Neil W. Blackmon
For ninety stirring minutes Sunday night, the United States stood toe to toe with Mexico, earning a 1-1 draw in front of 88,000. An early goal from Michael Bradley gave the United States the lead in the fifth minute. Carlos Vela leveled the game on a quick strike counterattack in minute 22. For the United States, the game is another four point in two game World Cup qualifying return under manager Bruce Arena, who relieved Jurgen Klinsmann after the latter was fired last November. The United States now have eight points in six games, and are guaranteed fourth place in the Hex regardless of results elsewhere in CONCACAF Tuesday night.
Four thoughts on the second consecutive qualifying draw for the United States at Estadio Azteca.
Bruce Arena got his lineup and tactics right.
Deploying wholesale changes from the side that defeated Trinidad and Tobago, Bruce Arena rolled out a new formation as well, asking his fullbacks to push high in support when the US were able to win the ball and counterattack through a central Christian Pulisic.
Arena shrugged off the changes, which saw the US play essentially 3-4-3 that functioned more as a 5-4-1.
“”We call the formation a 3-4-3 or a 5-2-1-2, or whatever you want to call it. As long as it adds up to 10, we’re good,” Arena said. He also said the surprise formation for the Yanks was something they began to install implemented the day they arrived at training camp.
“We told the team on day one of camp we would play this way in this game,” the US manager said. “We began working on it then.”
The preparations showed.
The Americans came out swinging, pressuring Mexico and reaping dividends when in the fifth minute, Javier Hernandez, under pressure, played a lazy pass toward the center of the field. Michael Bradley stepped in front of it, looked up, and finding Memo Ochoa off his line, deftly chipped over his head and in the net, scoring one of the more memorable goals in both US Soccer, and venerable Estadio Azteca, history. The Azteca crowd, which had arrived an hour early and made the stadium shake and pulsate with noise after the Mexican anthem, fell silent.
Bradley explained the goal too, was a product of Arena’s preparations.
“Bruce had us watch a lot of video on some of their movements,” Bradley said. “We knew at certain moments Chicharito was going to come back to receive the ball, then play it central. That meant that one of their midfielders would be coming to run through. I felt like I was able to read what we wanted to do and step in and intercept the ball.”
Rather than sit back after the goal, which was the choice of the last American team to lead in a competitive game at Azteca, the US stayed aggressive, applying pressure and waiting for chances on the counter. When the US won the ball, they found time and space in transition, thanks to a Mexico back four playing a very deep offside trap. The result was the US were able to generate quality transition opportunities and win several corners. The Yanks carved out a magnificent chance to score a second goal in the 22nd minute, when a flicked in header from Tim Ream fell at the feet of Bobby Wood, who had plenty of space but half-whiffed and weakly tapped the ball wide of goal.
Moments later, Mexico were off to the races on the counterattack. The ball fell to Carlos Vela, who raced around a pursuing DaMarcus Beasley and shot past a late to cover Geoff Cameron and a diving Brad Guzan. The crowd, so quiet following the Bradley goal, erupted, a jet engine aircraft carrier swell of sound and song and falling beer.
Unlike failures of Azteca past, Arena and the US did not back down after the Mexico equalizer.
In fact, with Juan Carlos Osorio’s back four sitting deep, the US utilized the space available to create another splendid chance, just short of the 38th minute, when Christian Pulisic beat two Mexico defenders through the middle and found a streaking DeAndre Yedlin, whose cross nearly found Bobby Wood on the near post, only to be harried away for a corner. The US threatened Mexico’s goal mouth in the air as well, with Omar Gonzalez winning a header in the six only to mistime his jump and head wide.
The American manager also did well on substitutions, inserting Darlington Nagbe just after the hour mark to give the US a key possession player. The Timbers man was immediately helpful, assisting the US in their only extended spell of possession in the second half, which came at a time when Mexico had been applying extended pressure to open the half.
The decision to start Brad Guzan in goal, a mystifying one at the start of the game, paid off, as Guzan’s distributions were outstanding throughout the evening and he commanded his area bravely against a Mexico side that had scored on a set piece in all but one of their games in the Hex.
“The decision to start Brad was simple,” Arena said. “At his age, Tim (Howard) needs more time to recover. Plus, he had an offseason where he had a very serious surgery, which took him four months to recover. It’s a surgery that affected his kicking. We knew we’d need the keeper to kick it a bunch tonight. We wanted to be safe.”
All told, it was an impressive plan from the manager and a well-executed performance from the Yanks given the quality of the opponent, hostility of the crowd and the fact the US were playing a third game at altitude in eight days and a second in only four days.
The US played its best defensive game in the Hex
After gifting multiple chances to Trinidad and Tobago three days prior, Bruce Arena mixed up his defensive rotations, resting Jorge Villfana and John Brooks and affording opportunities to Tim Ream, Omar Gonzalez and the ageless DaMarcus Beasley.
All three of Arena’s changes paid off.
Ream was marvelous, his help on the flanks integral to executing the US plan to usher Mexico wide. In one notable sequence, late in the second half, he dueled with Javier Aquino on the right, holding Aquino off on two efforts to beat him 1 v 1 and then forcing Aquino into a mistake that resulted in an American goal kick. Aquino kicked at an advertisement board in disgust. It was an instructive moment for the longtime Fulham defender.
Gonzalez missed a great chance to score with his head but was steady, both in his sometimes troublesome positioning and his always reliable emergency defending. More vitally, he swallowed Chicharito often and helped the US immensely in the air on set pieces, winning multiple clearances.
Beasley started for a third time in an Azteca qualifier, and was lively throughout, providing a reliable distribution outlet on the counter and winning three different set pieces, the most of any American player. Yes, Beasley was turned and beat by Vela on the goal, but it was hardly his fault. Aside from being a textbook counter, Kellyn Acosta failed to foul in midfield and Geoff Cameron was moments late closing the shot down, after Beasley had ushered Vela towards his late-arriving help.
El Tri had plenty of chances, of course, possessing the ball 70-30 and playing their best soccer in the second half, when Osorio pushed his line higher.
But the US were up to the challenge then as well, with several standout plays, among them a beauty of a challenge by Geoff Cameron on Chicharito in the 59th minute when he had been played through and another emergency clearance by Omar Gonzalez when Yedlin was turned by Gallardo.
The US caught a break or two- namely when Hector Herrera, the TYAC preview El Tri player to watch- hit the post on a divine set piece in the 72nd minute. But for once, El Tri caught breaks too, the largest being that Carlos Salcedo wasn’t sent off for a rash challenge early in the match on Bobby Wood that in most places on this planet garners a straight red.
The US had a chance to win the game. Part of this is the addition of Christian Pulisic. Part of this is the coaching change.
For a team that spent much of 2015 and 2016 being outshot badly by less-talented opposition, the US being outshot 10-7 by a Mexico side that have lost one competitive match in eighteen months is a formidable accomplishment. And for all the inevitable complaints that will be made by the purists about the lopsided possession, the US system was designed to cede harmless possession to Mexico along the flanks and wait for chances to win the ball and counter centrally.
In fact, it was through one such sequence that the US had a marvelous chance to win the game in the 85th minute, when Christian Pulisic broke on the break and with nearly an identical run to the Carlos Vela goal, turned his fullback and fired just wide of Memo Ochoa, who was beat. To the end, the US pursued three points.
Once again, the US captain, who played a fantastic game, credited Arena for preparing the team to play.
“We did everything we could, from the way we spent the two weeks of preparation installing two game plans, to the work that went in on the field, to the arrangements that were made off the field in terms of preparing in altitude. We did everything we could to win,” Bradley said.
To him, the fact that the US could feel good about their performance was a testament to the team’s commitment to the plan presented by Bruce Arena when he took over at the beginning of the year.
“He told us what he expected and we had to be committed,” Bradley said. “We were. You saw it tonight in our football, in our mentality, physicality, toughness. It was a great night to play. The mentality of the team to understand what the game was about, in terms of how we wanted to play, I was amazed at the commitment. I’ll take our point. Points are hard to come by here. On a different night, we can come away with three.”
As for Pulisic, his rare blend of speed and explosiveness on the ball, balance, and eye for tight spaces was again on display Sunday night. The Mexican press that had showered him with praise for what they saw on television were even more awed in person.
The longtime Reforma reporter next to me turned after one dashing Pulisic run in the first half and expressed his appreciation. “Es maravilloso. Tan bueno en la pelota. ¡Y sólo dieciocho!
The funny thing, of course, is that Pulisic wasn’t at his best Sunday night. He was vital and influential, to be sure, but he hit balls heavy, missing runners in space, and was a step late to the ball at times. That he was playing his third game in nine days at altitude certainly had something to do with it. So did Mexico. But a water-logged and worn-out Pulisic still offers the US something that it has been missing since Landon Donovan exited involuntarily stage left.
The kid is, in the parlance of American sports, a “franchise guy.” He’s the guy you ask to make plays when you line up in a defensive-bus of a formation at Azteca. He’s the guy with the talent that can change a game in a flash, as he nearly did on a run near the 90th minute, just before he was subbed off.
Pulisic is the guy. And the US aren’t just a more capable team with him, they are more confident team knowing they have him.
Finally, the FMF will never do anything about the slur their fans yell at goalkeepers, so FIFA must. The chant distracts from the wonderful players and football Mexico can play.
Mexico are a wonderful football team, one I enjoy watching play a great deal. They have talent at every position, depth, a clever tactician as a coach and engaging young stars like Hector Herrera and Chicharito. That should be our focus, that and encouraging a level of respect between the two sides on the pitch that we’d love to see in our politics. To that end, Bruce Arena praised Mexican Americans and their contribution to American culture Saturday, and the two sides pledged mutual respect before the game began.
All this was quickly disregarded by the Azteca crowd, who whistled and howled through the US anthem. It was a stark and troubling contrast to the respect shown by US fans towards the Mexican National Team in Ohio last November.
Worse, the slurs continued to rain from the stands every time Brad Guzan kicked the ball down the pitch. FIFA has repeatedly fined the FMF for the homophobic slur their fans yell at opposing goalkeepers. That the FMF simply pays the fines and does nothing is disquieting.
More disturbing- and a sign that perhaps FIFA should force Mexico away from storied Azteca- was the participation of their PA announcer in the slur, which occurred repeatedly through the match.
In fact, I tallied it as follows:
PA Announcer Participation in Slur: 12
Mexico Goals: 1
Tough night to cheer, I guess.