If I were trying to get a non-soccer fan into the sport, then I would show him a tape of the Gold Cup Final. Cup finals have a reputation among fans as being disappointing. At the end of a long competition, with the players both tired and under tremendous pressure not to make a big mistake that will be remembered for generations, the odds are generally stacked against a quality match. Last night’s Gold Cup Final was a major exception to the rule. Maybe Mexico and the US produce good finals because they aren’t really challenged by the rest of CONCACAF in the lead-up to the final (not unlike Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten of the 70s). Maybe Mexico and the US both have go-for-it mentalities that mean that they take risks on a top stage. Whatever the reason, last night’s match was not the first time that the US and Mexico had produced a memorable match on this stage (the ‘07 Final was also excellent, settled by Benny Feilhaber’s phenomenal volley), but this was the best. The US lost, but I feel a sense of pride that the US was part of a spectacle that the entire futbol-loving world could appreciate. We forget this sometimes, but sports is about entertainment. If our team contributed to a game that entertained its audience above and beyond the norm, then the natural result should be a feeling of pride, right?
I have had this feeling of the redeeming defeat before. Off the top of my head: ‘88 Hawks-Celtics Eastern Conference Semis, ‘91 Braves-Twins World Series, the Euro ‘04 Netherlands-Czech Republic match, and the ‘04 Michigan-Texas Rose Bowl. The two key elements of this phenomenon: a transcendent performance from at least one player on the losing team and the winning team being a great side worthy of respect. The latter reason is what keeps out experiences like Michigan-Northwestern ‘00 (giving up 54 points to Northwestern can never have a silver lining) and Chelsea-Barca ‘05 (losing to Jose Mourinho can never have a silver lining because the pervading sense is “we have let down the right-thinking futbol world). Here, both elements are present, at least in modified form.
While the US did not have a great performance from any of its players last night, it did have a surprisingly good performance from Freddie Adu. Adu followed his turn as a decisive sub in the semifinal against Panama with a very good game against our arch-rival. Here is Brian Phillps on Adu:
On the pitch, the strangest development in this year's tournament was the return of Freddy Adu, America's littlest international soccer zombie. Adu is, of course, famous as the teen phenom who signed with D.C. United at age 14, was heralded as the savior of American soccer, and then, after a long skid through Europe, wound up wasting away on an obscure team in the Turkish second division. At the age of 22, he was seen as hopelessly washed up. Fast forward to this June. Brought on as a surprise substitute in the second half of the Gold Cup semifinal against Panama—his first international action since the early Pleistocene era—Adu made a brilliant pass to help set up Clint Dempsey's winning goal. In the final, Adu lofted the corner kick that Michael Bradley headed in for the game's first goal. He played extremely well throughout the match, fending off two and three defenders at a time to emerge as one of the few American positives on the night. There are no second acts in American lives. There is only the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Adu isn’t going to turn into the superstar that we all dreamed he would be, but on the evidence of the last two matches, he is far from done as a player. This is a big deal because he would fill the role that has been missing for the US for years: a central attacking midfielder. Ideally, Bob Bradley would play a 4-2-3-1. He figured this out after the Nats’ jaded performances in the groups stage of the tournament. With modern football trending away from the 4-4-2 and with the US having less-than-dominant central midfielders, we cannot get away with having only two guys in the middle. The problem then becomes the fact that we don’t have a player to fill the key role of the central attacking midfielder in the band of three. That player acts as the bridge to the defensive midfielders, supplies the outside attacking midfielders, and should be able to hit the killer pass to the strikers. He is the keystone for the offense. Kaka plays this role for Brazil, Wesley Sneijder plays it for the Netherlands and Inter, and Mesut Ozil plays it for Germany and Real Madrid. Cesc Fabregas plays it for Arsenal (hence the Gunners’ dogged retention of a player who clearly wants to leave) and as a sub for Spain. Wayne Rooney and Leo Messi both play in this area for their clubs, albeit in formations other than a 4-2-3-1. Pep Guardiola and Alex Ferguson have both groomed their best attacking players from other positions (Rooney as a striker; Messi as a right winger) into a role where they float in between the opponents’ defensive and midfield lines, the spot of maximal irritancy to the opposition.
Bob Bradley faced a situation where he has a roster that is a better fit in the 4-2-3-1, but didn’t have a central attacking midfielder. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones are reasonably good defensive midfielders, but struggle when they man the middle by themselves. Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey are natural outside attacking midfielders who occasionally drift inside. With Stuart Holden out, Bradley’s only option was to play Sacha Kljeistan in the hole and he just isn’t a world-class player. The team played better after the formation change, but it still lacked verve from this keystone spot.
Enter Adu. I’ll admit to being one of the people who scoffed when he made the roster. I wondered if Bob Bradley had a death wish when he brought Adu into a deadlocked semifinal against Panama. However, this move prove to be inspired. Freddie had the key pass to unlock the Panamanian defense in the semifinal and then he was our best player in the Final, winning the corner for and then assisting on the opener and then playing a key role in the move that put the US up 2-0. I started off the tournament hoping for the end of Bob Bradley, but by the end, I am giving him credit for making a gutsy decision that paid off in a major way. The US needs a player like Adu to fill a role and if he can keep up with the form he showed at the end of the Gold Cup, then the Nats are in better shape than they would have been if they would have muddled through to a Gold Cup win with Klejstan in the lineup.
Our Friends to the South
The second element of my feeling that the loss was an honorable defeat is that it’s no shame to lose to this Mexico side. Mexico are not especially strong in the back, especially with a third-string keeper and both Rafa Marquez and Carlos Salcido crocked. However, they are dynamite going forward. In six matches in the tournament, El Tri outscored their opponents 22-4. Their lineup fits together nicely, with Chicharito playing the role of striker to perfection (I compared him to Pippo Inzaghi during the game) and Gio Dos Santos (looking way better than he did when he emerged from La Masia four years ago in Bojan’s shadow), Pablo Barrera, and Andres Guardado swarming behind him. Add in a solid midfield and you have a team that put up scores against minnows that one would expect from a world class team. I’m bummed that the US won’t be going to the Confederations Cup, but I have to admit that the futbol fan in me is looking forward to seeing this Mexico side up against Spain and Brazil.
I’ll also admit that, like the New Orleans Saints, I have never been able to make myself dislike Mexico as a rival. Partly, it’s down to the fact that their playing style is attractive. I’ll take a game based off of short, slick passing any day. Partly, it’s down to the fact that I feel political sympathy for Mexicans, who generally come to this country to work their tails doing jobs that Americans won’t do, and are rewarded with this. And partly, it’s down to Mexican futbol fans, who are some of the best in this country of any stripe. If I got into soccer in the first place because the atmosphere at the games is the closest fit for SEC football, then it would only stand to reason that I would appreciate a fan base ($) that follows its team all over the country and lives and dies with the fortunes of El Tri. You have to respect a fan base that showers such unconditional love on a team that has never made it past the quarterfinals of the World Cup or the round of 16 of a World Cup away from home. Any SEC football fan should be able to watch Mexico play at the Rose Bowl and appreciate the atmosphere.*
* – The venue for the match also helped in producing the spectacle. It’s rare that CONCACAF gets anything right, but they made a great move in setting up a tournament to maximize the chance of these teams play at that stadium. There’s really nothing like the Rose Bowl at dusk. It’s not a multi-tiered monstrosity with the upper decks in the troposphere in order to make way for a passel of luxury boxes. Just one bowl with the San Gabriel Mountains in the background. And as a Michigan fan, I was quite prepared to watch my pace-challenged team blow a lead and lose in the Rose Bowl to the delight of the locals.
The Stumbling Elephant in the Room
Of course, in order to have an enthralling match with chances galore, you have to have shaky backlines and the US supplied that in spades. Here’s what I wrote after the Nats went out of the World Cup:
The United States lost to Ghana in extra time on Saturday afternoon. In so doing, we lost a good chance to make a deep run in this World Cup. However, the primary reason why the US lost demonstrates that if the Nats would have made the semifinal, it would have represented a level of achievement that exceeds our talent. To put it bluntly, our center backs are not very good, so we can have no complaints that we are not going to finish this tournament as one of the four (or eight) best teams in the world…
In the end, it is just about impossible for a team to survive on the top international level with suspect center backs. Our three options at center back were a player who has missed the entire club season with a major knee injury, a starter for a club side in the second tier of English football who was discovered playing amateur games, and a left back for a team in Ligue Un. The U.S. has top class goalies, midfielders, and attackers; the current generation lacks top class defenders and that's why our World Cup ended in the Round of 16.
While the central defenders were the issue in South Africa, the left and right backs were the issue in the Gold Cup Final. Steve Cherundolo, who played quite well during the tournament, got a knock early and sent the US defense completely off-kilter. Jonathan Bornstein came on, which to the Mexicans represented an “Attack Here!” neon sign and 2-0 became 2-4. No one in defense acquitted themselves well, but Bornstein and Eric Lichaj were routinely abused. Part of the reason why I’ve left the “Blame Bradley” chorus for the moment is that he isn’t an alchemist, so he can’t make this collection of defenders work. That said, they did look disorganized after the injury, so it’s not like Bradley is totally blameless.
So where are we after this tournament? We may have a solution in the central attacking midfield spot, but the gaping hole at left back remains and the prospect of Chicharito making runs around our center backs for the next ten years is a depressing prospect.