Monday, April 16, 2012

McBride scores as US beats Mexico 2-0 in Legends Classic

Formally announced only 9 days before the game, the US-Mexico Legends Classic was played Sunday night at the Home Depot Center and indeed featured an important and historical swath of all the retired legends of US Soccer.  The non-televised match was clearly marketed toward the Mexican fan base since the name of the event was actually "Clasico de Leyenda", had a Spanish language-only band pregame, prominently featured a large Mexican Soccer Federation crest (literally the expanse of the entire section of seats) behind one of the goals and benefited a Hispanic academic charity.

It makes sense since there is no other way to pull in a respectable attendance in such a short time.  I would estimate that there were about 10k people there, give or take 2k.  The sidelines were about 75% full while the endzones (and lone sideline upper deck) was blocked off.  And of those 10k, I'd bet there were less than 200 US fans.  From where I sat - 8th row, 35 yard line - I literally did not see another US fan anywhere around me.  I'm a little surprised that there weren't more but even didn't have the requisite mindless threads that you'd expect - there just wasn't any US interest, not even for a $15 general attendance ticket.  It must be noted that the US players should be commended for even agreeing to this event likely for the sake of the charity, knowing the hostile environment they would be subjected to.

I can't speak for the pedigree or historical importance of the Mexican players, but the US lineup was extremely impressive and historically significant for any US Soccer fan.  Let's see:
Eric Wynalda - veteran of 3 WCs, 2nd leading scorer (34) in US history.
Cobi Jones - veteran of 3 WCs, most caps (164) in US history.
Alexi Lalas - 96 caps, possibly the most well-known personality (and hair) in US soccer history.
Paul Caligiuri - His '89 "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" ended US' 40 year WC drought.
Clint Mathis - scored against S Korea (in Korea) in the '02 WC.
Thomas Dooley - veteran of 2 WCs, '98 captain.
John O'Brien - veteran of 2 WCs, scored first goal vs Portugal in '02 WC upset.
And lastly, my favorite US player of all time, Brian McBride - veteran of 3 WCs, 3rd leading scorer (30) in US history, first player to score in 2 WCs.

In fact, of the non-active US legends, the only ones that I would have loved to see out there as well were Marcelo Balboa, Claudio Reyna, Tab Ramos, Earnie Stewart and Kasey Keller.  Other players to round out the US team included Jovan Kirovski, Roy Lassiter, Cle Kooiman, Ted Eck, Greg Vanney, Chris Klein and Ian Feuer.

The Mexican players that I recognized included Francisco Palencia, Jared Borghetti, Ramon Ramirez and of course, Jorge Campos.  The entire event was fairly cordial, with McBride non-surprisingly being especially friendly and obviously respected by many of the Mexican players.  At halftime, Campos even feigned to be a goalkeeper for Wynalda's toddler son in a nice moment.  That of course didn't keep a few idiot fans from brawling sometime in the 2nd half in one of the end zones.  This would have been a great game to bring my 3 year old to, but based on the potential though improbable dangers of the event and the fact that he's a little sick, I decided against it.  At least he wasn't there to hear our national anthem be disrespected, so there's that.  Since I had been to the Rose Bowl for the Gold Cup last June, I knew this night wouldn't faze me and I'm happy to report nothing negative was experienced, outside of some overly excited and unclever El Tri fans behind us.

The two teams came out in fairly generic jerseys, with the main sponsor, Bud Light, predictably emblazoned on the chest.  The US wore white tops with royal blue shorts and striped socks while the Mexican side were in traditional green tops, white shorts and red socks.  Apparently the US had Nike swooshes and Mexico had the Adidas emblem, but there were no official federation crests in the usual place.  From a distance, the US really appeared to be wearing cheap white T-shirts, which I thought was a solid idea so that those who were carrying a little more weight these days would have more room.

As for the game itself, I was curious about who would have the advantage.  US traditionally holds the edge in strength, speed, fitness and organization while Mexico ought to be more technical.  I figured age would likely rob the US of their speed and fitness more than Mexico of their technique and skill.  Wouldn't you know it, the US ultimately prevailed in part because of their organization.  Also, I wondered how long of a match the sides would actually play.  If it were a full 90, I figured the last 20 minutes would be dreadful to watch.  Brilliantly, the game was played in two 35 minute halves (which therefore cut out the last 20 min), with nearly a 30 min halftime break for recuperation.

As for the general formation, I observed the US lining up in something like this:

-----------Mathis - McBride--------
Wynalda - Dooley - Kirovski - Jones
Caligiuri - Vanney - Lalas - Klein

The US were smarter in their substitutions, as coach Curt Onalfo used them even in the 1st 10 minutes and constantly revolved some of the less fit players in and out of the match.  Cobi Jones, Clint Mathis, Paul Caligiuri and Eric Wynalda were among those who were, how do I put this nicely, noticeably thicker in the torso and therefore required more rest.  Onalfo also made in-game tactical adjustments better than his counterpart.  Again, the US' advantage in organization and formation was a huge reason they won. 

The US were the stronger side to start off the game, as their passing was initially superior.  They were able to send in a few mishit crosses in McBride's direction before Mexico really even mustered an attack.  However, Chris Klein at RB was caught out of position a few times and Mexico quickly realized that the US weakness was up the left flank.  As they got settled in, they began to possess the ball more and I figured we would now see a classic Mexico-US match where the US would have to chase the ball and weather a constant attack all game.  We even joked about moving to the other side for the 2nd half so we could see all the action.

However, Onalfo had a wildcard up his sleeve by the name of John O'Brien.  The game was turned on its head when JOB was subbed into central midfield midway through the 1st half.  He essentially dominated the flow of play, connecting all the correct passes, making the necessary strong runs and easily maintaining possession in traffic.  It was a reminder of his much talked about Ajax training and why Bruce Arena loved him so much.  But injuries robbed O'Brien of a mercurial international career (32 caps only) and robbed US fans of seeing the extent of his (and our) greatness.

The 1st half ended scoreless and we feared an even slower 2nd half.  To my surprise after intermission, the game was became wide open.  In the 50th minute, John O'Brien patiently timed a perfect through-ball toward his left to a streaking Roy Lassiter, who slotted it home.  Apparently Lassiter coaches youth soccer and one of his students along with family in front of me sprung up to celebrate, even though they were probably casual Mexico fans.  My friend and I stood up reflexively as well and admittedly wondered if it was the right decision.  No beer cups headed our way.  Incidentally, the mother of that kid had previously asked me whether or not Roy was good.  I knew of Roy as a good MLS player but wasn't too sure of his international credentials.  Not wanting to disappoint, all I said was, "Well, he's a legend".

Mexico obviously went on the attack after that and Lalas, Vanney and other US defenders all made timely and physical tackles.  The US keeper, Ian Feuer, also had a spectacular game as the 6'7, spry 40 year old made many great saves to preserve the shutout.  According to Wikipedia, Feuer had just 1 cap in a 20 minute substitute showing in 1992.  I guess when there's only been 4 keepers in 22 years (Meola, Keller, Friedel, Howard) and two are still starting in the EPL, finding a US GK legend just might be difficult to do.  It would have been nice to see Keller though.

But the main attraction for me was to see Brian McBride again.   You may be wondering why I've spent so many words on a exhibition non-televised old-timers game.  This is why I'm excited.  Easily my favorite US player ever, McBride didn't score in the 3 games at the Deutschland 2006 WC when I saw him play in person.  If he wasn't on the official roster released a couple days before the game, there would be chance that I would have skipped the event.  So when he received Wynalda's pass to him just outside the top of the box in the 62nd minute and blasted it into the top left corner, I was literally in shock.  I think I may have slumped back, put my hands on my head,  mumbling, "What did I just see?".

McBride looked to be the fittest and fastest player on the field.  He was sprinting after lofted passes well into the 70th minute.  There's no question in my mind that he could've played in the 2010 WC if we had asked.  The McBride moments I will really remember are:

- Palencia waiting for McBride to come out at halftime and the long friendly conversation they had.
- His strong header that was somehow parried away by the diving Mexican keeper.
- He leaped high into the air to powerfully redirect a goal kick into space for Cobi on the right.
- He and Cobi were the last to leave the field and he spent a lot of time signing autographs, including my hat.  I realized at that moment that I had forgotten to wear my '06 McBride US jersey.  Idiot.

In the end, seeing him score that goal was the best I could have hoped for and for the final score to be 2-0 is simply perfect.  Dos a cero.

McBride is a true class act, a consummate professional, respected by teammates and opponents alike, and sacrifices time for the fans.  He probably saves kittens stuck in trees in his spare time.  By the way, the first time McBride scored against Mexico was in 2000 in the US Cup and of course scored against them in the 2002 World Cup.  10 years later, he does it again in the all-important Legends Classic, haha.  As silly as it sounds, this was one of the most memorable US Soccer experiences ever.

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