LOS ANGELES – In some ways Saturday night’s Gold Cup final at the Rose Bowl followed form.
For the third time in as many tournaments the title game matched the U.S. and Mexico, for example. And it drew a sellout crowd of 93,420.
Aside from that, though, it was a match full of surprises – not the least of which was the final score: 4-2 Mexico.
Consider that Mexico’s Javier Hernandez, who came into the game leading the tournament with seven goals, did not score. Or that U.S. keeper Tim Howard, who hadn’t given up a goal in 31/2 games, allowed four.
And then there’s U.S. coach Bob Bradley. Criticized earlier in the tournament for his lack of creativity, he looked like a strategic genius Saturday after giving starts to Freddy Adu and Landon Donovan and watching them stake the U.S. to a 2-0 lead.
Then the Rose Bowl caved in.
While the U.S. squad was busy watching Hernandez, Pablo Barrera scored twice and Andres Guardado and Giovani Dos Santos had a goal apiece to give Mexico its second consecutive Gold Cup title and a record sixth overall.
At stake Saturday was the region’s berth in the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil, the all-important tune-up to the next World Cup. Just as important, however, were regional bragging rights, something the United States and Mexico have been trading with regularity in recent years.
And this shootout started early, with Michael Bradley heading an Adu corner kick off the right arm of Mexican keeper Alfredo Talavera and into the net in the eighth minute.
Donovan, who started the last two matches on the bench, briefly quieted the overwhelmingly pro-Mexican crowd in the 23rd minute, taking a deft pass from Clint Dempsey that split the defense before sending a left-footed shot into the back of the net to make it 2-0.
In less than 24 minutes the U.S. had scored as many goals as Mexico had allowed in its previous five matches combined. Yet the lead would last less than 15 minutes and the Americans wouldn’t score again.
First Hernandez, accustomed to being the finisher, became the distributor by sending a through ball up the right side to Barrera, who calmly beat Howard just inside the near post.
Next Mexico took advantage of some confusion in the U.S. backline to tie the game when Eric Lichaj fumbled his chance to clear a Dos Santos shot, allowing Andres Guardado to pounce on the rebound, getting just enough of his boot on the ball the get it across the goal line.
Five minutes into the second period Mexico went ahead to stay after Guardado chested a loose ball down outside the penalty area and fed Barrera moving through the box to his right. From there Barrera had an open shot at the far post and he didn’t miss.
The U.S. had two good chances at the equalizer but Talavera snatched Adu’s bending left-footed free kick just below the crossbar in the 58th minute and two minutes later Dempsey collected a loose ball from Bradley and loosed a left-foot rocket that struck the top of the goal.
Dos Santos finally closed things out with one of the best individual efforts of the tournament.
First he dribbled in on Howard to draw the keeper out of the box. Then with the keeper crawling after him, swiping with his hands at the ball, Dos Santos retreated, spun and lifted a rainbow toward to the far post, where it dropped just over a leaping Lichaj and into the goal.