By FRANCO PANIZO
PASADENA, Calif. - The U.S. men's national team started its Gold Cup final almost as good as anyone could have imagined, but a two-goal lead to start the game wasn't enough against its most bitter rival.
The United States lost its second consecutive Gold Cup final to Mexico, falling 4-2 in a thrilling match played in front of a sold out crowd of 93,420 at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night.
Goals from Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan put the Americans ahead 23 minutes into the game, but Mexico responded with four unanswered. Pablo Barrera netted twice and Andres Guardado and Giovani Dos Santos added one a piece as Mexico stayed undefeated in the tournament, won its sixth Gold Cup title and a place in the 2013 Confederations Cup.
“These games, more often than not, come down to special plays and sometimes players,” said Donovan, who started in his first game of the knockout rounds. "They just made more plays."
The Mexicans pushed the game from the opening whistle, looking dangerous with runs on the flank from Barrera and Guardado.
The U.S. team withstood the pressure, however, and opened the scoring in the eighth minute when surprise starter Freddy Adu whipped in a corner kick that Bradley was able to head home.
The United States' fortunes took a turn for the worse three minutes later as Steve Cherundolo sustained an injury to his left ankle. He was replaced by Jonathan Bornstein, who manned the left flank while Eric Lichaj switched to right back.
"Both teams had to deal with losing some players, key players," said U.S. head coach Bob Bradley. "But certainly Stevie is an important part of our back line and when you play Mexico because of the way they play, it's a real challenge to your back four.
"Mexico came out and put all the pressure right from the start. I think we were figuring out ways to deal with it. Losing Stevie hurts in that moment, and we then move Eric Lichaj to the right and Jonny Bornstein comes in. But not having that experience at that point is a tough one."
The Americans didn't appear to let the injury phase them at first, doubling their lead in th 23rd when Clint Dempsey sprung Donovan free on goal. Donovan, deployed as a forward to start the match, raced by goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera and finished with his left foot. It was Donovan's first goal since last summer's World Cup.
Then things changed for the worse for the Americans, as El Tri began attacking Bornstein.
That resulted in Mexico starting its comeback with a goal from Barrera near the half-hour mark. Following a throw-in, Barrera got behind Bornstein and received a pass from Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez before finishing with a shot inside the near post.
The Mexicans found their equalizer in the 36th minute when Guardado found the back of the net. The play began when Dos Santos cut inside of Bornstein and played a ball across the penalty area. Lichaj got a touch on it but not enough, allowing Guardado to pounce on the loose ball and tap it in from close range.
"They did well to battle back,” said Tim Howard. “I thought we knocked the stuffing out of them at 2-0. We really hit them where it hurt, but take your hat off to them. They’re a good bunch of players.
It was more of the same in the second half as Mexico got a goal five minutes after the intermission. Guardado played a ball to Barrera, who took a couple of touches on the ball and then took a shot with the outside part of his right foot passed a helpless Howard.
“It’s beyond me how they rallied back from that,” said Howard. “We hit them, they counterpunched, and I think they staggered us with that counterpunch.
The U.S. team had chances to equalize, but Mexico added a fourth goal with 14 minutes left in regulation to seal the victory. Dos Santos received a through ball into the six yard box and he eluded an oncoming Howard, dribbling away from goal before floating a shot over a leaping Lichaj into the top corner of the goal.
"It's one of those things where we had a great start and unfortunately they got a couple goals and it put a lot of pressure on us," said Adu. "It's not easy playing against quick, fast guys. Like their whole front line are quick, fast guys and it's difficult for us to always have to deal with every single one of them. They've got a lot of weapons."
Those weapons translated into a loss that the Americans will find tough to digest. That, and bragging rights and a Gold Cup title for Mexico.