A fistful of thoughts on the U.S. men’s national team’s 1-0 win over Mexico in Mexico City:
History works in mysterious ways. It was less than a week ago that the spotlight was on the U.S. women’s national team, who stole hearts again with a stirring run to the gold medal at the London Olympics. Two days later it was supposed to be about CONCACAF as Mexico won gold on the under-23 men’s side.
But even more both results were a shot across the bow for the U.S. men, undeniable proof that player development and talent in Mexico had surpassed that in the U.S., where the under-23s had failed to even get to the Olympics and the full national team had been pummeled in the Gold Cup last summer.
Combine that with the limited experience of the U.S. roster pieced together for a midweek friendly on Mexican soil, where the U.S. hadn’t won in 24 matches (0-23-1) over 75 years, and Wednesday’s match against the full Mexican national team should’ve been a coronation for the home side.
It turns out that the fireworks were set off a bit early, coming at halftime to celebrate the Olympic triumph. Had the plan been to wait until the final whistle, they might not have been shot off at all following the U.S. men’s upset victory, Mexico’s ninth loss in 120 games at Azteca.
Does that make the men the equivalent of the women? Probably not, but Hope Solo definitely won’t own the soccer spotlight tomorrow. And as for the gulf between the U.S. and Mexico, this result may demonstrate that it’s not so wide that either side can ever be fully counted against the other, no matter the setting.
Jurgen Klinsmann throws his guys into the deep end, and it turns out they can swim. There’s a subtle difference between looking critically at roster and simply criticizing it. There was no argument: the group that the U.S. head coach brought to Mexico was relatively inexperienced, and some changes and roles were in store that would test them in the most unforgiving of circumstances.
Of course, Tim Howard is as good a goalkeeper as any national team in the world would welcome, and his ability to dominate the box and make game-changing saves is mesmerizing. But Geoff Cameron and Maurice Edu also stood tall in their new central defensive pairing. Outside backs Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo were also solid while defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman was calm, composed and unfazed by the grand stage.
Meanwhile, no Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Carlos Bocanegra, or Steve Cherundolo. Core team members at every position weren’t present.
At an individual level, not everything Klinsmann touches turns to gold. Jose Torres’ terribly ineffective 45 minutes stands out, and Jermaine Jones hasn’t appeared to add any dimension to his game besides coming close to earning a yellow card every time he’s involved in the play.
But there’s belief in the group as a whole. Maybe that has more to do with the players themselves than the coach, but the best manager is one who knows the right things to say and figures out how not to get in the way. The payoff will come when the U.S. visits again during World Cup qualifying. A foundation for success exists where one didn’t before.
Klinsmann does deserve credit for bringing in Brek Shea. As a D.C. United beat reporter, it was my responsibility to ask a hard question about Shea’s inclusion over Chris Pontius when the team was announced last weekend.
Perhaps Klinsmann simply saw his cards in his hand and felt that Pontius was a player who in the moment wouldn’t be hurt by not getting a call. Instead the bigger opportunity was to help nurture Shea back to the level where those in U.S. Soccer know he can play.
Whether or not that should be the national team’s mission, Shea responded immediately to set up the game-winning goal.
His smooth run into the box led to a cross that Terrence Boyd audaciously hit with his heel to find an defender, Michael Orozco Fiscal. That’s a modern, spirit breaking goal, the best kind in that kind of hostile environment.
Mexico should’ve been at its best, but simply wasn’t. As strong a lineup as Mexico trotted out, it didn’t look that way, particularly at forward, where Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez was far too preoccupied with drawing contact over playing through contact. The Mexican league is also just starting while MLS is in midseason, and the mid-August, midweek date is almost universally abhorred.
Keep that in mind when these teams square off again. The U.S. will brim with confidence on the back of what they’ve now achieved. But that will make their very worthy next door neighbors even more intent to get a result in what is unmistakably one of the best rivalries in all of soccer.