After watching the Americans score two goals in the first half hour, Mexico gained control, scoring four unanswered strikes to earn the title as the region's best team.
PASADENA, Calif. - For a moment it looked as though the United States was going to coast past Mexico, shock the 93,420 fans in attendance and walk away as the best team in the CONCACAF region.
It was a very promising 23 minutes for the Americans.
After scoring two early goals, reality eventually set in for the U.S. team as Pablo Barrera scored the first of his two goals midway through the first half to spark Mexico to a 4-2 victory at the Rose Bowl in the Gold Cup final.
"Give credit to them for some of the soccer they put together," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "I think we put a good amount into it and we're disappointed to let one slip away."
Andrés Guardado and Gio Dos Santos also scored for Mexico, while Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan notched the only two goals for the United States within the first 23 minutes.
With the win, Mexico earns a trip to the Confederations Cup in Brazil in 2013. The U.S., meanwhile, walks away with its second straight Gold Cup final defeat after winning two in a row in 2005 and 2007.
"That's a difficult way for us to end the tournament for sure," Bob Bradley said. "As a team we made a lot of progress and we were really looking forward to this matchup."
Just eight minutes into the game, Bradley scored on a header off of a corner kick from Freddy Adu, whose nifty ball-handling outside the box set up the opportunity. Adu delivered the ball to the near post before Bradley redirected it past goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera.
Fifteen minutes later, the U.S shocked the tournament favorite once again as Donovan recorded his first goal of the Gold Cup. The all-time leading scorer in U.S. soccer history, who now has a record 13 Gold Cup goals, fired a left-footed strike from the middle of the box after receiving a perfectly placed ball from Clint Dempsey.
The two goals took the life out of the pro-Mexican crowd in Southern California before El Tri began to dominate the U.S. backline. Mexico was aided by the loss of U.S. defender Steve Cherundolo, who was taken off the field due to a left ankle injury and replaced by Jonathan Bornstein.
Mexico began its rally in the 28th minute when Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez found a streaking Barrera, who burned Bornstein to knock the ball past goalkeeper Tim Howard.
"That's a tough one," Bob Bradley said, "because you feel like if you could play a little bit at 2-0 and still find a rhythm with the ball as they're coming forward there's going to be some more chances before halftime. That one really changed the momentum before half."
The equalizer would come moments later following a few lucky bounces for Mexico. A shot from Dos Santos deflected off U.S. defender Eric Lichaj right to Guardado, who tapped it past the goal line in 36th minute.
"You try to regroup at halftime and get ready to go back in the second half and push it," Bob Bradley said.
Apparently, the Mexican players had the same idea coming out in the second half with the game tied 2-2.
Shortly after returning to the field, Barrera scored the go-ahead goal for Mexico. The West Ham winger found space in the box and shot the ball to the far post. The Americans quickly responded with a chance to tie, but Dempsey's shot hit the crossbar.
Dos Santos put the game away with a nice chip shot into the upper left corner in the 76th minute. Howard was out of the net after trying to close down the shot during the chaotic play.
"It was a great goal with his ability to drift away after we cut him off," Bob Bradley said. "He was dribbling almost away from the goal and still to put it in one of the 90s. It was one of those special goals."
Both Adu and Donovan were in the starting lineup after coming off the bench in the previous game to spark the Americans to a 1-0 victory over Panama in the semifinals, replacing Juan Agudelo and Sacha Kljestan. Adu hadn’t dressed for the group stage games and had played only 24 minutes for the national team in two years entering the game.
The 22-year-old Adu, once considered the savior of U.S. soccer and later a major bust, had another solid performance that certainly earned him the respect of his teammates, coaches and fans.
"I think he's done well since he came into camp," Donovan said. "If you know one thing about him it's that he's not going to be overwhelmed by the occasion."
Bornstein, on the other hand, has most definitely fallen out of favor following an extremely poor performance against Mexico. After coming on as an injury replacement for Cherundolo in the 11th minute, the U.S. looked lost against the Mexican attacking players, who have been dominant throughout the tournament.
"Steve is an important part of our backline and when you play Mexico - because of the way they play - it's a real challenge to your back four," Bradley said.
"Not having that experience at that point is a tough one."
Howard wasn't too happy after allowing four goals
Mexico coasted through the group stage - outscoring opponents 14-1 through three games - but faced tougher competition in the knockout stages. El Tri fell into an early one-goal hole against Guatemala in the quarterfinals before earning a 2-1 victory and needed two goals in extra time to defeat Honduras 2-0 in the semis.
The United States struggled in the group stage but got stronger defensively as the tournament went on. Following an embarrassing 2-1 loss to Panama in their second game, the Americans, led by Howard, entered the final coming off three straight shutouts.
That’s before they met names like Barrera, Dos Santos, Guardado and Chicharito, who finished the tournament with a combined 17 goals.
"I think that they have some really good attacking players," Bradley said. "Sometimes the final becomes a real test with both teams going after each other. That was the way we chose to play this game, knowing that we'd still require good reactions defensively to deal with the situations."
Coming off a 20-goal season with Manchester United, Chicharito recorded a hat trick in the first Gold Cup game of his young career and went on to lead the tournament with seven goals, four shy of matching former Mexican striker Luis Roberto Alves’ record set in 1993.
But not everything would be so positive for El Tri throughout the tournament.
Following its opener, starting goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa and starting defender Francisco Rodriguez were among five players suspended for testing positive for clenbuterol. Bench players Edgar Duenas, Christian Bermudez and Antonio Naelson were also banned from the team, leaving Mexico with only 17 players for three games before it was allowed to add five more players prior to the semifinals.
Still, Mexico made it to the final for the third straight tournament, meeting the U.S. twice.
The two teams split the last two Gold Cups, with the Mexicans destroying the Americans 5-0 in 2009. In 2007, the U.S. won the hardware, earning a trip to the 2009 Confederations Cup where it finished second behind Brazil.
While the game was played on U.S. turf, a majority of the fans in attendance were cheering for Mexico, which in a way has proved to be “America’s team” throughout the tournament.
Mexico sold out Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, Soldier Field in Chicago and Reliant Stadium in Houston. It even drew 46,012 fans in Charlotte, a town not necessarily known for its soccer support.
The only other games the Americans sold out were against Guadeloupe at a 20,000-seat Major League Soccer stadium in Kansas City and against Panama in Mexico’s undercard match in the semis.
Alex Labidou contributed reporting for this article