Neil W. Blackmon
I love the smell of Mexico City in the morning. Smells of crisp spring air, flatas and baked breads, a touch or two of smog and today, of desperation. It’s a strange, brutally small-sample size world we live in as fans and journalists following the international game and so the narratives for any given country can experience seismic (sorry, Earthquake pun) shifts daily. Such is the world we live in on this USMNT-Mexico match day.
Just four short days ago the tenor of the comments on Twitter were extra gloomy. Jurgen Klinsmann was on the ropes, losing his battle of “collective spirit and play beautifully” to a new opponent, “anonymous source.” Friday night’s “Snow Clasico” didn’t necessarily cure all that ills the United States, but it did stop the bleeding and did an incredible number on the morale of US supporters. While it’s a small(ish) sample size, the Twitterverse is a great example of that, as folks have stopped their 140 character protests, planned New Zealand trips and pleas for Klinsmann’s head in favor earthquake jokes about the host city and traditionally snarky tweets expressing disdain for El Tri.
Meanwhile, Mexico are in a panic, with even larger media outlets calling the match a “must win” for Mexico and others saying a loss could doom the very popular five days ago manager Chepo de la Torre. It’s hard to imagine Torre being ousted with a defeat, but it is not without precedent, as El Tri did make a change during the last cycle’s Hexagonal tournament. So the stakes are high tonight and the tension among the Mexican faithful in Mexico City is palpable.
The reality, of course, is somewhere in between and that’s why, outside of good humor, it isn’t real useful to gauge the pulse of supporters and media in between international dates. All the ills and pitfalls of the Klinsmann regime could come back into the limelight should the US perform poorly tonight in Mexico, and the opposite is true for Mexico, who wouldn’t really be in danger of missing the World Cup if they fell to the US tonight, not with seven games to play in the tournament and a top-four finish all that is necessary to secure at least a playoff. Would things be dicey? Sure. But would it be time to panic? Not realistically. Point being, it’s a great news cycle but not a particularly great story- not this early in the tournament.
What is a great story, of course, is the rivalry between these two countries and the sheer volume of great reading it produces. This list is by no means comprehensive, but when you’re travelling and dealing with time constraints, you can only read and then recommend so much. Here are some great, insightful, and even funny links to get you ready for tonight’s match.
— Many folks keep wondering when Jozy Altidore, who scores so often for club, will begin pouring in the goals for country. Whether the Curious Case of Jozy Altidore has replaced the formerly Curious Case of Clint Dempsey for country is a story for another day, but Jozy Altidore, for one, is not worried, writes Jeff Carlisle. Carlisle also writes that the US is confident ahead of the match.
–And with Davis’ piece in mind, a precursor piece I wrote a few years ago, on Brian McBride, dos a cero and the goal that changed everything for US Soccer.
— For tactical pieces, it is tough to top The Shin Guardian’s preview piece. Very, very insightful stuff on Gio Dos Santos and the incut, and a comprehensive look at a potential US 11. Great stuff.
— Simon Borg with a call for a five man back from the USMNT- which is an interesting idea, and of course if deployed would be another example of Klinsmann changing the script on his club hours before a match….
— Grant Wahl wonders if the Estadio Azteca has lost some of its mystique of late, and whether the US can capitalize…
— Dominic Bliss and Luis Bueno discuss the difficult tug of war that Mexican-Americans have whenever the US and El Tri get together.
— Maxi Rodriguez of Futbol Intellect fame with a .GIF reminding Americans what happened the last time the US and Mexico met in a competitive match…
— Finally, a veritable “Who’s Who” in American soccer writing roundtable of predictions and thoughts on tonight’s match, featuring Jared Dubois, Jason Davis of ESPN, Eric Beard of A Football Report and others. Worth the time.
With links out of the way, I did want to offer three final thoughts on tonight’s match to compliment Jon Levy’s marvelous preview.
1) Klinsmann and the Americans are talking about “going for it” tonight. If they’re serious about that, I think Sacha Kljestan and Michael Bradley should start the match.
I don’t care if it is the double pivot that was so effective against Mexico in Columbus in 2009 or it is both of them in more advanced roles centrally. Kljestan is a different, and really, dynamic player when he gets to play in the center and the quickness and rate of US play will dictate whether they can counter with any effectiveness against a sketchy Mexican backline. Kljestan’s two-touch ability is another reason Mexico’s central defenders, including 20 year old Diego Reyes, who will be as wide-eyed as they come tonight, will need to stay honest. Klinsmann has confidence in the Anderlecht man and he has played his finest matches in a US shirt against El Tri. It’s a gamble and it gives up a lot of width, but I view it as a worthwhile gamble.
2) Brad Guzan could have put heat lamps up and made Smores Friday night. Tonight is his moment.
Lost in a great deal of the tactical breakdowns of this match is the Aston Villa goalkeeper, who tonight will play his most important match in a US shirt. His ability to communicate with the back four will be tested like even the poor Villa backline can’t test it, and he’ll need to be tremendous to keep the Americans within striking distance. Tim Howard has said Guzan would jump in front of a train if it meant stopping the ball. Tonight Mexico will come out like a freight train rolling downhill, and Guzan will get to prove Howard right, or wrong, one way or the other.
3) Oh Captain, My Captain.Joshua Wells of The Shin Guardian wrote a thoughtful piece on Carlos Bocanegra losing his spot on the team, and the captaincy, last week. The story (both Wells’ and the story in general) got a good bit of run out in the build-up to the Costa Rica match, and then Clint Dempsey grabbed the armband, a goal and all was right in the world again. Wells’ central point: that the object of the game is to win and Bocanegra simply isn’t playing for a competitive enough club in a competitive enough league, and is too old to compensate for that fact– is largely true. And even if you believe the benching of the American captain was as inelegant and harsh as Brian Straus’ Sporting News Story made it seem to be, the arguments that time is undefeated and had compromised Bocanegra’s value to the team extensively are still difficult to argue.
That said, omitting him from the roster didn’t make much sense to me, and I think the right way to frame the argument is to speculate as to how much more valuable Bocanegra’s simple presence on the roster would be given the stakes in Mexico. Surely the Americans have enough in Maurice Edu, Geoff Cameron and DaMarcus Beasley to retain options at fullback and leave either Beltran or Morrow at home. And surely simply having Bocanegra around to tell one of the ten-plus US players who have never experienced a qualifier at the Azteca has merit that goes beyond sentimental value. If you concede all the arguments about age and father time, you still have a pretty marked leadership vacuum that must be filled in Bocanegra’s absence. It must be filled, and not just for 90 minutes in a driving snowstorm in Denver, but in the seven-eight games beyond that when the adrenaline of playing at home with your backs against the wall is less all-encompassing.
For over half-a-decade, Carlos Bocanegra has been this team’s heartbeat. And yes, there is bitterness from the “fan” in me who can’t believe, no– doesn’t want to believe– that he’d be ushered off, stage right without so much as a Timex watch and a proper goodbye. There’s a value, beyond the sentimental, in that heartbeat, especially in the dark corridors of the Azteca and in the dressing room. With Goodson, Besler, Gonzalez, Edu and now Orozco Fiscal, you don’t necessarily need to risk having him play- but without Landon Donovan and Tim Howard, you certainly wouldn’t mind having him speak, especially if you’re getting pummelled but are still within reach at the half in Mexico City. That value, that leadership, is something that Jurgen Klinsmann should have separated from the notion that any inclusion of Bocanegra would have been sentimental. Without him, the Americans will rally behind young Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, presumably, and it is on those two men to keep the team together if, and tonight, when, things get difficult. As if Michael Bradley didn’t have enough to worry about against Mexico’s midfield. As if Clint Dempsey didn’t have enough to worry about, given the fact that he’s the only American to score a goal for country in 2013. Bradley and Dempsey have mettle, grit, and love playing for the USA. There’s no question. But a trip down to the Azteca might not have been the time to completely phase out your heartbeat for seven years.
Tonight, the Americans will probably lose to Mexico. And it won’t be true, from a tactical standpoint, that Carlos Bocanegra could have prevented that result. But this is a rivalry game. For US Soccer, this is the rivalry game. And from a leadership standpoint, not having Carlos Bocanegra, all Colonel Jessup style on that wall, in that locker room, may alter the result. And that’s a damn shame.