Thursday, August 16, 2012

US Soccer's historic win at Mexico

Funny how sports work.  Just when you thought that Mexico had everything going for it, US pulls off the most unlikely victory perhaps in its history.  Stretching back to 1937, the US had played 24 games in Mexico (20 of those at Azteca), losing 23, and only getting a draw once.  Then, add in the fact that Mexico had ran roughshod over the US in the Gold Cup just last summer in a back-breaking, program-altering game that resulted in Bradley's firing.  We can't fail to mention that Mexico's U-23s just somehow pulled off an upset over Brazil (who may have the best five U-23 players in the world! - Neymar, Oscar, Pato, etc plus world class guys like Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Hulk) for a gold medal and Mexican national soccer mojo was at an all time high.

Then, while Mexico has called in their 1st team, Chicharito, Guardado, Barrera & co, Klinsmann decided against calling in (mostly because their club situations are not settled or their places are not solidified) the following 6 US starters: Dempsey, Bradley, Bocanegra, Cherundolo, Onyewu/Goodson, and Altidore.  Even if you don't consider the recently benched Jozy a regular starter, that's still 5 critical positions that will need a substitute.  Dempsey is only our best offensive force.  Bradley's only our best central mid.  Captain Bocanegra, Goodson and Dolo make up only 3 of our back 4 defenders.  So that's half our field players.  Right.  No big deal.

In their place, we started Torres, Beckerman, Danny Williams, Castillo, and Cameron.  Edu played out of position as a CB and Fabian was flipped to the right (since Tim Chandler refused another call-up, waffling about which country he wants to commit to).  So this is not exactly a confidence-boosting lineup if you're about to play your most hated rival on their soil, a place you're winless in 24 tries all-time.

For posterity and clarity, again, here is the recent lineup from our most recent WC qualifying match in June:

Dempsey Bradley Donovan
Edu Jones
Fabian Boca Goodson Dolo

Here is what we trotted out there yesterday:

Torres Donovan Williams
Beckerman Jones
Castillo Edu Cameron Fabian

Even more interesting, here is the lineup we had out there when we scored in the 80th.  This is essentially the C team:

Shea Beasley Zusi
Beckerman Jones
Fabian Edu Cameron Orozco

And the goal-scorer?  It came from probably the least likeliest player on the field, our substitute RB.  For some reason, Orozco was in position to race into the box when he saw Shea running at goal, knowing a good cross was coming.  It is hard to say whether Boyd meant to pass the ball with that backheel or just get it on frame.  Regardless, it couldn't have been placed more perfectly, just out of reach of lunging defenders, to Orozco who swept it home just a few yards out.

Many had criticized Klinsmann's decision to call-up Shea because of his tumultuous MLS season, but Brek was easily our most potent offensive player all game, even in just 15 min of play.  In addition to the nutmeg he put through the Mexican defender to create our goal, later he had a gorgeous cross which a sliding Boyd is still dreaming about now.  If it were me, Shea belongs entrenched on the left wing for many years to come.

Any list of standouts last night must include Geoff Cameron.  Perhaps buoyed by his recent transfer to EPL's Stoke City, Cameron put in a gallant display of clearing crosses and breaking up chances throughout the night.  Doesn't hurt that he's 6'3.  Both he and Edu were shaky at times, but Mexico never really had a clear look at goal throughout the night.

Guardado got off a few dangerous crosses, but was relatively quiet otherwise.  For no other reason, I'll mark that in the plus column for Fabian Johnson.

I thought Tim Howard had shredded his ACL while changing directions to stop Chicharito's deflected shot.  His left leg from the knee down was leaning right while the rest of his body was diving left.  In the dying minutes, he blocked a point blank header and cleared it off the goal line with his foot.  Yes. Man of the Match.

Conversely, one of the disappointing players on the night was Jermaine Jones.  He didn't look extremely effective at breaking up Mexican attacks, and he looked very unsettled on the ball and was unable to help us maintain possession for very long.  I thought overall, our defensive midfielders allowed too much space behind them and often took too long to close out attackers in dangerous spots.

Danny Williams continues to be misused on the wide right.  The defensive midfielder just isn't a threat to go forward or even stretch the defense on that side.  I can understand if Klinsmann's strategy with 3 defensive midfielders in Jones, Beckerman and Williams was to park the bus, but that is not how he said he wanted to play.  I thought perhaps a Zusi, Beasley or Corona would have been more in line with what he was asking Williams to do.

One of the reasons Gomez was starved of service was the poor play of Torres.  Jose was supposed to help us maintain possession and create some opportunities, but he was essentially invisible last night.  Klinsmann took him off at half.  Landon was also subbed off at half for a tight hammy, making our win even more improbable.  I would have liked to see more offensive aggression out of him - ie, freakin shoot the ball when you're in range.

But even with Landon being out, this game did feel different than any other game I've seen us play at Azteca.  The environment just didn't feel intimidating, even on TV.  First, it wasn't packed to capacity for some strange reason.  Why were there only 56k fans in a 100k stadium?  I bet we'd get 100k here in LA if the US played Mexico in a friendly.  Secondly, it didn't seem as scorching hot as I'd expect a mid-August match to be.  Usually the steaming temperatures would combine with the altitude and wear down the US halfway through the 2nd half.  Lastly, this didn't have the pressure or urgency of a qualifier.  The situation seemed ripe for an upset.

When was the last time we played a friendly against Mexico in Mexico?  1984.  Then we didn't play again until 1990, which really marked the year of US Soccer's rebirth since we've qualified for every World Cup starting from that year.

The US has played 34 games against Mexico from 1990 to present day.  15 US wins, 11 Mexico wins, 8 draws. Since 2000, we're 11-5-3 against them, including the most important game the two teams have ever played against each other: 2002 World Cup Quarterfinal.  We won 2-0.  In case you forgot.

Much was made about the "gap" that is forming between the US and Mexico teams.  Granted, after over a decade of the pendulum swinging our way, Mexico finally beat us in a game that mattered (Gold Cup '11).  True, we don't have any players on one of the elite clubs like they do - Chicharito on Man U (even though one great thing about the Van Persie transfer is that Chicharito should get even less PT).  And yes, their U-17 and U-23 teams have won international tournaments recently, giving them a bright future.  However, nobody is mentioning the one thing that helps mitigate this "gap", if it even exists.

Our Germans.

We are continuing to get an infusion of young talent from Deutschland.  Fabian Johnson looks to be a starter at fullback the next few cycles.  Others like Terrence Boyd, Danny Williams, Alfredo Morales, Jermaine Jones and even Timothy Chandler have all had an impact on us already.

Meanwhile, Klinsmann's attempt at culture change will take many years of course, if not many cycles, but it is aided by these faces coming from outside of our development system.  Anyway, even after just 1 year, Klinsmann's led us to victory over Italy for the first time in history (in Genoa no less) and now Mexico at Mexico City.  And, we are leading our group in qualifying.  Can't complain.

By the way, Klinsmann has 1 win, 1 draw (which should have been a win) and no losses against Mexico.  And his win made history.  I honestly would rather break this streak than make the Olympics.

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