Mexico restores psyche with confidence-building win
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- After the Mexican national team finally exorcised its demons against the U.S. with a 5-0 pounding of its archrival in Sunday's Gold Cup final at Giants Stadium -- El Tri's first win on American soil in more than a decade -- the attention immediately turned to the Aug. 12 rematch at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City.
That one, of course, is a World Cup qualifier, and the first-choice team U.S. coach Bob Bradley rested during CONCACAF's biennial tourney will be looking to snap an unpleasant streak of its own: The U.S. has never won a game south of the border.
Many thought -- and still think -- it will be as good a chance as the Yanks have ever had. After all, Mexico has struggled mightily in qualifying (it is in fourth place halfway through the docket), and the U.S. regulars are high on confidence coming off a unprecedented runner-up finish at June's FIFA Confederations Cup.
And, for whatever reason, the Americans have enjoyed a clear psychological advantage over their arguably more talented southern neighbors, who had seemed simply incapable of beating the U.S. anywhere other than Azteca over the past 10 years. At least, that is, until Black Sunday.
"This win gives us confidence," Mexican forward Giovani dos Santos said afterward. "The U.S. is doing a great job -- they played in the final of the Confederations Cup. But this win injects in us a bit of motivation, confidence, security."
Mexican coach Javier Aguirre echoed the tourney MVP's comments, albeit a bit more cautiously.
"We feel good, but you can't carry history with you," Aguirre said. "Aug. 12 is a completely different game."
As for this one, the Americans probably had the loss coming. Every streak ends sometime, and national team fans should be happy it didn't happen in a World Cup qualifier, which it certainly could have. It's easy to forget that in the 2-0 qualifying win over El Tri in February, the U.S. team dodged a bullet in the opening minutes when dos Santos squandered an easy chance. Had that one gone in, the result -- not to mention the Hexagonal standings -- could look quite different heading into Mexico City.
At the Gold Cup, Bradley eventually was burned for sticking with a C-team as green as Mexico's jerseys, one that had exceeded expectations until the wheels fell off in such spectacular fashion in the finale.
Not that the coach had much wiggle room roster-wise, despite being gifted seven extra spots due to the Americans' participation in South Africa in June. Those players either needed a break or needed to return to the clubs that pay their salaries after a month away.
So in hindsight, losing this game shouldn't be all that surprising. To think that the U.S. would be able to win the Gold Cup with such an inexperienced squad was pretty ambitious, considering that Mexico brought a number of first-teamers, including perhaps the two best attack-minded youngsters the country has produced in a generation, Tottenham's dos Santos and Arsenal's Carlos Vela.
It's not surprising that the floodgates opened, either. The naivety of Bradley's XI was on full display in the moments after they conceded the opener. Instead of settling down and clawing their way back into the game -- they had a half hour-plus left to find the equalizer -- they completely panicked, pushing numbers forward and conceding so much space in the back that keeper Troy Perkins was forced to make a pair of miraculous stops before the inevitable second goal came in the 64th minute.
After that, the visitors were only too happy to run up the score on the team that had tormented them on U.S. soil for so long, despite largely pro-Mexican crowds in all but a few cases.
However, a visibly gutted Bradley chose to accentuate the positive looking forward.
"When you have a game that feels like this at the end, you don't forget it," Bradley said. "Hopefully we can use it in a way that we're better from it."
Up-and-comers like Chad Marshall and Stuart Holden certainly will have gained confidence from the Gold Cup experience, much like Charlie Davies and Jay DeMerit did from playing with another undermanned U.S. team in the 2007 Copa America, in which they absorbed an ugly defeat to Argentina along the way.
The latter two players figure to be on the A-team Bradley takes to Mexico's capital two and a half weeks from now, one that has an opportunity to erase the bad feelings that come with the Americans' most lopsided loss to El Tri since a 7-2 setback in 1957.
"Today is their day, and they can celebrate," Bradley said.
"Once we go into Azteca, it's 90 minutes, and we start over. And we have a chance to do something that the U.S. hasn't done before.
"When the game starts that day, we'll be ready."
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.