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Sunday, March 27, 2005
ESPNsoccernet: March 30, 5:39 PM UK
U.S. loss leaves foul taste for players

Marc Connolly

MEXICO CITY -- The scent wasn't of smog, the pollution or of 100,000-plus sweat-stained fans bouncing happily out of Azteca Stadium. In fact, the smog was so nonexistent, and the humidity was so low, that the sweet smell of the several Eucalyptus trees surrounding the stadium dominated the thin air.

Knowing that it wasn't as much the altitude that hurt them on Sunday, the U.S. players strolled out of the stadium tunnel talking less about the conditions, the weather or the fans, and more about the bit of regret that had built up in their guts. Regret as to how conservative their side played for a good portion of the match that led to Mexico's 2-1 victory in Sunday's World Cup qualifier.

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"We should have committed more numbers forward," said Eddie Lewis, who scored the lone goal for the U.S. National Team.

"We needed to be more hungry in the first half," said centerback Oguchi Onyewu.

Landon Donovan, perhaps the team's best player now, had the most to say about the team's tentative play for long stretches of the match.

"Looking back," said the 23-year-old midfielder, "we probably could have been more aggressive.

"The problem is that some people feel well, and some people don't. So four or five guys might be OK and ready to get after the ball, and the rest are tired and just physically can't run."

Of course, the altitude played a role in Sunday's loss. There's a reason that no U.S. team has ever won a match in Azteca Stadium over what is now an astounding 23 matches. There's also a reason that the tricolores are 54-1-4 in World Cup qualifiers when playing at home.

But in reality, the problems the U.S. side experienced on Easter Sunday had less to do with playing at 7,200 feet above sea level and more about how they broke down defensively over a 90-second span that led to both Mexican goals, and how the game plan to counterattack out of a 4-5-1 formation failed to produce for the entire first half.

Mexico's first goal was more about the home side executing well offensively than the U.S. backline's poor marking. Salvador Carmona's cross from the right side of the box found the head of Jaime Lozano, who was not marked well since right back Steve Cherundolo was too pinched in to the middle. Kasey Keller, who otherwise was outstanding in goal for the Americans, had to guess whether the left midfielder was going to head the ball on frame or knock it back across the box. And he guessed wrong.

"He had me near-post," said the 35-year-old goalkeeper, who plays in the German Bundesliga for Borussia Monchengladbach. "I thought that at least if I could stop him from scoring there, then if he cuts it back, it gives someone else an opportunity to clear it."

But none of the American defenders were able to help their keeper out. So as Keller fell helplessly into the side netting of his goal, striker Jared Borguetti had an open goal to unleash a header at as Onyewu desperately tried to get there in time.

So when the U.S. back four had a lapse in both judgment and communication less than two minutes later that allowed for Antonio Naelson to sneak in alone on Keller off a head ball to space from Borguetti, it really pinned the Americans against the wall, down two goals in the first 33 minutes of the match.

"You can't give a team like Mexico a two-goal lead and expect to get something out of it," said Keller.

Indeed. Or, along the same lines, you cannot give a team like Mexico a two-goal lead and expect to get anything out of it with the way the U.S. was lined up on the field.

Right away, the decision to play young Eddie Johnson up top in a 4-5-1 system looked to be the wrong one. The 20-year-old striker worked hard and was able to win several 50-50 balls in the air, but was often then pitted against three Mexican defenders on his own. When he knew he couldn't run at the defense with such odds, he held the ball up and looked for players running off of him. But for the entire first half, those runners simply were not there.

Defensively, the U.S. team could not force its backs into any giveaways since Johnson was up there chasing on his own.

"Their centerbacks had five or six options every time they had the ball," admitted Pablo Mastroeni.

And if the plan was to have one player fight for space up top, win some balls, and try to play off the midfielders, why wasn't Brian McBride given the nod over Johnson? He's made a career playing in such a manner, and has had success against Mexico in the past. McBride scored the game-winner against Mexico in the epic 2-0 victory in the Round of 16 of the 2002 World Cup.

Donovan said that it was tough for Johnson up there alone and that the blame goes to the outside midfielders, who were unable to sneak up along the flanks to combine with Johnson.

"Eddie Lewis and myself just weren't getting forward enough," said Donovan, who admitted that not having a match with his soon-to-be former club Bayer Leverkusen in three weeks affected his performance and fitness level. "That was the problem."

What didn't help the U.S. cause is that Donovan was lined up as the right midfielder rather than in his usual attacking role out of the center of the field. So instead of having the team's most creative player combining in the middle of the field and looking to play-make, he often found himself tracking back on defense to defend Lozano, who rarely came 10 yards off of his sideline.

"Lozano stayed so high and so wide, that you almost had no choice [to defend]," he said. "[Cuahutemoc] Blanco loves to sit out there and just wait for the ball, so they had two guys out there, and they just stretch you. If we could have predicted that maybe we would have just played with two solid forwards and had four in the middle and four in the back and it would have been easier.

"We made the right adjustments, it just wasn't enough."

Coach Bruce Arena's adjustments were to move Donovan up front with Johnson at the start of the second half, and to later bring on three attacking players (McBride, Steve Ralston and Pat Noonan) in place of defenders. What he did not do that was surprising was to substitute captain Claudio Reyna out of the match in favor of a two-way player like Clint Dempsey or for another forward such as Josh Wolff. While Reyna had moments were his touch and calmness made him look like his old self, he seemed to be lumbering for most of the match and not nearly as sharp as he usually is when he runs the U.S. midfield out of a holding position.

What also seemed to hurt the U.S. team was the play of Gregg Berhalter. While his partner in central defense, Onyewu, entered the match with only two career caps and none since earning his first start against Jamaica last Nov. 17 in the 1-1 tie in Columbus, Ohio, it was the 31-year-old veteran of one World Cup, 37 matches and 10 World Cup qualifiers who struggled the most. His tracking was suspect, and the organization of the back four, which fell mostly under Berhalter, was spotty for much of the afternoon. Had Keller not made three or four great saves, the match wouldn't have been close.

The fact that two players -- Eddie Pope and Frankie Hejduk -- who sources within the team said would have started in this match had they been healthy were not here seemed to give Mexico an advantage when they were on the attack. Those matchups were simply in their favor. And for whatever reason, Mastroeni and Reyna seemed to have trouble communicating to get back and aid a back four that had never played together as a unit before Sunday afternoon.

"They had more numbers in the attack than we had back," said Mastroeni.

When you are playing on the road, and in front of the estimated 110,000 fans that packed Azteca Stadium on Sunday, that simply cannot happen, and makes it easy to see why the U.S. squad lost for the first time in 13 months.

"I think the better team won," said Arena. "Mexico was the better team today."

That they were.

What's important for the U.S. team is to now regroup for Wednesday's match with Guatemala in Birmingham, Ala. Having three points after playing on the road for two matches to open the final round of qualifying is not a bad thing at all, as Arena mentioned in his postmatch press conference. Yet, it also makes this next match against Carlos Ruiz and Co. all the more vital, as a victory and the requisite three points will be vital.

"Now it's full concentration for a game that we should win," said Keller. "Now the real pressure is on. This is a game to get us back on track and to move us in the right direction."

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: marc@oakwoodsoccer.com.




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