PASADENA, Calif. — With the US national team on a high after taking an early lead in the Gold Cup final, it was an early substitution of a lineup regular that ultimately led to the Americans' sweet Saturday night turning into a very sour one.
In the third minute of play, veteran defender Steve Cherundolo found himself caught in a tackle between teammate Jermaine Jones and Mexico attacker Giovani dos Santos that caused the right back to roll his left ankle. After winning the corner that led to Michael Bradley’s opening goal five minutes later, Cherundolo back began to slow noticeably.
He attempted to continue after the Americans took the lead, but was substituted for left back Jonathan Bornstein in the 12th minute of play by Bob Bradley, who shuffled Eric Lichaj to the right-back slot.
“We thought our back line had performed well during the tournament, but Mexico came out and put a lot of pressure right from the start and we were figuring out ways to deal with it,” Bradley said after the match. “Losing Stevie hurts in that moment, we had Lichaj move to right back and had Jonny Bornstein come in, but not having that experience at that point is a tough one.”
The injury forced the Americans to remove a player in Cherundolo — who had played every minute of the tournament so far — for Bornstein, who had not seen any action throughout the Gold Cup. It was a critical change as the Mexicans began to find space to create scoring opportunities against a US back line that had spent little time together.
"It was tough,” US captain Carlos Bocanegra said of losing of Cherundolo. “He's one of our veterans and probably one of our most consistent players throughout the whole tournament. Anytime that you use someone like that in the back line and have to shuffle, it's difficult."
With Cherundolo out of the match, Mexico head coach José Manuel de la Torre's side began to focus on the left side of the American defense, continually testing a rusty Bornstein. It was a move that eventually paid off, as Mexican attackers were able to beat Bornstein twice for the goals. But ultimately, all four of the goals that El Tri scored were, in a way, down the left side of the park.
Without the stabling influence of Cherundolo on the right side of the field, the American defense repeatedly appeared disorganized and unable to deal with the waves of attackers that the Mexicans threw forward. Following the defeat, they were left to reflect on the loss of one of their leaders and how it related to their Gold Cup defeat.
“Certainly the injury to Stevie hurt,” said US midfielder Landon Donovan. “He’s been a big part of this team, and that back four had done really well for the last three games ... that certainly affected us, not only from a soccer standpoint, but from a leadership and morale standpoint.”
Adam Serrano covers MLS for MLSsoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter: @AdamSerrano