When the United States began the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying against Mexico in Columbus last November, then-U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann gambled – sending the Americans out in a never-before-used 3-5-2 formation.
The result was a disaster. The 3-5-2 was abandoned after a half hour, with Mexico ahead 1-0. They would win the game 2-1, and Klinsmann would be fired just ten days later.
Fast forward to Sunday night, with the U.S. preparing for the return match against Mexico in the cauldron of Estadio Azteca, and another gamble by an American manager.
Bruce Arena, never shy, decided to flip seven players from his team’s Thursday night win over Trinidad and Tobago, and roll out a hybrid 5-2-3 formation that recalled the U.S.’s shock win over Portugal to open the 2002 World Cup in South Korea.
But there was nothing haphazard about this risk. Arena knew even before his team assembled in Salt Lake more than two weeks ago he how wanted them to approach this game.
The U.S. began preparing to play the 5-3-2 on the first day of camp. They used it in the second half of the Venezuela friendly, and they trained in it all week. There were no last-minute surprises.
“We told the team on day one of this camp that we would play that way in this game,” Arena said. “I’m proud of the result.”
He should be. This was a job awfully well done. Arena knew what he wanted, he communicated it clearly, and his team executed. Simple as that.
No details were spared. To acclimate to the altitude of Mexico City, the U.S. played its first game in Sandy, Utah (4,449 feet), moved on to Commerce City, Colorado (5,146 feet), before moving onto the Azteca at 7,200 feet up. Altitude tents, simulating breathing at 10,000 feet, were specially ordered for each player.
All the lineup changes? They were planned and relayed well in advance too. Arena wanted fresh players in this game – including in goal – and he ended up starting a team that was neither tired nor overawed in one of the world’s most intimidating atmospheres.
There was explicit planning there too. Brad Guzan shut out Mexico in this game in 2013. Paul Arriola plays in Liga MX, as does Omar Gonzalez. DaMarcus Beasley has played in every Azteca game since Vietnam.
The result of all the preparation was that the U.S. started the game with energy and purpose.