With the United States men's national soccer team leading Mexico 2-0 in the final of the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup, getting revenge seemed likely to occur. In fact, with well over half of the match still to be played at the time, it was possible that the Americans would end up equaling the 5-0 score by which Mexico beat the U.S. in the championship match of the 2009 edition of the tournament.
However, the 2011 Gold Cup final turned out to be much closer to a repeat of the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup final than a reverse of the 2009 Gold Cup final. Mexico scored the last four goals of the match to win 4-2 and qualify for the 2013 Confederations Cup. In the 2009 Confederations Cup, the U.S. led Brazil 2-0 before losing 3-2.
In this instance against Mexico, a significant substitution that was caused by an injury took place while there was a 1-0 American advantage. Defender Steve Cherundolo's hurt ankle prompted head coach Bob Bradley to substitute Jonathan Bornstein into the match in his place during the 11th minute. As Bornstein entered to play on the left side of the defense, Eric Lichaj moved to the opposite side to take over the right-back position that Cherundolo had been playing very well throughout the Gold Cup. This sequence of moves weakened the U.S. defense prior to the flurry of Mexican goals.
Other players who could have been chosen as the replacement for Cherundolo include Jonathan Spector and Tim Ream. However, either of these changes would have also come with some risk. Spector, like Bornstein, had not previously played in the 2011 Gold Cup at all. Ream entering for the first time since his foul caused a Panamanian penalty kick in the group stage would have involved U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra moving from the center of the defense back to the side of the defense. Taking into account the injury and the choice with which Bradley was faced, it was a problematic situation, and the option to try to repair it that he selected simply did not work out.
Conversely, there were controversial decisions made by Bradley during the tournament that ultimately were enormously successful. Foremost among these is the substitution that brought Freddy Adu into the semifinal match against Panama. Shortly thereafter, Adu made significant progress toward changing the perception of him from someone who had not lived up to a massive amount of hype to someone who might still have a bright future with the national team. 10 minutes after replacing teenage forward Juan Agudelo, Adu made a terrific pass to U.S. star Landon Donovan (another substitute by Bradley in this match), who made one more excellent pass, this one to Clint Dempsey for the only goal of the match that sent the Americans to the final.
So, will we see more of the Bob Bradley who has wonderful strategic judgments or the Bob Bradley who has questionable ones? Moreover, will we see the type of U.S. squad that beat top-ranked and eventual World Cup champion Spain in the Confederations Cup to reach its first-ever final in a FIFA tournament or the type of one that suffered its first-ever Gold Cup group stage loss? Will we see the kind of American team that finished on top of its World Cup group for the first time since 1930 or the kind of one that just surrendered four straight goals to Mexico?
What happens next for the United States men's national soccer team might be shaped by any of these possibilities. Since the U.S. will not be participating in the Confederations Cup for this World Cup cycle, the next big event will be the CONCACAF region's qualification for the 2014 World Cup. For all of the questions surrounding this squad, we do know that the U.S. should be exciting to watch going forward. With a premier goalkeeper like Tim Howard and strong play in the midfield from players such as Dempsey and Donovan, there is reason for optimism. Not consistently defending well is a significant concern. Finally, the development of young forwards Agudelo and Jozy Altidore will affect how formidable the U.S. team is going to be for the FIFA World Cup in Brazil.