And now, it seems to be justified as Mexico beat the USA 2-1 in Azteca Stadium. The score line does not reflect the dominance of the Mexican team. Any other statistic measuring offensive power, be it time of possession, shots, shots on goal, passing percentage, what have you, shows that the Mexicans dominated this game despite a great early start from the Americans.
First off, I was proven wrong about one aspect about Charlie Davies--he can finish a sandwich. His goal was fed off a brilliant pass from Landon Donovan, but he had two defenders draped on his back, a keeper charging at him, and he slotted a clever finish just inside the far post at a run. It was impressive.
And look, yes, Azteca Stadium is a difficult place to win--not only for the US, but just about any team in the CONCACAF (of course, the rest of the CONCACAF are not exactly world-beaters anywhere, but let's just give the Mexican Home Stadium its due--it is tough to win there). If you didn't watch the game, and you didn't hear Marcello Balboa say, "The altitude, the smog, the 100,000 fans" a dozen times, than I will say it: The altitude (over a mile high), the smog (Mexico City) and the fans make it a tough stadium. All reasons for being a little unsure about Team USA's chances to break the streak of never winning there, especially with this team.
In the wake of USA's work in the Confederations Cup, where they knocked off Spain, there seems to be this implicit suggestion weaving through the commentary of mainstream media in which a troubled US team has suddenly righted the ship, and that all the positions are figured out and Bob Bradley is a brilliant coach who is going to lead this team to glory. I don't think a good run in what is a essentially a tournament of Friendlies should be driving the discourse. This game was a chance to prove nay-sayers (like me) that this team is the Best Team the US can put on the field, and that Bradley is the coach of the future.
Here are the things I saw, and take from it what you will. I'll be linking to some other commentary that I have not read myself yet, to make sure I'm coming into the next paragraphs unswayed by what someone else saw. Here are the factors I saw, in order, of the reasons that the US lost this game.
1. Defensive tactics. After taking a 1-0 lead before the 10th minute in the game, the US went with a defensive strategy that ceded the Mexicans the first 60 yards of the field--midfielders compacted into the defensive third, and were either slow to challenge, or did not challenge Mexican offensive players until they had gotten past the US' circle at midfield. Now, perhaps this was a tactic to save some energy in an oxygen poor environment. What it resulted in was a Mexican team that was free to move the ball at will, unchallenged, for minutes at a time. Mexican midfielders were able to spot runners without anyone in their face, no one trying to take the ball away--it helped settle the Mexicans after a very unsettling early goal. Because the midfield was so compacted into the defense, when the US did clear a ball (usually Oguchi Onyewu, who was absolute badass in this game) it got cleared to either empty space, or directly to a Mexican player. Which still leads to fatigue, because the US defense is still running around, still getting gassed, but in their own defensive third. For this style of play to work, there has to be some confident short passes out of the defense. That didn't happen. Another way out, though dangerous, is to dribble out. And that leads me, sadly, to point #2.
2. Officiating. It was extremely unbalanced in Mexico's favor until the latter stages of the second half. I don't like blaming referees for results, and in fact, the US tactics led to this, but let's be clear--Landon Donovan, dribbling a ball out of his defensive third, was clearly fouled. I saw it in real time, no close-up necessary. His jersey jumped backwards as a Mexican midfielder reached out and grabbed it. It took Donovan off the ball, and the counter-attack was on. It led, directly, to the first goal by Mexico (an absolute thunderclap from unheralded Mexican midfielder Israel Castro.) And while that was the most egregious of the bunch, it was made clear that an American Yellow Card was easier to get than a Mexican Yellow Card. Essentially exact same fouls drew different levels of punishment. Unacceptable in a game this important. Unacceptable, but to be expected, and to be planned for.
3. Carlos Bocanegra. I love Carlos, but he was slow to block the first goal (but again, that was an absolute thunderclap from 30 yards out). More telling, I think he was way out of position on the second goal. Presumably he was gassed, and looked at the play behind him, and thought, "I can't get there in time" and proceded not to try. I don't know if it would have made a difference, but he was clearly out of position, and made no attempt to get back in.
4. The Center Midfield. I have never, ever been a huge fan of the Spazzy Combo of Coach's Son Michael Bradley and Rico Clark. Perhaps, again, because they were hamstrung by the tactic to compact the defensive third. They were, aside from about thirty seconds each, almost completely invisible. Also, they had a tendency to focus on the ball, and double team the man with the ball without much success. The first goal is as much on them as it is on Carlos Bocanegra.
Summary: The US has never won in Azteca, and this team is not the best team that has ever been down to Mexico City, no matter what you have read. Brian Ching is not a real first team striker, and the center midfield combo of Bradley/Clark are not first team players either--not a for a squad that has real designs on winning the World Cup. None of those players compare with the key players on any of the Top Five Squads in the World, and it may take that type of talent to win in Azteca. But the tactics the US employed, masterminded by Bob Bradley, were, to be charitable, curious. After the US took the lead, the tactics looked to be of a team determined not to lose--give up shots, give up playing any sort of possession ball, retreat to a shell, and blast clearances that may or may not lead to counter-attacks. With 20 minutes left in the game, and the scored tied 1-1, the US tactic seemed to change, as evidenced by the substitutions--all three subs were offensive oriented--Benny Feilhaber (who didn't play well, but has certainly played well enough to be starting over Rico Clark), Stuart Holden (who launched the most dangerous cross of the game that Charlie Davies should have put away), and Jozy Altidore are all offensive subs. Not one defensive substitute.
No wonder then, I guess, that the US defense looked gassed at the end of the game, and reacted poorly when Landon Donovan was beat off the dribble by Efrain Juarez. There was the risky slide tackle from Jay DeMerit, when he probably could have stood up Juarez. There was Bocanegra yards out of the play, and just watching as Miguel Sabah lined up a shot from six yards out with no one in front of him.
Of course, as I mentioned earlier--there were some horrible officiating decisions, including a yellow card that is going to keep Oguchi out of the next qualifier.
Here's what other people say:
Players Ratings by Zac Lee Rigg (does not include coaching)
Martin Rogers blames the referee and the fans.
That's On Point writes a longer take than mine! Cardillo of That's On Point is an exhaustive writer, and makes connections that I didn't make. I don't agree 100% on just about any take Cardillo gives, but he makes his points with intelligence and savvy, and makes me re-think my own takes. That said, he's wrong to give Bradley a pass, and to praise the substitutions. But it is a hell of a write-up. Read it.