U.S. strikes early, but Argentina dominates opener
Posted: Friday June 29, 2007 2:37AM; Updated: Friday June 29, 2007 12:05PM
MARACAIBO, Venezuela -- Maracaibo is a city with two seasons: summer and the fires of hell.
Bob Bradley's boys certainly had a baptism of fire in the Copa América as they went down 4-1 to tournament favorites Argentina.
The final score might suggest otherwise, but there is nothing for the young U.S. squad to be ashamed of. They were up against a top-class team, worthy favorites, desperate to bring to an end the 14 years of hurt in which they have not landed a senior title.
Given the disparity of forces, Team USA team did what it could. It even took an early lead. Eddie Johnson looked especially lively in the first half before Javier Mascherano took his iron grip on midfield. Sent racing away behind the line, he was brought down by Gabriel Milito and picked himself up to calmly side-foot home the penalty.
The U.S. team will be left with a case of "if onlys." Perhaps if it had managed to hold its lead for longer, then nerves might have crept into the Argentine ranks, and perhaps there would be more opportunities to spring Johnson on the counter attack.
But tradition breeds a winning mentality, the desire to make things happen. Just two minutes later the Argentines evened the game at 1-1. They couldn't play their way through, but they could force home a goal, Hernán Crespo scrambling in after a Juan Román Riquelme free kick.
Then the game fell into a pattern. Argentina passing and probing, the U.S. holding it off. Argentina tried to stretch the game, sending strikers Crespo and Lionel Messi out wide to create space for Riquelme through the middle. The U.S. refused to fall into the trap. The back four stayed close together, the team was compact and Argentina was unable to create two against one situations.
It's a tribute to the way that the U.S. defended that it managed to hold the score to 1-1 until the 64th minute despite committing just nine fouls in the game -- one of which, of course, led to Argentina's equalizer.
It is probably true that for long periods Argentina made things hard for themselves. The balance of the midfield was not quite right. Riquelme, Juan Sebastián Verón, Messi -- everyone wanted the ball played to feet. There was a lack of dynamism, and it was proving difficult to lengthen the game.
The introduction of Pablo Aimar changed that. Skipping, gazelle-like from deep, he upped the rhythm of the game, and gaps appeared as the U.S. began to tire in the intense heat.
Crespo's second strike decided things -- and it was a goal worthy of deciding any match. After a delightful exchange of passes with Riquelme, Messi, cutting in from the left, split the defense on the diagonal for Crespo to do the rest.
From then on it was a foregone conclusion. Aimar skipped forward to head a third from Gabriel Heinze's cross, and Riquelme chipped Carlos Tévez behind the line to round it up at 4-1.
So the first round of matches are now completed. And the impressions after everyone has played once could hardly be more positive. There have been plenty of goals, lots of quality soccer and plenty of surprises -- and despite the final result, the young U.S. team can hold its head high.