In the wake of the U.S.'s worst upset loss in a decade, midfielder Landon Donovan tried to make sense of Panama's 2--1 victory in the CONCACAF Gold Cup last Saturday in Tampa. How could he explain an abysmal first half in which the U.S.'s first-choice lineup went down 2--0 on home soil to a team ranked 67th in the world? "It's hard to know," Donovan told reporters. "Sometimes you just come out flat, for whatever reason. We learned a valuable lesson tonight."
While the loss wasn't crippling—the Yanks entered Tuesday's final group match against Guadeloupe needing just a point to be sure of advancing—it raised plenty of questions about the U.S. players and about coach Bob Bradley, who signed a new four-year contract last August. You'd think the Americans would have learned their lesson during last year's World Cup, when they fell behind early in three of four games, forcing themselves to play catch-up in a sport in which comebacks are particularly difficult. But the loss to Panama was part of a continuing and troubling pattern.
Falling behind has been a trademark of Bradley's tenure, especially in comparison with that of his predecessor, Bruce Arena (1998--2006). While Bradley (.670) and Arena (.674) have virtually the same winning percentage in full internationals (i.e., excluding friendly matches), Bradley's teams have given up the game's first goal much more often (38.6%) than Arena's did (26.1%). The difference is even more pronounced at home: The two coaches have similar winning percentages (Bradley, .870; Arena, .861), but Bradley's teams have allowed the first goal 30.4% of the time to Arena's 8.3%.
Why do Bradley's teams fall behind so frequently? The stats suggest that U.S. squads aren't as well-prepared as they were under Arena, aren't deployed ideally at the start and, at the opening whistle, may be overawed by heavyweight foes (England in the World Cup; Brazil in the first round of the 2009 Confederations Cup) or complacent when facing lower-ranked opponents (Slovenia in South Africa; El Salvador in the '09 qualifier in Salt Lake City). Nor is the leadership question just about Bradley. Carlos Bocanegra, the longtime U.S. captain, and fellow veterans such as Donovan, midfielder Clint Dempsey and goalkeeper Tim Howard are also responsible for ensuring that their teammates are ready to play.
When you have to come from behind so often, you put tremendous pressure on your team. And sometimes, as the U.S. learned against Panama, there's not enough time to erase the deficit. "For some reason we were just a little lackadaisical," Donovan said on Saturday. Whatever the reasons, the U.S. is taking huge risks by not playing to its full potential from the starts of games—and the problem doesn't appear to be going away.
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While the U.S. was struggling last week, Mexico was demolishing its Gold Cup group-stage foes by a combined 14--1 score, capped off by a 4--1 beatdown of Costa Rica in which El Tri scored all its goals before halftime (and could have had half a dozen more). Mexico hasn't missed a step since five of its players, including two starters—goalkeeper Guillermo (Memo) Ochoa and defender Francisco (Maza) Rodríguez—were suspended after testing positive for the banned substance clenbuterol. (The Mexican federation blamed the results on tainted meat but had no supporting evidence.) With deadly scorers Andrés Guardado and Javier (Chicharito) Hernàndez leading the way, Mexico must now be considered the heavy favorite to raise the Gold Cup trophy on June 25.
J. MERIC/GETTY IMAGES (DEMPSEY)
MY BAD Dempsey and his fellow vets must take some blame for their younger teammates' not being ready to roll at the opening whistle.
JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES