We’ve seen this script many times so far in the United States Mens National Team’s attempts to get results on foreign soil in 2014 World Cup Qualifying.
-US plays football for a decent portion of the first half,
-US holds its own (with an optional goal to lift the spirits of American fans and players alike),
-US bunkers in after the intermission,
-US has breaks go against them,
-US goes down,
-US departs the opposing nation without points (or a disappointing draw).
But on Tuesday night, those last three lines went off script. Mexico did not get breaks, the US was able to maintain its grasp on the nil-nil scoreline, and they traipse back to their respective domains with a point to show for their effort.
There were elements of this game that show promise for Klinsmann in this grueling competition. Last week, the well-publicized Sporting News article written by Brian Straus aired the criticisms of Klinsmann conveyed by a number of players and people close to the team. Anyone who had watched the recent qualifiers had drawn most of those conclusions anyway, but Straus did the work to verify those weaknesses within the camp.
It may be difficult to gauge the article’s true effect, but there are some signs of adaptation. For instance, regarding the idea of not knowing the lineup until matchday, Doug McIntyre tweeted on Monday that the team was already aware of Klinsmann’s selections.
There may also be some hints that Klinsmann has realized his deficiencies when it comes to tactical planning – especially when entering a hostile arena. Here are some observations of changes in the way the US approached this match, compared to some previous attempts to steal points on the road in WCQ’s:
– He abandoned the notion of high attacking mids in the wide play. Graham Zusi and Herculez Gomez aren’t by nature sturdy defending midfielders, but their posture was always to fall in with the “2 banks of 4” mentality that helps maintain some spatial sanity in the insanity known as Estadio Azteca. And unlike the match in Colorado, Zusi had some good defensive moments – one being a tackle just outside the 18 on Andres Guardado, the other a running intervention of a ball Angel Reyna was ready to head into goal late in the 2nd half.
– Because of wide midfield tactics, rather than advanced wingers, it allowed Klinsmann to maintain the dual central mid combo that worked well against Costa Rica. This time it was Maurice Edu partnering with Michael Bradley, due to the injury to Jermaine Jones. Edu had a decent match defensively, but did have two iffy moments. First he committed an ill-advised challenge of Javier Aquino near the 6 which often invites CONCACAF referees to point to the spot; the second, a set piece where he allowed two Mexican players to have an opportunity to attack a far post ball unchallenged (Chicharito miscued the volley wide to bail out the mistake). Aside from his defense, Edu was also ineffective in finding routes out of danger. His failed attempts to escape with the ball became a difficulty, and meant pressure from El Tri was nearly constant from the 70th minute on.
– The two forwards, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey (and later Eddie Johnson) were quite often on an island. That didn’t seem to be a huge deal. I was unimpressed early by Altidore’s ability to be a target forward, but then when Johnson came on, I realized that Jozy had been doing a much better than the Seattle Sounders’ forward could provide.
– The bad challenges in the final third were kept to a minimum. There were a couple, highlighted by substitute Brad Davis’ ill-disciplined hackdown of Guardado in stoppage time. There were some tactical fouls, yes. But in recent friendlies those conceded free kicks have often been their undoing, and they limited the Mexicans to 4 free kicks on the night.
– And lastly, there were some standout performances by players who were required to step up. Omar Gonzalez had his best match so far in the US kit. Matt Besler was also strong around the area. DeMarcus Beasley proved the serviceable fill-in at left back that Bob Bradley hoped for in 2009. He wasn’t perfect, but he largely got the job done. And at long last, Brad Guzan had his chance to shine. While only asked to make 3 saves, his command and organization were evident throughout. The fact Gonzalez and Besler were able to play confidently speaks to Guzan’s role in this result.
Having said all of that, did anyone really feel as though the US had this salted down? I know I didn’t. Mexico lost some hope around the intermission, and the Americans’ willingness to bunker in only served to heap more pressure on the shoulders of El Tri.
Make no mistake though, luck was involved in this result. Javier Hernandez typically buries his chances at Manchester United, but couldn’t profit from some good opportunities in this one. Giovani Dos Santos floated in and out of this match, often frustrated. And Guardado and Javier Aquino had their dangerous moments, but could never couple a good cross with the necessary finish by the forwards.
This tended to feel more like a wasteful Mexico rather than a staunch and sturdy American stonewall. That shouldn’t take too much away from the feat – it was a team without natural fullbacks, an experienced center back pairing, and it’s captain and goalkeeper. But it should serve to temper any idea that Klinsmann has got it figured out yet. On another night one might have seen a quite lopsided result based on the flow of the play.
And so this result may be a percentage result – sometimes the chances fall your way, other times you end up on the wrong end of a scoreline. In the end the gameplan was carried out. It may not be the way Jurgen Klinsmann envisaged back in July of 2011, but it’s one that puts the US a point closer to Brazil.
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