Poor mexico. The
most soccer-crazed country in North America is blessed with a thriving league,
a rich talent base and such passionate national-team fans that they turn NFL
stadiums into sold-out green-and-white fiestas. But no matter how often the
Mexicans claim style-point superiority, they just can't beat the U.S. north of
the border. Nine times this decade the teams have squared off on Uncle Sam's
soil. Not once has El Tri prevailed. "This time I thought we had them,"
muttered Mexican forward Jared Borgetti after his team squandered the lead and
lost 2-1 in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final at Chicago's Soldier Field on Sunday.
"I thought we had them."
The U.S.'s repeat
triumph in the biennial regional championship did more than just give the
Americans an 8-0-1 home record (along with a 15-1 goal differential) against
Mexico in the 21st century. It also ratified the approach of first-year U.S.
coach Bob Bradley, whose 10-0-1 start and bold youth movement have helped the
Yanks rebound from last year's bitter first-round World Cup exit. It continued
the post-World Cup revival of midfielder Landon Donovan, whose 62nd-minute
penalty kick tied him (with 34 at the ripe age of 25) with Eric Wynalda as the
U.S.'s career leader in goals. And it heralded the arrival of 22-year-old
midfielder Benny Feilhaber, the Brad Pitt look-alike whose looping second-half
wonderstrike silenced a crowd that was 90% pro-Mexican.
You might as well
get a head start on the 2010 World Cup and learn how to pronounce his name now:
It's FAIL-hah-ber, with the emphasis on exactly what Feilhaber thought he would
do as the ball fell to his right foot at the top of the box in the 73rd minute.
In a similar situation during a first-round game against El Salvador, Feilhaber
had shanked an ugly scud into the stands. "To tell you the truth, I was
thinking about that when the ball was coming down," he said afterward. But
this time he caught it pure, whistling an angry 20-yard volley past Mexican
goalie Oswaldo S�nchez for the game-winner. "As soon as it left my foot I
knew it was going in," said Feilhaber of the blast that Donovan admiringly
called a "one-in-a-thousand" shot.
Born in Brazil
and of Austrian descent, Feilhaber moved with his family to the United States
when he was six. He walked on at UCLA and turned heads with his attacking
skills at the 2005 Under-20 World Cup, prompting Germany's HSV Hamburg to sign
him. As Hamburg struggled last season, Feilhaber yo-yoed from starting a
Champions League game--he was the only U.S. team player to appear in the
world's premier club tournament--to playing with Hamburg's reserves. "You
learn so much," he says of the move to Germany. "You're living by
yourself, your family's not around, you don't have many friends, and the
practices are so intense. It's really helped me become a stronger player
physically and mentally."
the only U.S. youngster to grow up during the Gold Cup. Also gaining valuable
national-team experience were left back Jonathan Bornstein (22), right backs
Frank Simek (22) and Jonathan Spector (21), center back Michael Parkhurst (23),
and midfielders Ricardo Clark (24) and Michael Bradley (19), the coach's son,
whose solid performance in a 2-1 win over Canada in the semis was marred by a
late red card that kept him out of Sunday's final.
new-look Yanks are still a work in progress. During the six-game Gold Cup the
back line often looked shaky, the forwards ( Brian Ching, Eddie Johnson, Taylor
Twellman) struggled to finish, and the midfield, against Mexico in particular,
committed too many unforced errors. Yet the U.S.'s most consistent problem was
a failure to drop the hammer in each of the three elimination games, wasting
clear chances and causing far more tension over the final minutes than was
necessary. In the Canada match Donovan whiffed on a second-half sitter that
would have made it 3-0; the Yanks were saved when a botched offside call
nullified the Maple Leafs' last-minute equalizer. And on Sunday both Ching and
midfielder DaMarcus Beasley hit the woodwork on late empty-netters, forcing
goalkeeper Tim Howard to preserve the win with a reflex save on Adolfo
Bautista's point-blank shot in the 89th minute.
In the end the
near misses couldn't mask an undeniably positive development: The U.S. was
actually creating chances, something that hadn't happened often in 2006.
"We're not perfect, as you can see," Donovan said afterward. "We're
not there yet, but a lot of young guys played, and I think this was a great
stepping-stone for us."
Even a few
veterans needed a kick start heading into 2007, none more so than Donovan, who
scored zero goals in 11 appearances last year. Under Bradley he has
rediscovered his scoring touch, threatening defenses from all over the field as
a forward and as a central and right-sided midfielder. The result: nine goals
in 10 games this year, to say nothing of a sustained focus evident in his
5-for-5 strike rate on penalty kicks. "I haven't necessarily played my best
technically, but every game I've been into mentally, and that's my goal,"
Donovan says. "I don't have to be perfect. I know I can still make plays
throughout a game that will help."
challenged him to understand what it means to take a bigger role," says
Bradley. "The opportunity to play a huge role on a national team is
something that very few players ever experience. To be one of the players who
has that responsibility is a new challenge for him."
Despite his youth
movement, Bradley doesn't accept the notion that last year's World Cup flop
justified turning the team upside down--which is what U.S. Soccer's first
choice as coach, J�rgen Klinsmann, would have done if he hadn't left the Yanks
at the altar last December. Instead Bradley argues that the U.S.'s quarterfinal
run in 2002 "showed how much progress we've made as a country, how
important MLS has been for the development of soccer in the U.S. If 2002 showed
what we're capable of when a team is committed in the right way, 2006 showed
that success is never guaranteed."