With a stunning victory, the old order was restored. And, sorry American fans — we’re talking about Mexico.
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In Costa Rica, at the intimidating, plastic-pitch covered Ricardo Saprissa stadium, Mexico demolished a team that, up until Saturday evening, had been the Hexagonal leaders.
Sparked by a fantastic individual goal from Gio Dos Santos, Mexico took the Ticos by the throat and never loosened up. So comprehensive was Mexico’s display that the home fans started to file out with a good twenty minutes left to play.
Credit coach Javier Aguirre with another Lazarus act. But equal measure must be given to circumstance. Mexican confidence is currently sky-high thanks to some poor decisions by their biggest rival.
The USA’s decision to throw a C-team out in the Gold Cup final led to the Americans conceding a huge psychological advantage. The USA is no longer invincible on home soil, and Mexico got five examples to prove it. Following that up with a disappointing 2-1 loss at the Azteca, the USA demonstrated that their “A” team weren’t all they were built up to be, either.
Teams have noticed. On Saturday night, El Salvador, a team that has never won on American soil and hadn’t beat the USA since 1992 anywhere, ran the Yanks ragged, nearly nabbing the equalizer at the death.
The Americans escaped Sandy, Utah with a 2-1 win and three valuable points to be sure. But this was another in an unbroken line of ragged, schizophrenic performances. What we’re seeing is an American team limping to South Africa.
Once again, the Americans conceded the first goal. Once again, the defense failed to communicate and the midfield looked shaky. The best player on the field — as usual — was Landon Donovan. But the goalscorers, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, did little else on the night. Michael Bradley had another vexing outing, and aside from Charlie Davies and Benny Feilhaber, there didn’t seem to be a lot of drive.
And when Feilhaber was inexplicably subbed for Kyle Beckerman, the team nearly collapsed.
And have we mentioned this was at home against a team that is tied on points for last place in the Hexagonal?
Blaise Pascal once wrote: “It is natural for the mind to believe and the will to love; so that, for want of true objects, they must attach themselves to false.” His point? Humans are well seduced by fantasies, in spite of evidence to the contrary. He would have a field day with American soccer, whose fans fall over one another in a mad scramble to explain away mediocrity.
The facts are pretty plain — the USA is currently an average national team. They routinely lose to quality sides and have now begun to regress at home. They lack significant depth at too many positions, and seem unable to overcome adversity. This is a program which, according to U.S. Soccer’s most recently available financial reports, has had some $27 million lavished upon it and has a coach who is receiving half a mil a year to lose five of six to quality teams.
These financials dwarf the USA’s neighbors in CONCACAF, some of whom can’t even get regular meals. Yet, the Americans have been unable to imprint any sort of stamp upon the region —and were forced to accept a 2-2 draw against a Haitian team that not too long ago was living en masse in its coach’s house in Florida.
So why do fans excuse them? Yes, the Americans took three points. That they looked miserable seems to fly right by.
Sure, the USA didn’t have some players available due to injury or suspension — but the Americans are not the only ones to suffer from such impediments. Sure, USA played with the same kind of heart and determination that has become its hallmark — but how does that distinguish them from an El Salvador side that was equally desperate and perhaps more vibrant?
And then there’s the hoary old saw that CONCACAF is a tough region in which to win games. Really? Does anyone truly believe that El Salvador would be competitive against Serbia?
Instead of making excuses, let’s examine how the players on the field performed. Across the board, the answer is ‘not well.’
Jonathan Spector is a fine example. Here’s a kid who can cross the ball, create plays and spark an offense. And yet, he is made to look miserable by a back line that seems unable to track back. Jonathan Bornstein? Horrible. Chad Marshall? Surplus goods.
Carlos Bocanegra? He’s only in the middle because Oguchi Onyewu was suspended and Jay DeMerit wrenched his groin. And yet, you’d think the captain — Bocanegra! — would open his mouth once in a while. Perhaps he’d signal that he’s been beaten and needs help. Instead, he seems oddly silent, allowing the play to collapse around him and creating one mess after another.
Another is Michael Bradley. We’ve defended him because he is in an untenable position. His father is the coach, and no matter what he does, he’s going to take some heat. But that was predicated on his ability to perform. Since he has not performed lately, it’s time to ask why he isn’t sitting? He has a case of the Agoos — trying to overcompensate for bad decisions. Currently, he’s giving the ball away and leaving his position too often, and he needs to be replaced.
Still another is Clint Dempsey. Yep, he scored. Bully for him. He did nothing else. If you want a Gio Saverese on the field for 90 minutes, he’s currently your man. But right now, the load is on Donovan’s shoulders, and against a good team, that’s a big liability.
We’re inclined to cut Jozy Altidore a little more slack, but we can’t help but note that he was out of position and aimless much of the night as well. Is it unfair to pick on the scorers? Some will say it is. But we’re looking to the future.
Finally, there’s Jonathan Bornstein. If there was ever a kid who wraps up the phrase “lack of depth,” he’s it. We feel bad for him, because he is clearly being asked to do way too much. Again, this is a failure of coaching.
Players who are asked to do things they cannot do are doomed to fail. Instead, Bornstein is going to be ripped all next week. Instead of being able to grow and learn, he’s just been torched. That’s ridiculous in a program that needs every warm body it can get.
Make no mistake — the coaching staff is ultimately responsible. And if you believe this excuses the players from culpability — to be fair, it might — there are many “good” teams with bad coaches (think France and Argentina) who are not performing up to snuff. There is something to be said for a coach who gets the best out of his charges (Fabio Capello currently is doing just that with an ordinary England group), just as scorn is piled upon coaches who cannot deliver.
Wednesday night, the Americans will face a stiff challenge against the last-placed team in the Hexagonal. The Soca Warriors aren’t a good side — and they know it. New player/coach Russell Latapy admitted as much in comments made to the Federation’s web site, saying, “Realistically, it is very difficult now. We’re in a situation (where) in order to qualify we have to win our three games and we have to depend on other results from the other teams.”
Yet T&T don’t have a horrible record against the USA at home (2-2-4 at Port of Spain compared to a 2-3-15 lifetime record) and the USA have yet to win a road game in this round. The pressure is also squarely on the Americans, who are in a tough battle with current group leaders Honduras, Costa Rica, and Mexico for one of three automatic slots. Costa Rica is expected to rebound against their drubbing by Mexico away at El Salvador, and odds are Mexico’s home form will hold against Honduras.
That’s why it is so critical that the Americans collect their first three road points. Doing so would likely spare them from having to beat Costa Rica at RFK in October and could also put them in the group lead. Failing to take points would mean a very tough game in Honduras followed by a nail-biter in Washington.
Right now, the USA is going to reach the World Cup — but looks like a side that won’t do much of anything once it gets there. And should Costa Rica, Mexico and Honduras outplay the Americans over the final three Hexagonal matches, the USA might find itself having to face an Argentina in a playoff just to get to Johannesburg.
Sadly, that might be what it takes for a program locked in inertia to make the big changes.
At that point, of course, it would be too late.
NOTES: Jay DeMerit did not travel with the team (groin). Conor Casey is available after wisdom teeth surgery.
Jamie Trecker’s newest book, “Love and Blood: At the World Cup with the Footballers, Fans and Freaks” is out now from Harcourt. Jamie is assisted by Jerry and Janice Trecker. Contact Jamie at firstname.lastname@example.org visit his blog and website at www.jamietrecker.com.
The views and opinions expressed by Jamie Trecker do not necessarily reflect those of the Fox Soccer Channel or FoxSoccer.com.