By Jon Levy
USA – Mexico: TYAC Previews The Gold Cup Final – Part 2 of 2
My Gold Cup Final Preview Part 1 should provide all the preface you want or need. Now let’s get down and dirty, let’s get down to brass tax, let’s get down to any number of trite clichés!
What to expect from Mexico: El Tri, who’ve switched their formation around a good bit as they’ve cycled through coaches in the last few years, currently run a, umm, 4-4-2? That plays like a 4-5-1 because of the above-the-box activity of Gio Dos Santos? And basically switches to a 3-2-6 as the team moves into the attacking zone? That’s about right actually, and that’s exactly how you score 14 goals in Gold Cup group play. Over a year ago I wrote a post strewn with Wu Tang Clan references in which I implored the US to attack like “killer bees on the swarm.” Bobbo didn’t get the memo (or most the Wu Tang allusions), but attacking as a swarm is exactly what El Tri does.
Generally, on a Mexican attack, one of the fullbacks is getting forward (Salcido or Juarez), and both wing attackers (Guardado and Barrera) are bombing all the way forward. Then one of the central mids (either Torrado or Castro) will join the attack in the box, or just above it, as the other hangs back. Basically, Chicharito and Dos Santos roll into the box with a gang of teammates and passing lanes. But with De Negris, a more traditional target man than Gio, excelling when he comes off the bench, Mexico have some thinking to do. Given the possible massive omission of an injured Guardado from the lineup, El Tri can start their most in form sub, but that’d create a new striking partnership and a new formation. With Dos Santos possibly shifting back to Guardado’s left wing spot to make way, the new formation would operate a little more predictably (good for the US), but inserting another on form player to make up for a possible Guardado absence may prove worth the change (bad for the US).
My guess is that Guardado will play, and show no ill effects of the knock he picked up on his ankle in the semi. But if I’m wrong, I’d expect Mexico to keep Gio Dos Santos in his withdrawn striker/attacking midfielder role that allows him free reign to move wherever he wants in order to create passing lanes and scoring chances for Mexico. He really plays an attacking soccer version of American football’s “monster” or “rover” position, having no responsibilities aside from kicking ass.
On the defensive side of the ball, please don’t buy into any sort of hype about Mexico being porous. They may not have kept as many clean sheets as the Yanks in this tourney, but they’ve allowed the same number of goals, two. They’ve just had the good sense to space those markers out so as to avoid losing any matches. Rafa Marquez is playing lights out, and he’s still a major danger on set pieces.
Corner kicks represent another misconception I want to point out. I don’t care what the reputation going back through the years has been, this Mexico squad is far more dangerous on corner kicks than the current incarnation of Team USA. Blame it on opponents having to account for both Marquez and Hernandez (and sometimes De Negris) if you like, but the Mexican boys are banging them in. Their two extra time tallies against Honduras both came off corner kicks, one of them caroming in off Chicharito’s hip. And as my good friend Will put it to me today, “If I hear one more thing about how stupendous Chicharito and his goal-scoring groin are, I’m absolutely gonna lose it.”
What to expect from the Yanks: I know it’s been a while, but we’ve still got the blueprint for how to beat Mexico, and it’s not dependent on our formation or even our personnel, though choosing correctly on those two helps a lot.
To beat our neighbors to the south, we have to play ultra-responsible soccer in the early going; take care of the ball, and sit back and soak up the Mexican attacks as they come. Soon after which, we respond with an offensive reaction more potent than the ones we parried away. Basically we’ve got to be Bishop in the first half. You know, the black guy in the X-Men whose mutant power is absorbing enemy strikes in order to use that energy for his own more powerful attacks. If you’re not familiar with Bishop, you’re either not a comic book nerd, or you’re a terrible racist.
Nevertheless, I’ve actually got a concrete soccer example to support my theory. February 11th, 2009, the last time the US beat Mexico. Soaking up pressure, valuing possession, frustrating Mexico, and capitalizing on opportunities. That’s how the Yanks kicked off the World Cup qualifying octagon; that, and a Brian McBride piece of brilliance are how they turned this rivalry around over the last decade, and that’s how they’ll win the Gold Cup if they can execute the same plan Saturday night.
Several factors will make this tougher on Saturday than it was in the aforementioned match:
- Los Angeles is pretty damn far from the stronghold that Columbus, Ohio can be in February. The US had the weather and almost the whole crowd on their side in that match. Pasadena in late June is a different proposition altogether.
- The 2011 edition of El Tri has loads of composure to go with their ever present cojones. The knockout stages of the Gold Cup have been a grind for Mexico, but their players now seem to be taking their emotional cues from their talismanic and even-keel young striker rather than from their sometimes just manic center back and field general, Rafa Marquez. Getting out-possessed, out-chanced, or even out-refereed will not send this team into a tailspin as it might have in the not-so-distant past. At the very least, the US will have to take 90 minutes of the best Mexico has to offer.
- The cat’s out of the bag on guys like Bradley, Altidore, and even Kljestan. Those three were all able to find space when they were relative newcomers to the national team in 2009, especially MB90, who had the match of his young career. The joke might be on El Tri though, because one of those dudes is hurt, one may not start, and the other, well the other’s going to play 90 plus. Will this be the match where Mexico learns to fear Ale-Alejandro Bedoya or Juan Agudelo?
The US will likely start this game back in the 4-2-3-1 that they’ve been basing out of for the past two matches, and the only starting lineup question should concern who makes way for the Mexicutioner, Landon Donovan. Bobbo’s options are to do a straight swap for Bedoya on the right wing, or to omit Kljestan or Agudelo and have Dempsey cede the right wing to Lando while moving to the displaced man’s spot. I like the idea of starting Deuce at striker because it fosters even more passing options with respect to buildup play, and allows Agudelo to provide fresh legs off the bench, something we’ve seen him excel in doing. What Bob Bradley will probably do is omit Sacha Kljestan, who was closed down early and often by Panama in the semi, and charge Deuce with acting as the central hinge for the attack.
US Player to Watch: Clarence Goodson
Let’s start with the man in the spotlight and work outward from there, shall we? You have no choice (don’t stop reading, you’ve made it this far). TYAC Editor Neil Blackmon has been referring to this as the “I wish we brought Jay Demerit” match. In rebuttal to this refrain, it’s been my duty and pleasure to point out how well Clarence Goodson deals with physical challenges. I’m right, but so is Neil.
The task of smothering Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez will fall primarily to Clarence, and we won’t know until Saturday night whether it’s a task he’s equal to. Defending the Manchester United forward is a physically demanding job to be sure, but Goodson will have to effectively predict his movements as well, and that part of it is a mental and strategic undertaking. Hernandez doesn’t beat Nemanja Vidic in training by bench pressing the big Serb, nor does he score on Blackburn Rovers by simply shrugging off challenges from Christopher Samba. The Premiership season has necessitated that Chicharito focus on the guile in his game, and as you probably know, he’s got it in spades. Watching the young Mexican get free from his marker and make himself available within the relatively small sphere in which he operates can appropriately be compared to watching Peyton Manning or Dan Marino evade defensive lineman in the pocket. Simply put, we need Clarence Goodson to be Gerard Piqué on Saturday night.
Whether he’s able to do so or not, Tim Howard and especially Captain Carlos Bocanegra will have a massive and vocal task ahead of them, trying to organize an American defense as waves of Mexican attackers fly at the 18-yard-box-extended from every angle. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones will be instrumental in providing the defenders with help as they track back and attempt to deny El Tri’s ball handlers the pick of the passing lanes.
Mexico Player to Watch: Pablo Barrera
The West Ham United supporter in me cannot believe I just typed that, but it’s true, Barrera’s play will go a long way to determining if Mexico can consistently put together possessions that result in scoring chances. The speedy Hammer showed a little promise this year in East London, but he struggled mightily when defenders confronted him with any sort of on-ball pressure. I wish that version of Pablo was playing in this Gold Cup. Alas, the 2011 Gold Cup version of Pablo Barrera has elevated himself to a surefire starter on the right wing, and he’s playing like an on-form Landon Donovan. Instead of crapping his pants when he sees a fullback as he does in England, Barrera is using his quickness to beat the first man off the dribble at almost every opportunity. He’s moving effectively without the ball, providing excellent service in both dead ball and run-of-play situations, and darting into the opponent’s box at will. Who is this guy!?
Of course, part of that answer is “This is the guy playing on the opposite flank from Andrés Guardado, one of the best players in CONCACAF.” Fans of the Miami Dolphins can recall a period of defensive dominance in South Florida, when Fins cornerbacks Sammy Madison and Patrick Surtain were blanketing opposing wide receivers every Sunday. Madison was known to be the better of the two players, until one season his statistics slipped and Surtain’s skyrocketed. Fans and journalists knew it was because quarterbacks figured throwing at Patrick was a path of lesser resistance; therefore, Surtain had more chances to deflect, intercept, and hit. Guardado is Madison. Barrera is Surtain. Finkle is Einhorn. The question remains, will Barrera be able to find success if his Sammy Mad is injured or limited? Or will the Yanks close down space on his side of the field because they’re not over-committing to Guardado’s flank? Even if Andrés is his healthy and dangerous self, can the new truth, Eric Lichaj, frustrate the offensive Swiss Army Knife that Barrera has been this tournament?
The Weather: As mentioned earlier– this certainly isn’t Columbus, Ohio (even on a mild night) in the dead of winter. But it is Pasadena. And it’s late afternoon– so it shouldn’t be too hot. Here’s the forecast for Pasadena, from two reputable sources:
The Venue: Only one of the greatest in sports. Any questions??
TYAC Viewing Locations:
I’ll find out the answers along with you on Saturday night. And if you’re in the DC area this weekend, come join me (@TYAC_Jon) and fellow TYAC writer Andrew Villegas (@ReporterAndrew) at Laughing Man Tavern right off 13th and G Street NW. We’ll be partying, singing, and nail-biting with the raucous and welcoming American Outlaws DC chapter (@AO_DC). Hit any of us up on Twitter if that’s something you do, or just come say hey. We’ll be the good looking guys downstairs from where you walk in on street level.
If you are near Gainesville, Florida: Tall Paul’s Brewhouse. Raf Crowley probably won’t be there- but it would be a safe bet you could find Puck there. And he won’t apologize for partying. Ever.
If you are in South Florida: Head to Hollywood and check out Mickey Byrnes’ Irish Pub— the shepherd’s pie is outstanding and the AO South Florida guys will be there, screaming “Penal!!, Penal!!” basically every time Clint Dempsey falls down.
If you are in Los Angeles: Oh hell. You know what to do.
Prediction: USA 3 – 2 Mexico
This US team will play into its most positively American attribute, and find exactly what it needs in a clutch moment with everything on the line. I look for my US Player to Watch to notch his second goal of the tournament, and for Tim Howard to show why he’s world class and his opposite number in this one, Alfredo Talavera, is not. And yes, US fans who haven’t watched Mexico play recently, Tim can have an amazing game and still allow two goals against El Tri, they are that good going forward. After the way the Gold Cup started, winning the trophy over Mexico will feel like our finest hour.
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!