During the past few days, Americans were led to believe that this was their country's best chance ever of beating archrival Mexico south of the border.
The American men, apparently, didn't believe their own hype.
The US played a match that was largely indistinguishable from the ones that have led to a 0-23-1 record in Mexico, losing 2-1.
The score did scant justice to the Mexicans' dominance. Mexico's goalkeeper could just as well have curled up in the shadows of the Azteca to take a second-half nap.
That the US lost was not the most frustrating development of a frustrating afternoon – after all, not even the most deluded citizen of Uncle Sam's Army could argue that the Mexicans did not fully deserve their victory.
No, what irritates most keenly is that, on this evidence, one would have to say that America's electric run to the final of the Confederations Cup in June has not led to much change.
On Wednesday, America did not see a team of newfound swagger, determined to once and for all declare itself as the best team in North America. After the US scored its goal in the ninth minute, it played to the same old game – meekly deferential to Mexico's technical superiority and home-field advantage.
When will this end?
Since the beginning of 2000, the US is undefeated in 11 games against Mexico outside of Mexico (9-0-2). At some point, however, the American men's soccer team is going to have to pull up its socks, walk out onto the grass of the Azteca Stadium, and play as if it thinks it can beat Mexico.
It did nothing of the sort for 81 minutes Wednesday.
This hardly means that the US has to throw all strategic common sense to the wind and field a team of 10 forwards in golden shoes. There was good reason for America taking a defensive approach. The most important thing, at the end of the day, is qualifying for the World Cup.
In this context, a draw would have been good for the US and terrible for Mexico – a win-win situation for the US. Indeed, an actual win would have merely been historic gravy.
But it played defense-first against Spain and Brazil, too. And yet, within that approach it struck with lightning quickness on incisive counterattacks. The second goal against Brazil might well have been the single most impressive and inspiring passage of play in American soccer history.
On Wednesday, it did this in the ninth minute, then regressed.
The US was choked by its own lack of ambition. With midfielders dropping back to essentially give the US nine defenders, there was no one farther up the field to pass the ball to once the US gained possession – no way to relieve the pressure.
So Mexico came at them in wave after wave. When the US finally broke in the 82nd minute, it was telling that the closest "defender" – mere feet from the US goal – was Landon Donovan, the most skilled offensive player on the US team.
An admirable bit of selfless defending, yes. But who, exactly, were the defenders supposed to pass to if Donovan was actually behind them for significant periods of the afternoon?
For the US – eight minutes from a draw – it was nearly "job done." But it was hardly the sort of performance to which the US should now be aspiring.
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