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.
Their first fifteen minutes were arguably their best, and – thanks to a moment of absolute genius from Michael Bradley, a player who often saves his best for Mexico – they got a goal that would tilt the final scoreline.
Though they only had 26 percent of the ball, the U.S. even had their chances to win the game. Bobby Wood missed a sitter on a scramble after a first half corner kick, while Bradley hit the outside of the post with a volley late on.
Defensively, Arena’s team was stout. The center back trio of Geoff Cameron, Gonzalez, and Tim Ream was solid, with Cameron leading the way. DeAndre Yedlin was excellent in the second half, while Beasley persevered – despite taking a beating – on the opposite flank.
Save for a moment of brilliance from Carlos Vela, Mexico’s best chance came on the free kick that Hector Herrera rang off the bar. From open play, El Tri – rampant of late – were quiet.
It really couldn’t have gone much better. None of the five American players one booking away from being suspended for the September game against Costa Rica – including Bradley, Cameron, and Altidore – were booked.
If anything, the game should have turned on a call that the U.S. did not get. Carlos Salcedo, who was sent off after coming on as a substitute in Columbus, should have seen red after blatant elbows on Beasley and Wood within the first three minutes.
But the U.S. wasn’t rattled. They had a job to do, and they did it well.
There were no calamitous errors, no egregious refereeing decisions, and no lasting injuries. Just two great goals, a competitive game, and an open road ahead to Russia 2018.
Bradley said after the game that the U.S. was guilty of letting “a lot of little things drop” during their calamitous start to the Hex last year. Arena has fixed that, and in the process, with a slim margin for error, has gone unbeaten in his first four Hex games.
Arena knows his way around this region and this job. Against Mexico, his team reflected that.
Arena is also evolving. One of the knocks on the manager throughout his career – revived when he was tabbed to replace Klinsmann last winter – is that he has often been slow in trusting young talent.
But that hasn’t been the case since this year. Many of the stars of the last week – including Christian Pulisic, Darlington Nagbe, and, Sunday night, the exceptionally assured Kellyn Acosta – have been new faces.
It’s all very promising for a U.S. team that is playing its best soccer since 2013, when the Americans also got a World Cup qualifying point at the Azteca.
But the Mexico team that the U.S. drew 0-0 that night was reeling: in the midst of a stretch in which they would win just one out of eight qualifying games and only make it to Brazil thanks, as we know, to Graham Zusi.
The Mexico team that the U.S. drew Sunday night was on a four-game Hex winning streak, hadn’t conceded a competitive goal since November, and hadn’t trailed in a competitive game since last summer’s Copa America.
This was, thanks to Arena’s work, Bradley’s moment of genius, and everything in between, a statement result. All of the sudden, the U.S. national team is a force to be reckoned with again.
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