Dos A Cero is a thing of the past. For the first time in fifteen years, the United States lost a World Cup qualifier on home soil – falling on Friday night against Mexico by a score of two goals to one.
In this most meaningful Hexagonal opener, the mystique of Columbus fell apart for the USMNT – done in by another dose of aggressively incompetent coaching, and maybe a little bit of karma.
Jurgen Klinsmann refused to be outdone. He lined the US up in a 3-5-2 formation in which it had never played before.
The result was, of course, disaster. There was hardly an American player on the field who looked comfortable in a first half in which Mexico took the lead, hit the woodwork twice, and thoroughly dominated proceedings.
Klinsmann would abandon the 3-5-2 for the obvious 4-4-2 after just 28 minutes. But for Mexico, flying up and down the field with a confidence that they’d never shown before in a Columbus qualifier, the early success provided a crucial mental lift.
This time, El Tri didn’t crumble – not after the US got serious after the formation change, and not even after Bobby Wood leveled the score just after halftime.
In the end, it’d be Mr. Meltdown himself – the ageless Rafa Marquez – who had the freedom of Ohio on an 89th minute corner and used it to flick the game-winning header past Brad Guzan.
The identity of the Mexico hero was the salt in what is a painful wound for the United States. This program’s one organic tradition, its one great calling card, was its success in this game. It is no more.
And – stop me if you’ve heard this before – Klinsmann is directly responsible.
For a coach who saved his job not five months ago by finally settling on a consistent formation and group of personnel at the Copa America, this decision to abandon familiarity for novelty in these circumstances was another amazing stroke of hubris.
The result was a US midfield and backline which, feeling its way in the dark, was spectacularly disjointed. Against a Mexican attack full of skillful, quick playmakers, both units were left reeling.
Klinsmann’s post-game response to the total failure of his entire game-plan was, of course, to throw his players under the bus. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones were called out by name.
The criticisms were ridiculous. Jones started the match despite having not played 90 minutes since June and, understandably, wasn’t sharp. Bradley, meanwhile, had a massive amount of work to do in the face of all kinds of pressure.
There were other questionable personnel decisions. Timmy Chandler, who has never played well for the US and doesn’t play wingback, predictably struggled early as Mexico overloaded his side of the field.
Christian Pulisic, who doesn’t play as a number 10 for Dortmund, didn’t play particularly well as a number 10 for the US in the first half. When moved wide in the second half, where he does play in the Bundesliga, Pulisic settled.
This isn’t hard stuff. Continuity matters. Players’ comfort matters. Against a good team, those factors make up the margins.
Details are crucial too. John Brooks and Jozy Altidore didn’t appear to know whether the US was man or zonal marking on the Marquez goal, which, at this level of the game, is amazing.
When you consider that the US has historically crushed Mexico on set pieces – often in Columbus – that was another bitter pill to swallow.
Now, after losing at home, the US is in trouble. Next up is a trip to San José for a showdown against Costa Rica on Tuesday, where the Americans are 0-8-2 in World Cup qualifying.
They’ll go to Costa Rica without Tim Howard, who, fittingly, hurt himself taking a goal kick in Friday’s first half.
Needless to say, there is a very real possibility that the US wakes up next Wednesday with no points and no margin for error in their eight remaining Hexagonal games.
Of course the US should be okay. They certainly have the talent. In Altidore and Wood, they have a truly excellent strike partnership. Pulisic, if utilized correctly, can be dynamite. The defense is solid. So is the midfield.
But no one should deceive themselves. World Cup qualification is no sure thing. Just in the last two years, Klinsmann’s teams have lost to Panama, Jamaica, and Guatemala. The latter two teams didn’t even make the Hex.
Truth is, had Andres Guardado stayed on the field on Friday night, Mexico might not have needed its captain’s late intervention. With Klinsmann in charge, no game is safe for the US.
This loss ends an era. The loss that ends the Klinsmann era might not be far away.
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