Sunday, June 24, 2007

Wow! Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy! -- The U.S. men's soccer team wins an instant classic, with Benny Feihaber scoring possibly the most memorable goal in U.S. soccer history -- certainly, the biggest goal since 1990, when Paul Caligiuri put the U.S. back in the World Cup, following a 40-year absence. This has become a wonderful rivalry. I hope that, in the future, more fans will support the U.S. side, and I hope the Mexicans will show better sportsmanship. They have great talent, and they seem unable to abide the fact that they keep losing to the Americans.

I imagine you saw this stunning, pulsing, thrilling match -- Mexico dominated the U.S. in the first half, with dangerous run after dangerous run, finally breaking through just before half, when Andres Gaurdado buried a terrific cross that left Tim Howard stumbling to try and get over to that side. This was an extremely physical match, with the referee allowing defenders an extraordinary amount of latitude. Still, the Mexicans. especially Guardado and Nery Castillo, usually had the U.S. defense on its heels. There seemed to be an enormous disparity between the two teams in terms of skill.

In the second half, of course, it was a different story. The U.S. put together it's best half of the tournament. Bringing on Ricardo Clark, in favor of Pablo Mastroeni, who picked up a yellow card in the first half, seemed to really spark the attack. The U.S. was unable to score on its best attack, as the veteran Mexican 'keeper, Oswaldo Sanchez stuffed a furious assault, with three good saves within seconds of each other. However, the U.S. struggled to get another similar opportunity, and soon Taylor Twellman was warming up to inject spark in a flagging offense. Clint Dempsey was set up on a break by Landon Donovan, but Dempsey hit a weak uninspired shot, which didn't challenge Sanchez.

Suddenly, though Brian Ching took a long pass in the box, turned on his defender, only to go down in the box, as Jonny Magallon stuck his right knee in Ching's path. Was the penalty kick deserved? There were many more physical challenges in the box, but this contact brought Ching down, as he was driving for the goal. Donovan finished, converting the resulting penalty kick, and the U.S. was on its way.

Some ten minutes later, Donovan was taking a corner kick, which was cleared by the Mexican defense. The clearance header, however, fell to Benny Feilhaber, who showed the touch he'd lacked throughout the tournament. Feilhaber had not been shy about shooting from distance, but he'd also sent a lot of balls wildly over the goal. This time, his one-time strike rose over the defense, but dipped down inside the far corner of the net. Truly a stunning goal, and a stunning bit of skill. A goal that brought the U.S. the Gold Cup championship, and one U.S. fans will long remember.

Of course, the U.S. missed great chances to salt away the victory. Ching hit the post after dribbling away from his man, and the Mexican goalie. Later, Donovan delivered a ball to Beasley, that left Beasley with an easy finish into an open net, but Beasley's shot struck the crossbar. This was a familiar story for the U.S. which had trouble finishing off their opposition throughout the tournament. However, it didn't matter today, in part because Tim Howard made a great save on Bautista's point-blank blast, just two minutes shy of ninety, just before Beasley's glaring miss.

The standouts for the U.S.? Onyewu played well, for stretches -- though another referee might have been less forgiving of the way he uses his forearm to gain leverage, and he was beaten by Castillo on the Mexican goal. Onyewu makes a habit of recklessly physical use of his upper body -- today he got away with it. The U.S. certainly benefited from refereeing that overlooked some very questionable defensive tactics. Bocanegra took advantage of the loose officiating, although he received the game's first yellow card. Boca played what was probably his finest game in the U.S. defense, consistently saving other defenders who'd been beaten by Mexican attackers. I've been critical of Boca's defense on other occasions, but he was the star of the defense on this day.

Substitute Ricardo Clark really did make a huge difference in the U.S. attack, which helped the defense immeasurably. Howard played decently in goal. Though he doesn't seem very effective in distributing the ball, he made the big save when it was needed. Ching made some things happen up front in the second half, after being invisible for the first 59 minutes. Donovan wasn't a huge factor in the first half, either, but his performance in the second half was spectacular. Beasley continued to look dangerous, except when it came to finishing his chances. Twellman was a strong substitute, as well. Jonathan Spector was particularly vulnerable on defense, but showed some real daring in his efforts to spark the attack, until he had to leave for an injury. Frank Simek looked strong coming on for the injured Spector.

Feilhaber? He made the biggest play, so his weaknesses on defense are easily overlooked, Jonathan Bornstein wasn't very effective, on the defensive end. However, Bornstein had one good shot and also a tricky cross that forced the corner kick, which resulted in the game-winning goal. Mastroeni did not make much of a positive contribution, and Coach Bradley was wise to sit him down at halftime.

The biggest disappointment might have been Clint Dempsey. Though Dempsey did make one lovely back heel pass to Donovan in the box, during the first half, Dempsey seemed off. He had two good looks at goal, but shot right at the 'keeper each time. He seemed to lack the skills to make plays at this level, but U.S. fans know this isn't true. Dempsey has shown prodigious skills in other games, so perhaps he just didn't have it on this day. Besides, this isn't a day to dwell on negatives.

The U.S. played a great second half, against a very talented Mexican side. With the exception of a few squandered opportunities around the net, they took what the game presented. They have qualified to play in the 2009 Confederations Cup, in South Africa. This will be an unparalleled chance to prepare for the 2010 World Cup, by playing against some of the best teams in the world. Speaking of playing against some of the best teams in the world: The U.S. next plays Argentina on Thursday, in its opening effort in this year's Copa America. Having survived, and defeated Mexico, it will be very interesting for the U.S. to take on the next level up, with Argentina. It would a great surprise if the U.S. advances out of their Copa America group, but today's win could provide them with serious momentum.

But, you already know all that....

So, I'll just add an interesting historical footnote: With the victory over Mexico, the U.S emerges from the Gold Cup with a winning record in international play -- for the first time. This was the United States' 191st victory, against 189 losses (the disputed victory over Canada last week was actually the win that first provided the U.S. with an all-time winning record, but today's win kept the U.S. on the winning side of that historical ledger. That historical winning record might be in jeopardy in Venezuela over the next couple of weeks. However, if the U.S. can win a couple of games, the U.S. team will likely remain a winning side for the foreseeable future. As the reigning power in CONCACAF, it seems the United States will continue its winning ways for a long time to come, even if the team continues to stumble outside the region.

For now, they remain undefeated (10-0-1) under head coach Bob Bradley. Be Proud. Be Very Proud. This was as satisfying a win as the U.S. has had since their surprising run of success in the 2002 World Cup.

Now for something somewhat different: A few comments about D.C. United, which turned in a miserable game against Real Salt Lake. United lost 2-1, but they were thoroughly outplayed. In their defense, I'll say only that it's a very different game on the astroturf field in Salt Lake City. It's all about running -- more track meet than soccer game. Real Salt Lake just looked more used to kind of game played on that field, and maybe their team is just a little better suited to it, as well. United needs to put this game behind it, and just keep playing their game. They though they may have to play to a similar field in the playoffs against New York, that's not something they have to worry about right now, Besides, the surface at Giants Stadium plays more like a grass field than does the awful surface they played on last night.

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