No one should have been looking for redemption in Wednesday night’s friendly with Mexico. The next chapter in US Soccer’s metamorphosis was opened instead, as Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad fought back from an early hole and drew Mexico at 1.
Still fresh in many minds was the four-goal collapse against El Tri in Los Angeles a few short weeks ago. A devastating injury to Steve Cherundolo threw a serviceable backline into frenzy, and the resulting debacle hastened the organizational reboot of the Men’s National Team.
As the United States took the field, you could already see a couple of changes. Numbers ran from 1 through 11, and no names were present on the shirts. Even with Klinsmann stating after the match there was little significance to these items, you sensed that it would bring a different dynamic to the squad.
The friendly, in front of a modest-but-raucous crowd in Philadelphia, started inauspiciously for the Americans. In the 17th minute, a cross from Andres Guardado off of a short corner was fortuitously redirected by Oribe Peralta past Tim Howard. Michael Bradley was marking the Santos forward, but Peralta’s waist-high foot was enough to put Mexico ahead.
The first half was not pleasant for United States fans, but after the match Klinsmann stressed a desire to work on key components throughout the match. One in particular was defensive posture. Starting with two young defenders, left back Edgar Castillo and center back Michael Orozco-Fiscal, there may have been cause for concern in the defensive third. “I think the task in the first half was difficult, to maintain defensive shape and to keep the high-pressure Mexican side away from goal. Besides that surprising goal, they didn’t have many real chances.” The Peralta goal was the only attempt by Mexico on goal all night, which speaks to the performance put in by the back line as well as holding midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones.
The overall shape for the United States wasn’t much different to the final matches of the Gold Cup. The most obvious role change was Michael Bradley, typically a deeper player, working as an advanced attacking midfielder. His presence in the middle wasn’t bad, but coupled with Edson Buddle as a target forward, he didn’t have enough forward intent to provide the forward an outlet. Jose Torres played in left midfield, but came inside quite a bit. While Klinsmann remarked postmatch about Torres’ ability to cross from that left wing, opportunities for those deliveries seemed rare. Generally speaking, the Americans were so focused on defensive stability and careful possession that they were starved for real chances. By far the most opportune first-half chance came early, as Jones failed to connect in close with a 7th minute Cherundolo cross.
After the intermission though, a marked change in intensity came about for the Americans. With the likes of Jones and Beckerman, you figure that some steel is bound to come through. As they took a more aggressive, physically dominating tone in the match, Mexico withered. A 57th minute corner was perfectly played to Carlos Bocanegra, but his strong header was parried clear by Guillermo Ochoa. That was just the beginning.
As Mexico relented to the United States’ grit, key substitutions made their mark in a huge way. Buddle made way for Juan Agudelo, and Jones came off for Brek Shea. This allowed Bradley to move back to a more familiar box-to-box midfield role. Torres slotted into the center of the attack, which allowed Shea to work the left wing as he does in Dallas.
The equalizing goal came after Robbie Rogers replaced Bradley and pushed Donovan from the right into the central midfield. Off a 73rd minute throw in, the ball found Agudelo, who got the ball to Shea breaking down the left against a defender. Shea’s cross eased through the 6 yard box out of the reach of Ochoa, and Rogers stuffed it home to even the match.
The remainder of the match was the Americans to win, and they poured it on. A long through from Donovan came right to Shea in the 82nd minute, but Ochoa dove to get fingers on the low shot to the keeper’s left. Then, the in 86th minute, Mexican defender Gerardo Torrado hauled down Rogers as he broke through the defense onto a ball. The clear goalscoring opportunity was denied, but Torrado only received yellow. The match ended at 1-1, a tie that opened a new era with a pleasant taste in the mouths of United States supporters.
The man of the match was Shea, though. While Torres was OK on the left, Shea continued his emergence in the American soccer landscape by creating the lone US goal as well as injecting energy, pace, and attacking mentality to the squad. This from a guy who started the season for F.C. Dallas as a center back. I asked Shea about his progression this year, “From center back to left back to left midfield, I think when you play the defensive position, you gain a lot more respect from the attackers. When I had the chance to go back up there, I just wanted to make the most of it, and I’ve been building off of that ever since.” Shea’s stock, both in MLS as well as internationally, continues to rise, and Klinsmann will enjoy finding ways to utilize his combination of size, speed, and skill.
And enjoyment is what Klinsmann seems to relish. His press conference after the match was one of delight. He spoke of fun, perhaps something that the team has lacked in recent years. “We wanted them to express themselves, and have fun.” The Klinsmann chapter has opened, and it appears that creativity, fun, and defensive determination will be hallmarks of the months and years to come.