PASADENA, Calif. — When the dust finally settled and the US national team was able to make sense of the battering ram that threw them onto their backsides on Saturday night, there was really only one thing to say.
They had been beaten resoundingly by a much, much better team. That they blew a 2-0 lead on archrivals Mexico in the Gold Cup final is one thing. But the finality of the outcome hit even harder.
“It sucks getting your ass kicked, and that’s what happened today,” said US goalkeeper Tim Howard after the 4-2 loss. “It’s going to take awhile, but we’ll get over it. We’re still the dominant team in this region. We showed that. Unfortunately we didn’t do it for 90 minutes.”
But it’s not that simple. The US are now staring reality in the face: Mexico have stolen away the title of Best Team in CONCACAF, and they did it authoritatively and definitively by blowing through the US with style, class and joy — all of the things with which the Americans aspire to play.
This is not a blip on the radar, and it’s not a heavyweight throwing a punch and dancing backward to await a counterpunch. What El Tri did at the Rose Bowl is a clear sign that the balance of power in the region has shifted back South of the Border.
This Mexico team is perhaps the best in history with its whirlwind of an attack and flexible defensive backbone. The average age of El Tri’s main creative forces — Giovani dos Santos, Andrés Guardado, Pablo Barrera and, of course, Javier “Chicharito” Hernández — is a shade older than 23. They’ll just get better. And that is a frightening thought for the US.
“They’re as dynamic as any [Mexico] team I’ve ever played against,” said Landon Donovan, who has faced off with El Tri more than a dozen times at all levels of international play. “They’ve just got a few guys who can change a game in a heartbeat. ... They’re explosive.”
The next step for the US isn’t just to figure out where it all went wrong for 60 minutes on Saturday, it’s figuring out how to bridge the gap. Mexico’s product on the field is the result of years of reloading their youth system with talent, of carefully cultivating that talent in a national-team setup through all levels and then finding the right blend of complementary players and proper coaching to bring it all together.
They’ve laid a foundation and are watching their masterwork bloom. Mexico are heading where the US want to be. And that will be a bitter pill to swallow.
It’s hard to see right now, but the US did indeed make progress at this Gold Cup. Call out Bob Bradley for his in-game management and selection if you will, but he made the US a much better possession-oriented side during the tournament. The Americans improved vastly over all six games they played, including somehow almost breaking even in the possession battle in the final.
But they still lack the big-game fortitude to maintain a 90-minute performance on a consistent basis, and that’s what showed as Mexico gleefully ran roughshod through the US midfield and back line.
“We got a lot better this tournament, just the way we were playing and the way we were moving the ball and keeping possession a little more,” said Donovan. “We still have a ways to go. We saw tonight that when you take it up another level, it becomes even more difficult.”
What will make the bitter taste linger is that the US are now winless in three straight games against their archrivals, and have been outscored 11-3 during that stretch, dating back to 2010 World Cup qualifying.
They won’t get another crack at El Tri in a game that matters until the Hexagonal begins in nearly two years — and worse, the Americans won’t play a meaningful game against anyone for another year, when 2014 World Cup qualifying begins. That’s an eon for the sting of a painful defeat to linger, and it will make them think long and hard.
“A game like this, when you’re together for a month, when you feel like you’ve worked hard and grown and now put yourself in the final, when it’s all over and you’ve let it get away, it’s an empty feeling,” Bradley said in the postgame press conference.
“We have a short conversation just about what that feels like, about things we can now take away from this whole month together and use it as a way to continue to build our team.”
In the long run, this may be the best thing for the USMNT. For all of the heroics and excitement in their amazing runs in consecutive summers in South Africa, there must always be a feeling that there is a long way to go. We're not there yet, and any feelings of self-satisfaction shouldn't replace motivation. There is vast room for improvement everywhere inside the US system, on the field and off it.
That our greatest rivals stole the crown away should force the USSF to take a greater look at itself and figure out how to get back on top. The hunger to become No. 1 again can only help the US get better for the long-term.
“They’ve shown that they’re the team to beat right now,” Donovan said of Mexico, “and we’ve got to go get them.”