Sports Nut

Mexican Wave

How the U.S. national team got swarmed over by its continental rival.

Javier Hernandez of Mexico is pressured by Jermaine Jones of the United States

On Saturday night, the United States men’s national soccer team lost 4-2 to Mexico in the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the regional championship of North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Between Mexico’s early dominance, Team USA’s shocking surge ahead, and the Americans’ post-halftime futility, the match was a weird miniature of recent domestic soccer history. The United States was terrible (1950-1990 inclusive), then suddenly pretty good (2002 World Cup), then prone to squandering leads (2009 Confederations Cup final vs. Brazil) and stalling (USA-Ghana 2010) after exciting moments (USA-Algeria, also 2010). In the end, American fans were left shaking their heads at a defense that collapsed like a bubble economy—Jonathan Bornstein, who replaced the injured Steve Cherundolo in the eleventh minute, was a housing crisis unto himself—while salivating over the other team’s superior strikers and wondering whether the national team was making any progress at all.

It was Mexico’s second straight win over the United States in a Gold Cup final. And while Saturday’s result—played before a pro-Mexico crowd of 93,420 at the Rose Bowl—wasn’t as crushing as the 5-0 rout in 2009, it still capped a disappointing tournament during which the United States scored a mere nine goals, dropped a match to Panama, and saw its only burgeoning bright spot—a defense that hadn’t conceded in 349 minutes—go dead dark in the final. American fans are now calling for the head of coach Bob Bradley. That, too, is business as usual for Team USA supporters, but the calls are sharper this time around after an embarrassing collapse against the team’s continental rival.

Part of the trouble with assessing Bradley’s performance is that it’s hard to say how important the Gold Cup really is, or how the coach should have approached it. Big-league American sports make it easy. There’s a season, followed by playoffs, followed by a championship. Because the championship is the only championship, winning it is, at least in theory, every team’s goal, every season. Soccer, by contrast, is a patchwork of different competitions, the hierarchies among which are informal and often in flux. At the club level, knockout tournaments run parallel to league campaigns; at the international level, regional tournaments like the Gold Cup are sometimes ends in themselves and sometimes warm-ups for other, bigger contests. Soccer fans face a crisis of choice in deciding what to care about, and, as a result, they have to be incredibly sophisticated when it comes to parsing nuances of prestige. Does the Champions League become more important the season after your club won Serie A? Can Manchester City fans celebrating winning the F.A. Cup—once one of the biggest trophies in the sport, but now decidedly second-tier—in the same season when Manchester United won the Premier League?

And by the same token, how angry can American fans be at failing to win a tournament that, by most estimations, seems to exist somewhere on the blurred border between “meaningful” and “tune-up”? Even by soccer standards, the Gold Cup is an ambiguous curio. It’s a continental championship, which makes it sound important (the European and South American equivalents are among the biggest tournaments in the game) but on a relatively uncompetitive continent (the United States and Mexico have won 10 of 11 championships). It happens every two years rather than every four years, which makes it sound unimportant, but it’s also one of the highest-stakes venues for one of the fiercest rivalries in the game (Team USA and El Trido not get along).

And then there’s the stepping-stone question. The Gold Cup determines qualification for the Confederations Cup, which is not a particularly significant contest in itself but which is traditionally seen as a key warm-up for the particularly significant contest known as the World Cup. So is the Gold Cup important because it’s a tournament that allows teams to qualify for a second tournament that serves as helpful preparation for a third tournament? Let’s get ready to rumble?

If you’re an American coach, the Gold Cup’s ambiguity presents a strange dilemma. Do you pick your best 11, play all-out, and do everything to win it? Or do you give young players some experience, try out new combinations and tactics, and use the tournament to help shape the future? Of the angry American fans I know, half see the tournament one way and half see it the other. Bob Bradley picked a somewhat experimental team but not exactly a future-focused one—28-year-old Chris Wondolowski over 21-year-old Teal Bunbury?—thereby satisfying nobody.

The unsettled status of the Gold Cup does give the competition its own sort of loopy grandeur. Early on in this year’s campaign, five Mexican players, including starting goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, were suspended from the team after testing positive for clenbuterol. Mexican soccer officials blamed the tests on contaminated meat. For the rest of the month, “tainted chicken!” became an ironic rallying cry for American fans. After Landon Donovan scored Team USA’s second goal in the final, he did a chicken dance. Twitter exploded. Then Landon and co. lost. That’s the sort of thing that happens in the Gold Cup.

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.

Unplanned resurrections aside, though, this was a grim night for American soccer. The United States created a few good chances after its strong opening flurry—Clint Dempsey hit the crossbar with a ferocious shot in the second half—but looked helpless for much of the match, failing to hold the ball or resist the Mexican attack. Whatever you think of the Gold Cup, every match against Mexico is important to American fans. In recent years, it’s been possible to look at Mexico as a sort of static foe, one that the U.S. beats at home, loses to at the Azteca, and reliably expects to crash out of the round of 16 in the World Cup. But if the young Mexican attackers who tore through the Rose Bowl on Saturday night—Giovani dos Santos and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez are 22 and 23, respectively—manage to change the pattern, Mexico could resume its position as the bully of CONCACAF while the U.S. national team is busy passing out help-wanted flyers for fullbacks.

It’s too soon to say whether that will happen, of course. And it’s not entirely Bob Bradley’s fault that Cherundolo has no viable backup. But for now, Bradley’s neither-fish-nor-fowl approach to this tournament seems to have left the team unprepared for the final while doing very little to get it ready for 2014. Maybe Freddy Adu can coach?