Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon
It is dangerous, in high level soccer circles, to discuss Michael Bradley, the Roma midfielder/US heartbeat who was injured, freakishly, we presume, in the pre-match warmup Friday night in San Jose, Costa Rica. Yes, Bradley is a good and influential player, but how good? He’s class…for an American, is a common thread. There are those who disagree. Luke O’Brien wrote a compelling (that’s understating it) piece for Howler Magazine a month ago dubbing Bradley “America’s most important soccer player”, one who under two managers has played so well in Rome that Daniele De Rossi has looked somewhat expendable. That such a discussion can even occur without much laughter is instructive. Bradley is, with all respect to Claudio Reyna, the finest central midfielder the United States have ever produced, and if it wasn’t clear to folks before, it was evident on a cooler-than-usual Friday evening at the new National Stadium in Costa Rica, where the United States was forced into action without him moments before the opening kick.
What ensued was a US team forced to make instantaneous tactical changes: revert to a sort of dual-destroyer, err.. double pivot hybrid 4-4-2 without Bradley to keep possession. The tactical switch failed miserably. Costa Rica pushed aggressively forward (they would have anyway, from the looks of it) and without MB 90 to keep the ball in the middle and without Jermaine Jones making smart decisions to drop deeper in possession to help, the US found itself playing 5 v. 4 or worse, 5 v. 3 in the midfield zone from the start. Costa Rica were already ahead 1-0 when Jones did drop deeper to aid in defense and in possession, and by then, Costa Rica were exploiting acres of space on the flanks as well as wide men Fabian Johnson and Graham Zusi pinched too far in, presumably in an effort to correct the constant numbers issues the Americans were having in the center. Regardless, it was 2-0 before the Americans best two players on the MB 90-less field, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, retreated to help as well, and by then the US were chasing a game that was nearly lost. The third Costa Rican goal, a combination of silly decisionmaking by Eddie Johnson, a lack of service from Jermaine Jones, a rare positioning error from Matt Besler, and indecision from Tim Howard, ensured the Americans, who pulled one back late in the first half, would suffer defeat for the first time in thirteen matches.
With the defeat the Yanks fell three short of Spain’s international record fifteen consecutive victories, and worse, missed a glorious opportunity to seal Brazil qualification, given the other results in CONCACAF on the evening. Compounding matters, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler and Jozy Altidore all received yellow cards, meaning they are suspended for Tuesday’s proceedings in Columbus, Ohio, where a desperate, coachless rival, Mexico, lies in wait.
On some levels, the American manager, Jurgen Klinsmann, deserves a reprieve for his hurried tactical reversion and his choices Friday night. It is exceptionally difficult to alter a game plan on one day’s notice, let alone ten minutes notice, as was the case when the American field general injured his ankle Friday. But what is also clear is that the US warts, regardless of tactics and adjustments, were on display Friday night. The Americans are still not a good set piece team. They are still staggeringly thin at center half, and they still lack genuine options off the bench when chasing a game- and that even with Eddie Johnson in the finest form of his career. It isn’t Dennis Green: “They are who we thought they were”- that’s overused and trite—but it is about a team with a thin margin for error, one that will define the remainder of the qualification tournament and of course, what happens in Brazil next summer.
That said, given the length of the winning streak, there’s no reason to think the sky is falling. It also bears repeating that the Americans are 23-0-2 this century in home qualifying matches, and their opponent Tuesday night in Columbus, Mexico, are fragile, desperate and in far worse shape than the suspension-heavy, MB 90-less Americans are. Sure, it is a rivalry game. That means chippy, probably a bit more sloppy from the start, and nerves. And yes, you always want your best guys available for rivalry games. Rivalry games are marked throughout history by unexpected great performances, however, and they are, despite the movies, often won by the better team. The Americans have a better team than Mexico. They are at home. And they have a chance to qualify for the World Cup (with Honduran help) and deliver a crushing blow to a rival on the ropes. If that sounds like a challenge worth embracing, it is. If it sounds like all the pressure is on the other guys, well, that’s a strong argument. If that sounds like fun, it will be.
Series: This is the 62nd meeting between the United States and Mexico. El Tri lead 32-16-13. Mexico lead 22-15-11 on US soil, however, and the Americans have won the last three qualifiers played on American (Ohio!) soil by the sing-song score of dos a cero.
Weather: Mid-80’s at kick and warm. Very little chance of rain. FABIAN JOHNSON MISERY INDEX: 8.5—this is actually a factor in the match. Johnson hates hot weather. It will be hot. The Yanks need Johnson at his best to win the game, by our reckoning. Something has to give.
Neil W. Blackmon on what to watch for from the Yanks:
A tough one to call, given the suspensions, injuries and late additions (Joey Beers, Clarence Goodson, Jose Torres (vindicated!!) and Brad Davis join the team). Mexico’s precarious situation (who exactly is in charge tomorrow- Fernandino Tena? A veteran leader? Do they have one?) makes it even tougher.
On the American end, how many times do we actually start at goalkeeper? SI’s Andy Glockner (you know him from Bracket Watch during basketball season- but he’s does soccer stuff too and is a great follow on Twitter) has been driving a “getting more crowded” Brad Guzan bus for a few months. Without question, Guzan has the hot hand. He’s ½ the reason Villa are playing in the Premier League this year, not the championship. (Benteke) Tim Howard is showing age. And he played a frustrating match Friday night, where he probably could have done better on goal two (come out!) and certainly was indecisive on goal three (come out!). As he’s aged, he’s more and more indecisive on set piece 50/50’s and in less command of his area. But…
He’s still a first team goalkeeper in the Barclay’s Premier League, and he’s saved the US’ bacon on countless occasions. Plus, with the exception of a soft goal against Ghana in the knockout stages of the World Cup (you can’t get beat near post, sir!), he’s been at his best for the States in the biggest games: Spain at the Confed Cup, England at the World Cup, Argentina friendlies, Mexico in the Azteca win, Algeria- and that’s just a few. There are two schools of thoughts in goal: one is you play the hot hand; the other says you play the savvy, experienced veteran. We expect Klinsmann to (for now?) dance with the one who brung ‘em.
The back four is even more dicey. There’s a pretty strong argument that Michael Orozco-Fiscal should start instead of Clarence Goodson, who has been miserable in his career against Mexico. It’s somewhat tragic that Goodson comes in now to play El Tri—if El Tri had come first and Costa Rica had been second, Klinsmann would have gotten Clarence against the team he’s been monstrous against almost every run out.
As for Fiscal, well- we’d pair him with Goodson and not just because he scored the winner at the Azteca, but also because he’s played well at center half under Klinsmann and that’s usually where he’s been deployed. He’s also way better than Goodson at keeping his line against quicker, lean mean strikers, which Mexico still have, despite all their issues. Omar Gonzalez is a no-brainer.
DaMarcus Beasley played well against Mexico at the Azteca. Tomorrow night, on home soil, with Mix Diskerud in the game as a facilitator, Beasley on the overlap can help the Americans attack the weak Mexican right flank, and Beasley the defender can help Kyle Beckerman cover the Gio Dos Santos incut. Over at The Shin Guardian, they have an excellent write up on why that’s effective, and how the US dealt with it at the Azteca. Keep in mind home soil means more possession—that means more Beasley overlap, but be glad the veteran will understand the line between aiding attack and staying at home to defend. (Editor’s Note: For more on why Mexico will continue to assault the US with the incut, even though the US halted it at the Azteca- read this Zonal Marking piece from the 4-2 2011 Gold Cup Final. They also used it effectively vs. the US in the early Klinsmann friendly- a draw)
Right back. We just don’t know. Brad Davis is here. So is Jose Torres. Johnson played this spot brilliantly in the post-Olympic friendly victory at the Azteca. And that was after being forced to play over there because of a late injury in camp. That’s the argument for him. Michael Parkhurst played it well for long stretches this summer. And it’s his natural spot. And it lets Fiscal slot inside. That’s the argument for him. We’ll lean Parkhurst.
The Yanks will win, lose or draw this match in the center, regardless of the back four grouping. Bradley’s out, that we know. Kyle Beckerman is probably in. Beckerman is the US’ walking “Harlem Shake” video: slow dancing by himself in a room, no one paying attention, puts in a good performance, followers swoon, become disinterested, repeat.
Here’s the thing: Beckerman was massive in the historic win at the Azteca, played great all summer, and is the most capable player in the pool (by some distance) at handling the LCDM “Gio Dos Santos incut” role. Beckerman ain’t fast, so Dos Santos will try the blow-by on occasion (another argument for Fiscal at LCB, not Goodson)- and Beckerman’s positioning will need to be pristine, but we’re thinking he’s capable. And if ever a guy were due to put in the “How do you like me now?” performance- the type of game that often occurs in rivalries—Kyle Beckerman is the guy and tomorrow night is his night.
Jermaine Jones must play better than he did Friday night without MB 90 to let him do his swashbuckler and bomb forward thing. Why it took a player Klinsmann so often compliments for his brains more than 15 minutes to drop deep and help the US defend in Costa Rica the other night is beyond mystifying. The good news is on home soil Jones can naturally play higher, pushing the line of confrontation further forward, and making life a bit easier on Kyle Beckerman. This also means Landon Donovan won’t have to surge back and cover continually/find the game (something he did exceptionally well in the second half when the US was dictating play Friday)—he’ll have Jones higher, meaning better link-up play access. Jones against Mexico has been somewhere between mixed bag and poor—he faded after a bright start in the Gold Cup final and was poor, without Bradley, in the Azteca victory—and he’ll have a lot of responsibility for transitioning the US defense to attack tomorrow night. He’ll need to play well for the US to win.
We like Mix Diskerud on one wing, tucked in, as a facilitating hub, and either Landon Donovan, Fabian Johnson or Graham Zusi on the other side. Putting Donovan in the midfield eases the pressure on Jones to perform—but Jurgen Klinsmann has incredible belief in the Schalke man- and we don’t think he goes that far to help him. This also allows Donovan to start at striker, where he can challenge a poor (by Mexico standards) center half pairing plagued by a refusal to take good angles and a failure to remain narrow (they were actually both not goalside on the Bengston goal against Honduras!!) instead of Eddie Johnson (whose better as a “bang on you like an old church bell because you’re tired” substitute. Donovan at forward makes even more sense if Tena decides to push the match higher up the field to protect the backline- it only takes one incisive ball in transition (make the play, Jermaine!) for Landon to get through and behind. We’ve. Seen. That. Movie. Before.
Clint Dempsey wears the armband, plays in behind Donovan and should have link-up play if the US utilize Diskerud (or Torres?- surely not?) as a tucked-in wing facilitator. Dempsey is also extraordinarily adept at diagnosing when defenders are sucked out and making runs to the unoccupied space. That’s been a successful formula vs. El Tri during their slump.
And Neil W. Blackmon on what will we see out of Mexico?
And you thought the US section was difficult in this match…
Your writer feels Mexico has been plagued by three things during the swoon that sees them on the brink of qualifying disaster (and no, it doesn’t get easier- they still have to travel to Costa Rica and Panama, who is also desperate, waits at home).
First problem has been internal discord and player refusal. It’s unreal Carlos Vela isn’t with this team and even more shocking, if you believe sources close to the team, that Andres Guardado was nearly omitted from the eighteen, let alone the starting eleven. Mexico arrive in Columbus desperate, but do they get along well enough to care?
Second, they can’t score. Four goals in SEVEN Hex matches. Four stinking goals. And no, they aren’t all in the run of play either. A four goal outburst against Ivory Coast last month alleviated fears: surely Chepo had figured it out after the Gold Cup failure, most thought. Wrong again. Mexico have tried a bit of everything: pressing high (which only increases their vulnerability on the counter, multiple striker combinations (five in the Hex), long set pieces, short set pieces. Four goals.
Oribe Peralta was a revelation as a non-traditional striker against Mexico, polishing off chances against a Mexico team that was more diverse than Dos Santos incut, fail, repeat, against the Ivory Coast, and all looked well against Honduras initially until it wasn’t. After six bright minutes, Dos Santos was bottled up and Mexico had no other route to goal, leaving Peralta on an island starved for service that wasn’t coming. Christian Gimenez played hard but provided little. Angel Reyna, another “newish” starter, on fire for his club Veracruz, was ineffectual and drifted too deep, creating even more supply issues for Peralta. Fernando Arce, another player who has been masterful for his club, was invisible after the first goal, and worse, he was unable to stem the tide when Honduras wrested control of the midfield Friday evening at the Azteca. Arce will need to be better, especially with mainstay Gerardo Torrado out on yellow card suspension.
Meanwhile, Javier Hernandez, held out of the starting 11 because Chepo felt the Ivory Coast lineup merited a replay, was effective Friday night. Chicharito nearly rescued his teammates, forcing Noel Valladares into a pair of decent saves, but playing him with the non-traditional Peralta would be experimental and the two didn’t show much chemistry against Honduras on home soil.
Andres Guardado, inconceivably left out of the starting 11 against Honduras, should slot into the the midfield and allow Mexico to be a bit less predictable in attack against the Yanks, but he’s not even playing there for club. He does tend to show up against the States- but even with him, there’s no real reason outside of “they’ve got to be better” to think El Tri will be prolific in attack tomorrow night. Again, their best attacking play is the Gio Dos Santos incut- and the TSG summary bears a second link (different piece)- but if the US can handle that, they’re in business.
What’s more- Mexico haven’t threatened on set pieces with any consistency in the Hex, meaning they aren’t as capable as Costa Rica, Honduras or even Panama at exploiting what is without question the Americans largest defensive weakness.
Lastly, but probably the largest issue with El Tri, has been the back four. Yes, they’ve only conceded four goals- but here that statistic is fool’s gold. It is the personnel that is lacking.
Gerardo Torrado out on yellows isn’t MB 90 out with an injury, but it is a big loss for an El Tri side that likes to play a high line to protect a weak (by Mexican standards) back four. Torrado, aside from being a splendid tackler, was the Linus blanket for young Mexican centerback Diego Reyes, who isn’t as adept on the ball or passing the ball out of the back as his press reads. Watch how often a Mexican midfielder needs to retreat to give him an outlet tomorrow night to see something of what I mean- there were eight such balls to Torrado in the first half alone Friday night. Hector Moreno is steady enough, but he’s not nearly the anchor Rafa Marquez was back there and he spends most his time telling right back Servero Meza and Reyes where to go. Reyes was torched and outmuscled by Carlos Costly on the Honduran winner, and his inability to shoulder a bigger, more physical striker is an argument for Eddie Johnson’s inclusion in the starting eleven, though our thinking is that Reyes tires in the second half and a fresh Johnson off the bench can better exploit this issue.
Finally, Mexico’s central midfield is unsettled. Fernando Arce won Chepo’s favor with a fine game against the Ivory Coast, but he was miserable at holding the ball when Mexico needed it most Friday night. We expect him to play instead of 22 year old Porto midfielder Hector Herrera, who at 22 has a bright future but is a tough sell to us in this spot and venue. Jesus Zavala is the most likely deputy for Torrado- he has played against the Americans before and had a fine game. PSV’s Carlos Salcido, a longtime favorite of this publication, could get the run out in the middle with Zavala if Tena wants to experiment, but we think he’s much more suited to his normal station of left back, particularly given the tenuous American right back situation heading into this match. Salcido was to blame for the turnover that led to Jerry Bengston’s equalizer in the Honduras match, and he’s sometimes careless about when he decides to bomb forward, but he’s easily the best Mexican passer along the backline and at the very least, playing him at left back keeps Jorge Torres Nilo, the Mexican Bornstein, on the pine.
Salcido also allows Mexico to work the American flanks—they’ll want to avoid the center to some extent with Torrado out—and reduces the risk that the Americans can exploit a high backline on the counterattack with his recovery speed.
Conquer these three issues and Mexico have a chance to win against a makeshift US side, even on the road in what has been their personal house of horrors. Rivalry games are anything but predictable, after all. Plus, Mexico still has…
Jon Levy on the Mexican Player to Watch: Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez
I tend to stay away from the obvious picks in these “player to watch” sections, but this is a pivotal moment for Mexico, and a pivotal moment for Chicharito. The Manchester United striker has recently been plagued by a lack of finishing at international level, and that’s been pretty much his only problem. His movement has been good, he’s been getting service at near regular levels, and his hold-up/distribution play hasn’t really fallen off. That said, when you’re a striker and you’re not finishing, well, you get benched for an important home qualifier and then your coach gets fired.
Mexico isn’t a one-man-team by any stretch of the imagination, but it can’t be ignored that form of El Tri has swung in-sync with the form of Hernandez himself since he became the country’s starting center forward. Back in the summer of 2011 Chicharito was one of the hottest young strikers in the world, and Mexico was a well-coached complete team that played organized defense and created scoring chances left and right. Hell, they were even among the darkhorse favorites for the 2014 World Cup. Most of that description still applies to El Tri, but take away some of the scoring chances and a lot of the Hernandez finishes, and you’ve got a team in turmoil. Same goes for its leading man.
So what does the formerly talismanic Hernandez bring into Columbus on Tuesday night? Obviously he brings the type of savvy movement on and off-ball that will test the chemistry of a new American central defensive partnership. As noted, we’re likely to see Omar Gonzalez paired with Clarence Goodson or maybe even Michael Orozco-Fiscal, and whichever two make the start are likely to have their hands full trying to track Chicharito. This isn’t a fair comparison, but given how much space Edin Dzeko was able to find between Cameron and Brooks a couple weeks ago, I’d say Javier’s savvy and movement will be too much for even Omar and Goodson/Orozco to handle. And yes, it’s still on Hernandez to finish his chances, but I expect him to be fueled by a newfound desperation on Tuesday night. Mexico is in danger of falling below the cut line in this final hexagonal group, Chicharito is coming off a benching, and he’s trying to impress a new manager who won the gold at the 2012 Olympics without his services. Think NFL quarterback-killing defensive end in a contract year. Jurgen better buckle up his defense, because Hernandez is primed to eat.
Jon Levy on the US Player to Watch: Mikkel “Mix” Diskerud
If you told me last week that I’d be making Mix the US Player to Watch against Mexico I’d have rightfully laughed in your face. That’s a ridiculous notion, right? Yes, it was a ludicrous notion one week ago, especially so in the face of his anonymous performance as the Yanks’ dedicated central attacking midfielder against Bosnia. But now Michael Bradley is out with a severe ankle sprain, and another central midfield option, Geoff Cameron, is suspended on yellow card accumulation. So who does a manager that decided to leave Sacha Kljestan in Belgium turn to? Mix is my pick.
Now I could be completely wrong of course, and we could see 90 Mix-less minutes in C-bus. A Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman dual destroyer or double-pivot midfield is definitely a possibility, with Jose Francisco Torres fresh off the plane starting as a tucked in winger and possession hub. Or maybe Klinsmann plays Dempsey or Donovan deeper in the midfield, kind of a reactionary response to the D & D Lonely Island effect we saw in Costa Rica. But I’m thinking Herr Manager look back to the Gold Cup Final and the Stuart Holden injury.
But it’s that Gold Cup final that makes us think Klinsmann, who is big on faith and confidence in players, runs out Mix. Mix entered the most important match he’s ever played in as a straight sub for Stu, who was tasked with playing the Michael Bradley two-way central midfield position before going down. Diskerud came in and changed the game. He was all over the field, constantly showing for the ball, consistently scanning for the most ambitious pass, and playing those dangerous chance-creating balls with great frequency. It was the deeper positioning that gave Mix the extra half second to be brilliant against Panama, rather than crappy as he was just weeks later playing in-the-hole in Sarajevo. Yeah, his defending asks questions. But with Beckerman and Jones out there, he won’t be asked to do as much.
On Friday night I suggested on Twitter that Mix be brought on for the second half in Costa Rica. That didn’t happen, and I was asked by David Tenenbaum, a Juventus blogger, if I thought Mix was good enough at marking and tackling to play that role. The answer of course is that those aren’t his strong suits. But I think Diskerud proved in his impromptu partnership with Kyle Beckerman that his motor can make up for his defensive deficiencies. He also showed the ability to possess the ball under pressure, escape that pressure, and distribute both responsibly and aggressively. It’s also worthy of note that Panama applies more defensive pressure than Mexico does, and they generally do it more effectively than El Tri. My thesis statement: Mix Diskerud has had his trial by fire. He passed. He’s also shown us what he can’t do. So it’s time to give him a start in a big game at the spot where we know he thrives, and tell Jermaine Jones to shield the defenders with his entire being.
Prediction: USA 3 – 2 Mexico
Two pissed off teams go at each other hard and bring the best out of each other. I expect a showcase match for CONCACAF like we haven’t seen from USA-Mexico for a number of years. Goals for the stars. That means Donovan, Dempsey, and Chicharito. This is a dig deep match, and I’m banking on the American well being deeper than the Mexican equivalent after that twelve game winning streak. There’s something to be said for “learning how to win.”
And hey, it’s C-Bus. It’s a rivalry game. It might get you in the World Cup. Let’s roll.
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!
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