For fans of Mexico this was a game that reinvigorated belief in their team. For neutrals, this was one of the most exciting international finals in modern times. For fans of the U.S., that was a double-you-over gut-punch that left questions unanswered. Questions such as:
What do we make of the U.S. tactics?
While Mexico’s coach, Jose Manuel de la Torre, stayed with the same team that defeated Honduras in the semifinal, the U.S. coach Bob Bradley shook thing up a bit by starting striker Freddy Adu.
In the previous game, Adu showed the skills that years ago made every U.S. fan believe he was the answer to their prayers. Adu showed flashes of it against Mexico, and Mexico took him seriously, triple-teaming him every time he was within striking distance of the goal.
It was a gutsy call by Bradley to take the game to Mexico, the tactic being that such an aggressive approach would take Mexico out of their game, that the best defense is a good offense.
It quickly turned into an end-to-end game with the U.S. having little control of the midfield. Given the skill level of Mexico’s players, the U.S. was never going to dominate possession but Mexico was getting the best chances as well.
Just six minutes in, the U.S.’ Jermaine Jones lost possession in the midfield. Two passes later it turned into a shot that Giovani dos Santos sent just wide.
But while Mexico controlled possession and the pace of the game, to the surprise of many, the U.S. took the early lead. It came from their first attack, and it was a counter-strike that highlighted the team’s strengths.
Steve Cherundolo and Adu worked the ball down the right side, won a corner kick that Michael Bradley nicely placed into the opposite side with a glancing header. It was beautiful in its power, efficiency and ruthlessness.
The play took advantage of Mexico’s weakness, height and strength, and took advantage of U.S. strengths, height and athleticism. Five minutes into the second half, Carlos Bocanegra had a similar opportunity off a corner that went just wide.
If set plays are your key advantage, then it’s not just a matter of scoring off set plays; it’s a matter of earning the kicks in the first place. It’s about solid, punishing defense and hard counter-strikes that force the opposition to scramble, pushing forward, getting your body over the ball and creating fouls.
The U.S.' inability to hold a defensive line was a weakness that Mexico exploited from the start. Yes, the early injury to Cherundolo made things worse, but even before that they looked vulnerable and unsure as to where they should stand as a defensive line. That led to a chance off a diagonal pass in the second minute of the game.
After the injury, Coach Bradley subbed in Jonathan Bornstein on the left back and sent Eric Lichaj to right.
Did he have options? He could have subbed Jonathan Spector to the right or Maurice Edu at center. Tim Ream was also available, but after his game against Panama, he wasn’t ready.
Bornstein was eaten up by the Mexico offense, and while hindsight says it was a bad sub, Bornstein had solid games in the World Cup, although a final against Mexico is a tough place to make your first entry in a tournament.
Tactics-wise, the U.S. paid the price for going toe-to-toe with a quicker, more skillful team. Lesson learned. So, where to from here?
When the U.S. went up 2-0, they continued with their wide-open, attacking strategy and looked for a third. That cost them.
The alternative would have been to play a defensive game by bunkering down and playing 10 men behind the ball. It’s ugly and un-American in sport spirit, but it can be effective.
That style of play requires conditioning, physically and especially mentally. It’s mentally harder to play without the ball, absorb pressure and focus on zonal marking.
It takes time to bring the concentration together in a team, something national team coaches have little of. And it takes an identity forged in spirit and team personality.
What can the U.S. take away from this loss?
The Mexico team is the best they’ve had in a generation, and given how young they are and how well their youth teams are currently doing at the international level, they will be a top-tier contender for years to come, especially after getting some warm up matches against the world’s elite in the Confederations Cup.
There’s no shame in losing to a better team, but more importantly, this gives the U.S. an opportunity to play against a quality opponent. The U.S. needs to take advantage of that.
During the second half, the U.S. had extended periods of possession and controlled the game’s pace as Mexico, either through fatigue or design, sat back. The U.S. was down 3-2 but their confidence was on the rise, at least until dos Santos’ work of art put Mexico up by two goals.
That was a part of the usual ebb and flow of the U.S. game. Their conditioning gives them an upper hand in the second half when other teams are tiring. This has happened time and time again in the World Cup, as the U.S. came from behind.
It needs to be a part of the game plan: grind out the first half. Take it to them in the second.
Talent-wise, Michael Bradley is a midfielder who can play from one box to the other with the talents and soccer intelligence of Steven Gerrard and Jack Wilshere. He’s a player for the future.
Jermaine Jones was another player that showed his potential and had interplay that led to Landon Donovan’s great goal. Rumor has it Roma is competing with the Blackburn Rovers for Jermaine Jones, either of which would give him valuable experience to bring to the U.S. team.
The interplay between Clint Dempsey and Donovan, switching frequently between the center and the left was exciting and potent throughout the tournament, while Tim Howard showed why he is one of the best goalkeepers in the world’s toughest league and Freddy Adu showed why so many thought he would be the first U.S. world class striker.
At this point in the development of the U.S. team, experience is what’s lacking, and experience is the most important factor in determining a country’s international record.
This should be the tournament when the U.S. loses its naivety, when its fans and writers stop deriding the team for not being at world-class skill levels, when fans stop clamoring for the easiest solution and when the U.S. team plays to their strengths, understanding that at this point in their young history they can either have open-ended attacking soccer or a winning scoreboard.