Neil W. Blackmon
“Everybody, all these cynics, talking about this United States team laying down – they don’t know how to. It’s not in their DNA.”
— Ray Hudson
It would have been so easy to just play out the string and go home.
Down 2-1 and with stoppage time already posted on the clock, the United States Men’s National Team, or more aptly, this incarnation of it, had nothing to play for but the crest on their shirts and the smattering of American fans in a far corner of the Estadio Rommel Fernandez. What was more, as the Americans were surely aware, a goal by Panama veteran Luis Tejada only minutes prior had sent the fans into delirium, temporarily knocking regional giant Mexico out of the World Cup next summer and sending Panama to the intercontinental playoff against New Zealand. Would there be any shame in defeat, especially if the result meant the elimination of an arrogant, brash rival?
Even before the sideline official flashed “three minutes” of stoppage time, there were a number of reasons to simply play out the string. Many journalists stateside felt this was precisely what the Americans would do. One, noting this was the last “competitive” match the Americans would play together until Brazil next summer, questioned the wisdom in the roster selected, hinting the Americans were built to fail in Panama City, and that a likely loss could stunt US momentum. It wasn’t a foolish sentiment.
The team that took the field ninety minutes earlier was an experimental, depth-searching outfit, missing several regulars, including midfield general Michael Bradley and road game, psyche stabilizers Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey. The most experienced American international in the team, DaMarcus Beasley, watched from the bench. The game started brightly, and then Panama scored, with the US equalizing early in the second half. What followed was a desperate Panama team, fighting for their World Cup lives, launching attack after frenzied attack at an experimental US backline.
A 23 year old kid, JozyAltidore, probably the finest player on the US roster, had been handed the captain’s armband– the youngest captain for an American road qualifier in the modern era. He played very hard and very well, but was removed from the game fifteen minutes before, with the game still tied, for no other reason than to let another youngster on the field. This left two oft-criticized players, Clarence Goodson and Sacha Kljestan, as the most experienced US internationals on the pitch, and it remained that way when Luis Tejada scored, putting Panama ahead in the 83rd minute. All around the stadium, pandemonium. Chaos. Celebrations. The sideline official held up the stoppage time board: “three minutes.”
There were so many reasons to quit.
Instead, the US attacked. One good build-up foiled, then another. Another good build-up gone begging. And then, after a time-wasting episode by Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, the home side, urged on by delirious fans, pushed a bit too far forward, turning the ball over. Sacha Kljestan received the ball in the midfield, took a touch or two and delivered a clever diagonal ball at the feet of a surging Edgar Castillo, who cut inward before finding substitute Brad Davis on the wing. Brought on specifically to cross the ball and provide the US a credible threat from width, Davis, who is at best a fringe contender for the team next summer, delivered a perfect ball to a running Graham Zusi, who hit a clinical header into the back of the Penedo’s net, silencing the celebrations and sparking a curiously subdued American celebration. The Yanks were level, and as such, Mexico, officially vanquished moments earlier in Costa Rica, were redeemed.
That should have been good enough, but the Americans again refused to settle. Panama attacked fruitlessly, resulting in a long Guzan boot up the field, which was held well by Terrence Boyd, the man Klinsmann had tasked to replace Altidore fifteen minutes earlier. Boyd found Aron Johannsson, another substitute of great influence, who used the space afforded to him by the Panama defense to take a touch, and curl a shot with his right foot past Penedo’s outstretched arms into the bottom left corner of the net. 3-2. More silence. Even more subdued celebrations. Moments later, referee Courtney Campbell, who had a bad night, whistled the match, and stoppage time comeback, complete. Feisty Panama eliminated. Mexico’s reprieve turned into lengthier redemption.
Just moments before Johannsson (the Icelandic American who picked the US over Iceland, who, it should be noted, will have their own playoff next month for a World Cup spot) scored the game winner, Ray Hudson, the beautiful game’s poet laureate, uttered the words posted at the top of the piece. There were so many reasons for the US to quit. The problem, of course, and one that ultimately spelled tragedy for Panama, is that quitting isn’t in the United States soccer DNA. It’s not a word in the US Soccer lexicon. And for all the discussions about whether Klinsmann’s vow to play the games to win was simply “coachspeak” or reflected the spirit of the German-American’s side, those of us on the “coachspeak” side of the debate are still wiping the egg of our faces.
Of course the Americans went to Panama to win. Of course they played whistle to whistle. For all the criticisms of American tactics, player selection and individual talent, “want to” and “willpower” remain the foundation of the American soccer identity. And that’s a good thing. For no matter our complaints, or our deep desire to be known for how we play and not how hard we play, there’s no reason to accept the increasingly prevalent notion that those two things are mutually exclusive. You can do both. The United States Men’s National Team can forge a new identity and play a refreshing brand of football without losing the will and desire to win, no matter the situation. Your writer would argue they have to. Backbone and character and yes, a uniquely American attitude towards the words “can’t” and “won’t” are and always will be part of what American soccer is. The Americans are going to, as Michael Bradley put it in South Africa at the Confederations Cup four years ago, “fight their asses off.” That’s part of Jurgen Klinsmann’s vision of an “uniquely American style”, and it’s high time the rank and file understand and appreciate that.
Last night was a glorious advertisement for football in CONCACAF. High drama in multiple games and attacking football that was easy on the eyes. A regional power battling for its life and a smaller nation at home fighting for its first World Cup. An underappreciated side, Honduras, seeing its way through on the road after a stunning free kick goal by a Premier League player. Good football, suspense, adulation and heartbreak, and all of it an emotional roller-coaster changing by the moment. It isn’t supposed to be easy to qualify for the World Cup and last night’s final wave of Hex matches proved the old axiom yet again, and in the most compelling manner. Yes, it is mystifying that a team that won only two matches in the Hex could still go to the World Cup, and cynical European writers who are having fun with that observation aren’t completely off-base. But Mexico haven’t qualified yet, and with all due respect to the talent of El Tri on paper, there’s nothing anyone has seen the last few months that suggests defeating Winston Reid, Shane Smeltz and New Zealand is a foregone conclusion.
That Mexico were saved by their hated rivals to the north, a team that El Tri midfielder Andres Guardado said “we are definitely far better than” in the build-up to the US-Mexico tilt in Columbus a month ago, only makes the El Tri plight more fascinating. Guillermo Ochoa refused to comment on being saved by the United States, simply noting that to this point, “there was nothing to celebrate.” Rafa Marquez, in a shocking development, was also ungrateful, refusing to comment, shaking his head and appearing irritated the question was even asked by ESPN’s John Sutcliffe.
There is, and should be, some satisfaction in Mexico’s willed refusal to acknowledge their redeemers. While social media was ablaze with “De Nada, Mexico” commentary and questions about how many Mexican children would be named Graham or Zusi in the next few weeks, the players for El Tri continued to dismiss or simply ignore the redemption offered by their rivals. Certainly there has to be some level of disbelief in Mexico, even as they were spared the humiliation of elimination. After all, this is a footballing nation that just fourteen months ago saw its Olympic team capture gold in London, and that on the heels of winning another youth World Cup. This was, according to the pre-Hex narrative, the latest and greatest Mexican golden generation, and that it failed to deliver– indeed, El Tri had more coaches than Hex victories this cycle– must numb the senses and tax the credulity of the credulous. And that’s before you discuss their being bailed out by their archrival.
Andres Guardado’s “We’re definitely better than them (the US)” remarks are viewed as foolish arrogance stateside but they function well to explain the psychology of Mexican football culture. It is an affront to dignity to think of the United States as a worthy adversary, let alone a rival, let alone a superior footballing nation. Fans (who were grateful last evening, largely) and players alike point to Mexico’s history and plaudits and the clubs their players perform for and simply brush off any suggestion that the United States have passed them in the global pecking order. This is the order of things. Mexico is better, and the US are imposters who don’t understand football and will never match the greatness of Mexico. Brian McBride’s goal in Korea may have changed everything stateside, but that goal, and every dos a cero simply magnified Mexican insistence that no matter how well the US played, they weren’t the equal of El Tri. The recent glowing success of Mexico’s national teams at every level since the 2011 Gold Cup rout of the United States at the Rose Bowl only enhanced Mexico’s sense of superiority over their northern rivals.
It helps to understand this psychology when considering the way Mexico must feel after being redeemed by their American rivals. Did they need the help? Of course so. Will they acknowledge the help? Of course not. But what’s settled, in every mind save Mexico’s, is the longstanding debate about the US and Mexico is no longer a debate. The United States are the superior footballing nation, and if winning the Hex yet again over their southern rival wasn’t enough proof, saving their World Cup dreams for another month is. And it’s this decisive “victory” that was also accomplished when the US refused to quit last evening.
That is, to be sure, a tough sell. The conflicted atmosphere on social media, in private living rooms and at watch parties for the US game last night is instructive. American fans found themselves unsure as to whether rooting for their own country was the “right” play last evening. When Graham Zusi leveled, and El TriTanic were thrown a lifeboat, American fans, like the players (but for wholly different reasons) were subdued in their celebration. You don’t have to imagine what the mood would have been like for any other stoppage time equalizer to understand how last night was different, though thinking of it that way may help. Zusi’s goal was hard to celebrate because American fans, by and large, genuinely wanted to enjoy the suffering of El Tri. Granting them a reprieve “felt wrong”, and seeing Panama, a small nation on the verge of a playoff for its first World Cup, suffer as a byproduct didn’t “feel great” either. The conflict folks felt was completely normal– but here’s the rub– it is divorced from the identity of US Soccer. And last night, more than it was about CONCACAF, more than it was about Mexico getting a reprieve, more than it was about Panama, was about US Soccer.
The United States play to win the game. They play honestly and with great effort, and it was with that spirit, the one that won them the Hex again and the Gold Cup earlier in the summer, that the Yanks redeemed El TriTanic. That Panama had to suffer at the expense of the Americans will to win is a shame- they are a genuinely likable team that is well-coached and play an intriguing style of football. But champions don’t concern themselves with the feelings of their opponents. Not great ones, at least. Champions do win with dignity and class, which the Americans exhibited in spades during mild celebrations after breaking Panamanian hearts.
Last night was about the United States. It was about a manager who pulled all the right substitution strings and did the little things right, like the tactical adjustment to flip Graham Zusi to the other side of the field after he had a poor first half rather than give up on him and remove him from the match altogether. Last night was about reaping the dividends in experience the Americans gained by playing at France, at Italy, at Slovenia and at Bosnia and Herzegovina in this World Cup cycle. All those matches had a purpose- to prepare the Americans for a moment like last evening, in a hostile environment far away from the comforts of home. That this team had defeated Bosnia and Herzegovina two goals down only two months ago mattered a great deal. The Americans knew they could win, if they just kept playing. They’d done it before.
Last night was about finding depth in a great setting to search for it- a road venue against the most desperate type of opponent. Want to know how Jozy Altidore, Sacha Kljestan, Brad Davis, Aron Johannsson or Kyle Beckerman will react if they have to play and the Americans are up against it? Look no further than Panama, coach. You’ll get a strong indicator there. Altidore took the captain’s armband and played like a skipper. Kljestan played his finest match under Klinsmann. Davis too. Johannsson found the net and a gamewinner when it would have been easy to step off the gas. Beckerman, a bit late on the Tejada goal, was still the finest American player on the field.
Last night wasn’t about conflicted emotions, even if they were a byproduct of what you saw. Last night was about the United States coming back to win. Last night was about the United States saving Mexico. And last night was about a team that refused to quit when there was every reason to.
Last night was about a team ready for all the challenges ahead. One thing’s for certain, it’s not in their DNA to quit. And that’s something we can’t say about Mexico right now.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.