A (late) Wednesday night in the middle of the week after March Madness has morphed into the far less chaotic Final Four seems like the perfect time for a good old fashioned MLS All-Stars versus Liga MX All-Stars bloodbath. Throw in a side of what could be a debut for US Soccer’s best prospect in decades and you’ve got the perfect pre-World Cup recipe for a hump day (I’m not going to show just a little restraint and NOT link off to the camel commercial this time, but I encourage you to seek it out if it still makes you as happy as it makes me).
Let’s dive right in– and yes, we’re going to address “Puebla-gate” and #VasquezOut in the “US Section.” Here are the usuals…
Series: This is the 63rd meeting between Mexico and their friendly neighbor to the north. El Tri lead, 32-17-13. On American soil, El Tri are 22-16-11, but have, of course, lost the last four World Cup qualifiers by the sing-song score of dos-a-cero, including September’s qualifier in O-hi-o. The last victory for El Tri in the States came in the star-crossed Steve Cherundolo (we miss you already, Stevie!) Gold Cup Final of 2011. Only three of Mexico’s contingent in Arizona participated in that match: goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera, defender
Satan Rafa Marquez, and midfielder Jesus Zavala.
Weather: Mid-fifties at kick. Mostly clear. Beautiful night for football.
What to watch for from the Yanks:
You mean other than Maurice Edu’s “Rocky in Training” performance that earns him a spot on the plane???
Here’s an upside to so many of the best American soccer players choosing the comforts of home of European football lately: unlike in previous World Cup cycles the manager can actually field some semblance of the real national team in this fixture. Now I don’t expect Jurgen to put the best eleven this squad has to offer out there; rather, I expect him to field a side that maintains enough of the constructs of the national team’s identity so he can truly evaluate individual performances within the team. We all know what a throw-away friendly looks like, and this isn’t one.
If Klinsmann plays Zusi (who should get a big cheer from the Mexican fans in attendance every single time he touches the ball) and Davis or Donovan on the wings, along with two of the Gonzo/Besler/Goodson crowd in central defense, he’ll be able to get a real picture of what Maurice Edu’s defensive midfield game looks like in this system right now. Same goes for a fullback like DeAndre Yedlin; we all know there’s opportunity to make headway in this team at that position.
Likewise, enveloping Luis Gil in a Lando/Eddie Johnson/Zusi cocoon could give the manager a real idea of where his brand of attacking midfield fits on this squad. And don’t get me started on Julian Green. Shiny new toy! I sure wouldn’t hate it if Jurgen played most of his entrenched guys save for Green up top. Have a go son! Yes, Green is “green behind the ears”, as Doug McIntyre wrote for ESPN this week. But talent is talent, and his is prodigious enough that the best club in the world thinks he’s special. More on him after the Mexico section.
Tactically, there are three things to note for the United States. And these are almost more “broad stroke” issues than “Inverting the Pyramid” type tactical details. (For a comprehensive, thoughtful tactical preview- The Shin Guardian‘s house runs house.)
First, Jurgen Klinsmann’s oddly-timed decision to “reassign” his longtime number-two Martin Vasquez this week. Paraphrasing Vice President Biden, this is a big, flipping deal. The timing makes it so, because you are essentially re-assigning your tactical thinktank role less than 80 days before you play Ghana in Natal to begin the World Cup. This is not exactly Bill Callahan overhauling his staff the week before the Super Bowl, but don’t let the two-plus months preceding the World Cup fool you. The US has what is essentially a pop-up camp and a non-FIFA date friendly against El Tri here but following that, the players don’t report again until May. And that camp is about final roster choices first and tactical implementation second. So this is a significant move, one that took courage and lacked sentiment, given Klinsmann’s longtime friendship with Vasquez.
From a pure footballing standpoint, however, the move isn’t nearly as shocking. The Americans have been stuck in the mud since Graham Zusi sent Mexico to the World Cup in Panama. They were dire in attack against Scotland in Glasgow, a bit better but still failed to score against Austria in Vienna, and we all saw the Ukraine match, where the US threatened for all of 20-25 minutes before its deficiencies, sans the MLS contingent, were exposed defensively. The Yanks have lacked “variety” in attack really since late in World Cup qualifying (they were simply executing at a higher plane)– and questions have been asked about Vasquez as a tactical leader since Brian Straus’ piece shook the foundation of the US Soccer regime a year ago at this time. Those questions, as documented by Steve Davis, were asked not just by US players, who feared the US had no overarching tactical leadership, but also by the likes of Kyle Martino and Phillip Lahm, who felt Klinsmann lacked a Joachim Low figure at Bayern which doomed the side to failure under his stewardship. This of course is as direct and indirect indictment of Vasquez as is possible, because Vasquez was in charge of…tactics during the Klinsmann tenure at Bayern.
Klinsmann has tapped Berti Vogts to replace him, which has been met with mixed reviews. His reviews in Scotland, for example, were “miserable.” His current gig, leading Azerbaijan through World Cup qualifying, hasn’t really delivered reviews of value because they are woefully outmatched from a talent standpoint- though it is worth noting that they were fairly competitive in the UEFA campaign. More positive reviews come from, of course, Klinsmann, who has wanted to work with Vogts again for a longtime (the two won a World Cup together, for God’s sakes). Klinsmann loved Vogts when he played for him, and has long-stated the immediate goal for US Soccer is “to get out of the group stage this summer.” It’s doubtlessly true that Vogts may help on that front– he had to deal with both Germany and Portugal from the World Cup qualifying campaign, and that opponent familiarity had to be yet another selling point. That’s all interesting stuff– but this leads us to point two:
The US won’t reinvent the wheel or do much, if anything, tactically different tonight in Glendale. You don’t install a new system or “tweak” and old one in a pop-up camp.
Finally, “Puebla-Gate” reshuffles some things for the US in the back. If you haven’t heard- Mexican side Puebla has refused to release its American players, Michael Orozco and Damarcus Beasley, for this match. This despite the fact that every Mexican club in the league- including Concacaf Champions League teams- quickly released their Mexican players for this match. The view in the TYAC offices is that this absurdly nationalistic move on the part of Puebla hurts Michael Orozco most.
The Americans have one central defender in the “trust” category for Ghana: Matt Besler. Beyond that, Omar Gonzalez is going to Brazil but there are certainly fair questions about his consistency to be raised and his positional defending. As an emergency defender, he’s been fairly good but sometimes his recoveries are only brilliant because he puts himself in positions where he must be brilliant. Clarence Goodson is likely on the plane as well, a good “third” defensive option and one Klinsmann trusts in big matches against big forwards. After that, it is a host of question marks and designating John Brooks and Gooch as such is really just being polite: neither have shown that they are ready to contribute this summer if called upon.
This creates an interesting US roster dilemma: does the US do what most countries do, which is to call in extra defenders and be conservative with roster selections? Or does the US exploit the only advantage it has in a dicey defensive situation: position flexibility? The Yanks have at least three players– Geoff Cameron, Michael Parkhurst, and Maurice Edu– in the playing pool that can play centerback in addition to a more natural position elsewhere. This gives Klinsmann flexibility in a tricky spot: he could simply call in three CB’s and decide that if injuries or card accumulation occur, he’ll have to live with a spot start at CB from one of the above three. OR- he could bring a fourth natural CB- Michael Orozco, who of the remaining candidates has played the best this cycle in a US shirt. Orozco is limited physically, to be certain- but he does improve the US distribution at that position (though this is more about what the others can’t do than what Orozco can do)- and he is relatively sound positionally, which compensates for what he lacks aerially to some extent. Complicating matters, Orozco has played well against Mexico this cycle- and not just because he scored the winning goal at the Azteca. He’s competed, marked well and tackled well, and a good show against El Tri would have really aided his case. Alas, it is not to be. The question now is does Orozco even get the additional look, given that Klinsmann is unlikely to bring more than 30 men to the Send-Off Series camp. Orozco, perhaps more than any other US player– it is fair to say that Julian Green will be invited to the Send-Off Series camp– stood to benefit from this pop-up camp and “friendly.” Now he won’t.
And what will we see out of Mexico?
More of the same from former Club América manager Miguel Herrera, and that means more trying to perfect the balancing act continually inherent in El Trí. The Mexican players are, and have always been, fantastically talented and creative players with the ball at their feet. Yes, I know that’s a lofty generalization, but bear with me. Mexico’s flare and skill almost always go a long way with neutral soccer fans. How many times have we entered a World Cup with Mexico being “everyone’s dark horse to make a run.” It happens almost every cycle, and the traits that make the team so revered (if not so successful) are part of the national identity. As such, it is part and parcel of being Mexico’s manager to strike the right balance between allowing creative players all the freedom they want, and strangling your players’ best attributes with a slavish devotion to certain tactics.
Using this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament Final Four teams as a looking glass, the Mexico manager can’t be Kentucky coach John Calipari, who more or less rolls the ball out onto the floor and tells his prized recruits to go be better athletes than the opponents. This is the natural tendency of too many a failed Mexico manager to count. They become too enamored with the skill on display, and too often Mexico’s high level opponents cut through what turns into some sad excuse for classic Dutch Total Football like a knife through butter.
But the Mexico manager also cannot be Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, whose system, while not run-of-the-mill for college basketball, is iron clad in its roles and rules. After initially righting the wrongs of some of his under-coaching predecessors, Mexico’s most successful manager in recent years, Chepo de la Torre, was eventually guilty of giving his team the Bo Ryan treatment. And while that works for molding clay on the court in Madison, Wisconsin, it came to rob the Mexican players of their joy, and their effectiveness, in 2013.
Enter Miguel Herrera, a Mexican club team manager who brought his system and many of his players with him. The system is there, but never oppressive, and the Liga MX players especially know they’re given room to “express themselves” within the team. Herrera is UCONN coach Kevin Ollie right now. He’s new to the team, but has known nothing but success. He knows the game, but doesn’t over-think it, and he knows when to give the ball to a trusted playmaker and let him close the show. For Mexico, for as long as it’s sustainable, that’s a winning combination. This is especially true of Mexico in attack.
One of the most fascinating benefits of calling in Mexico-based professionals and almost only Mexico-based professionals under Herrera has been that the Mexicans are much less predictable in terms of what they want to do in attack and how they utilize space. The simple explanation is that there is simply more space. With Gio Dos Santos out of the picture, areas of space traditionally occupied by Dos Santos incuts with the ball at his feet or Dos Santos runs toward the center, demanding time on the ball in tighter spaces, are now free to the Mexican forwards, be it Oribe Peralta and Chicharito (one of the only genuine European-based carryovers) or tonight’s likely pairing, decorated youngsters Raul Jimenez (who does ridiculous things) and Alan Pulido. This means they’ve got a traditional target striker and a guy who seeks out the gaps and is constantly moving, in either combination, and there is actually space for them to operate and coexist. That’s made Mexico look quite dangerous under Herrera, and will present a big challenge to the United States this evening.
Beyond that, the most interesting to watch with Mexico tonight is what the revamped midfield looks like, and for that reason, we’re making our…
Mexican Player to Watch: Marco Fabián
Marco Fabián is the Mexican soccer equivalent to that college basketball player that’s been a star since his freshman year, but decides to stay and play out all four years of his eligibility. It’s commendable, but rare these days, and at some point you look at your TV and go, “Wait a second, Aaron Craft is STILL playing for Ohio State?! Isn’t that dude like 25 now?” Yeah, so that was Marco Fabián at age level for Mexico. He played for the Under-20’s, the Under-22’s (yeah was a real thing for El Trí), and eventually the Under-23 team that won gold at the 2012 Olympics. Usually when a guy is the top scorer for, and leader of, those teams he becomes a staple of the full national team pretty quickly. Well sadly for Marco, Gio dos Santos, Andrés Guardado, and the preferred system of former El Trí manager Chepo de la Torre all stood in his way. But now manager Miguel Herrera should have Fabián feeling like John Cena in the mid-2000’s.
Herrera has strong bias towards Mexico-based players, and that prejudice has only been fostered by his version of national team’s utter destruction of Winston Reid-less New Zealand in their two-legged World Cup playoff, and now by Carlos Vela’s continued apathy toward the national team. Herrera’s ready to say it’s his way or the highway, and luckily for the forward/advanced midfielder/playmaker Marco Fabián, Herrera’s way doesn’t include featuring Gio dos Santos as a nailed-down starter in every match.
Because, as noted, Herrera prefers the two-forward pairing, Marco Fabian can now utilize the space behind them in a way that benefits the collective national team unit. Now he’s not a Club América, in fact he used to score a lot of goals for their rivals Chivas, so he’s not a Herrera favorite just yet, but scoring a second international goal at University of Phoenix Stadium (this time against the hated Yanks) could change that. The two American center backs and Klinsmann’s chosen defensive midfielder will have their hands full with the always-moving Fabián for as long as he’s on the field, especially if the more stationary but just as skilled Raúl Jiménez is on the field at the same time.
Regardless of whether or not he scores, he’s playing to make that team this summer.
US Player to Watch: Julian Green
The young Germerican is rightfully this match’s most talked about storyline. You’ve probably been reading a lot about this “promising young player” who’s “not intimidated by training with Bayern Munich’s world football all-stars.” Both those assessments are accurate, though I don’t give a professional athlete, already headstrong archetype, too much credit for not shying away from the ball when he’s getting service from the likes of Ribéry. That said, aside from “high quality,” and “massive potential,” there hasn’t been a great deal written about Green’s style of play, or just what he does best (aside from scoring goals). As Neil W. Blackmon writes, this lack of an established “book” on the kid could be one of his greatest strengths early in his national team career. But aside from the advantage of the unknown, what will the German national team prospect turned USMNT prospect bring to the table?
Green can play center forward, or he can play on either wing, something that Jurgen Klinsmann will be happy about. But if you’re already drawing comparisons to Germany-based Yank Joe Gyau based on the positions he plays, you can kill those right now. Where Joe was supposed to “get his” through sheer athleticism, Julian Green is absolutely full of skill, poise, and tactical nous. That’s why the US Soccer world is freaking out right now. This isn’t a guy that’s supposed to be able to skin you down the flank all match, this is a guy that can kill you with an educated trot through the defense before he receives the ball, then scores it with a beautiful touch or two. As Jurgen Klinsmann so rightly, and so painfully (for many), pointed out when he took over the team, these are the high skill players that the American youth system still struggles to create. Put Julian Green in that category with Fabian Johnson, and let’s hope we see the new Yank’s skill on the pitch Wednesday night.
Prediction: USA 2 – 2 Mexico
A classic battle for a exhibition, and a result that won’t make either side too happy. I’m hoping to see Julian Green play and score, but I’ve got a feeling we’ll see Wondo bulge the back of the net.
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!
Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @TYAC_Jon.