Gold Cup 2011: How the U.S. national team got swarmed over by Mexico.

The stadium scene.
June 26 2011 1:00 PM

Mexican Wave

How the U.S. national team got swarmed over by its continental rival.

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If you're an American coach, the Gold Cup's ambiguity presents a strange dilemma. Do you pick your best 11, play all-out, and do everything to win it? Or do you give young players some experience, try out new combinations and tactics, and use the tournament to help shape the future? Of the angry American fans I know, half see the tournament one way and half see it the other. Bob Bradley picked a somewhat experimental team but not exactly a future-focused one—28-year-old Chris Wondolowski over 21-year-old Teal Bunbury?—thereby satisfying nobody.

The unsettled status of the Gold Cup does give the competition its own sort of loopy grandeur. Early on in this year's campaign, five Mexican players, including starting goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, were suspended from the team after testing positive for clenbuterol. Mexican soccer officials blamed the tests on contaminated meat. For the rest of the month, "tainted chicken!" became an ironic rallying cry for American fans. After Landon Donovan scored Team USA's second goal in the final, he did a chicken dance. Twitter exploded. Then Landon and co. lost. That's the sort of thing that happens in the Gold Cup.

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On the pitch, the strangest development in this year's tournament was the return of Freddy Adu, America's littlest international soccer zombie. Adu is, of course, famous as the teen phenom who signed with D.C. United at age 14, was heralded as the savior of American soccer, and then, after a long skid through Europe, wound up wasting away on an obscure team in the Turkish second division. At the age of 22, he was seen as hopelessly washed up. Fast forward to this June. Brought on as a surprise substitute in the second half of the Gold Cup semifinal against Panama—his first international action since the early Pleistocene era—Adu made a brilliant pass to help set up Clint Dempsey's winning goal. In the final, Adu lofted the corner kick that Michael Bradley headed in for the game's first goal. He played extremely well throughout the match, fending off two and three defenders at a time to emerge as one of the few American positives on the night. There are no second acts in American lives. There is only the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Unplanned resurrections aside, though, this was a grim night for American soccer. The United States created a few good chances after its strong opening flurry—Clint Dempsey hit the crossbar with a ferocious shot in the second half—but looked helpless for much of the match, failing to hold the ball or resist the Mexican attack. Whatever you think of the Gold Cup, every match against Mexico is important to American fans. In recent years, it's been possible to look at Mexico as a sort of static foe, one that the U.S. beats at home, loses to at the Azteca, and reliably expects to crash out of the round of 16 in the World Cup. But if the young Mexican attackers who tore through the Rose Bowl on Saturday night—Giovani dos Santos and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez are 22 and 23, respectively—manage to change the pattern, Mexico could resume its position as the bully of CONCACAF while the U.S. national team is busy passing out help-wanted flyers for fullbacks.

It's too soon to say whether that will happen, of course. And it's not entirely Bob Bradley's fault that Cherundolo has no viable backup. But for now, Bradley's neither-fish-nor-fowl approach to this tournament seems to have left the team unprepared for the final while doing very little to get it ready for 2014. Maybe Freddy Adu can coach?

Brian Phillips writes regularly about soccer for Slate. He blogs at The Run of Play.