well on their way to getting a point as Mexico began to fade late, Juarez's run from midfield provided the killer spark. Mexico's winner left the Americans ruing another missed opportunity to make some real history, rather than simply settling for a footnote in the history of continued U.S. misery at Azteca.
Player ratings (scale of 1-10):
GK, Tim Howard, 6 -- Couldn't do anything on either goal but he made some important saves to keep the tie alive as long as he could.
D, Oguchi Onyewu, 7 -- The U.S. team's best player, Onyewu stifled countless Mexican attacks and dominated the penalty area. The only negative was a clumsy yellow that will force him to miss the next U.S. qualifier (versus El Salvador on Sept. 5).
D, Jay DeMerit, 5 -- Held his own and was unlucky on the game-winning goal. Should hold on to the starting role he earned in South Africa.
D, Steve Cherundolo, 3 -- Abused badly by Andres Guardado in the first half, he improved in the second half but still struggled to deal with Mexico's speed on the flank. It will be tough for him to hold off Jonathan Spector for the starting job after this performance.
D, Carlos Bocanegra, 4 -- Had his hands full with Dos Santos all day, made a few key stops, but broke down on the game-winning goal and could have closed the space on Mexico's opening goal. Still a viable left back option, but will always struggle against speedy players like Dos Santos.
M, Landon Donovan, 5 -- Started so promisingly with his great pass on Davies' goal, but slowly disappeared from the match and failed to make the overall impact expected of him. His letdown on the game-winning goal was terrible, and he was also dispossessed on the sequence that led to the Castro goal.
M, Michael Bradley, 5 -- A far cry from his dream two-goal performance in February. Was outplayed by Torrado and Castro, committed some unforced turnovers early and didn't connect offensively. Did better in the second half, particularly when Benny Feilhaber and Stuart Holden entered the match.
M, Ricardo Clark, 4.5 -- Covered ground well and made some tackles, but with the ball he was unsure and ineffective, which led to him being the only midfielder subbed out.
M, Clint Dempsey, 3 -- Didn't contribute defensively and didn't have an impact offensively. Was a veritable ghost, which was disappointing for someone with a reputation as a big-game player. Got more involved as a forward, but still didn't threaten.
F, Charlie Davies, 7 -- Joined a short list of Americans to score in Mexico and provided a very encouraging performance. His goal was quality and he was the U.S. team's most dangerous player for most of the day.
F, Brian Ching, 4 -- Nobody suffered more from the midfield's ineffectiveness than Ching, who was reduced to battling for long balls in order to muster some offense. Did his share defensively, but was a nonfactor otherwise.
M, Stuart Holden, 5.5. -- A true impact sub. His energy helped neutralize the Mexican left flank and he even got involved in the attack, delivering a beautiful cross that deserved a finish.
M, Benny Feilhaber, 4.5 -- Helped give the Americans some better possession, but didn't have the attacking impact you'd like.
F, Jozy Altidore, N/A -- Didn't play enough for a grade.
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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.