Aguilar's Golazo Drives Stake In Heart of USA Dreams
This game was flawed, tragic and at times unwatchable, but in it was a real sense of beauty.
In the contrived-yet-compelling "CONCACAF Cup" final between eternal rivals Mexico and the United States, it took an extra 30 minutes of play and a truly breathtaking volley from Paul Aguilar in the 118th minute to separate the two sides on the pitch. It sent the nominal visitors to the 2017 Confederations Cup and left the nominal hosts to do some uncomfortable soul-searching.
On an unforgettable, dreadfully hot night in Pasadena's grandest cathedral, here's what I took away:
A Game Fit For The Occasion
It's been a while since I can rememeber a match where a stadium swelled with feeling from start to finish, hitting every note of the emotional register on the way.
This one wasn't always easy on the eye, however, particularly from the Americans. Athletic bursts from wide players and audacious dribbling from Jermaine Jones provided some of the only spark available in a match where the Mexicans denied them any oxygen. The opening US goal was well-taken, but the marking on it was criminal. And even if US fans kept the tradition of calling out "Olé!" with each consecutively connected pass, I doubt very much they'd have an occasion to do so. The visitors had their number from the very first whistle, displaying greater quality throughout, starting with a beautiful first goal from Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and not letting up much throughout the marathon two-hour match.
But this game was a cracker anyway. It had enough bad feeling to make it tantilizing (culminating in a truly terrific almost-fight in the 34th minute when Oribe Peralta went in hard on Brad Guzan while chasing after a ball), but it never boiled over to the point that it took away from the competitive focus of the game. For what the US lacked in consistent quality, it made up for with a few beautiful moments such as Bobby Wood's fabulously-taken goal and the perfectly weighted through-ball from DeAndre Yedlin that enabled it. The Mexicans, in particular, played with a delightful swagger that they hadn't shown off in far too long. Both fanbases were in full voice throughout, and seemed to get along more civilly than they had in times past.
What transpired outside of those moments of brilliance proved ruggedness, too, can be beautiful. The US back line looked more secure than it has at any other point in 2015, and the midfield ran itself into the ground trying to hold on for dear life and win back the same ball they kept losing. Amongst a veteran quartet that was also first-choice at the 2014 World Cup, Geoff Cameron in particular stood out on the night, intervening with almost inhumanly-cool nerves on more that one desperate occasion. El Tri, however, were up for every single challenge just as much as their Northern rivals, tackling and muscling their way to at least a draw on the physical side of the game despite a size disadvantage across the XI. Hector Moreno, in particular, was imperious, putting in a textbook tackle in the 72nd minute to deny Clint Dempsey the ball in the box.
All that was prior to the extra period. What true football fan can help but have their heart in their throats through every pulsating moment of an extra 30 that featured three insane lead changes and ecstatic, rapturous, tear-filled celebrations that ensued each time the ball hit the back of the net? The winner was an emphatic exclamation point: a ball decended from the heavens and Paul Aguilar strode through it with his right boot on the volley, hitting it so true, into an angle at the far post so small, that it strained credulity.
This is one of those games where the weight of the moment, the rivalry, and the fireworks of the game itself will live long in the memory, both sides of the border.
Klinsmann Out-Managed By An Interim Manager
National team managers have incredible barriers to imposing a coherent tactical vision, including an inability to swap out pieces and a small window of time to instruct and train in one's chosen ideas. That being said, some of Jürgen Klinsmann's most-capped players, playing in his most-utilized system, were the ones that let him down most badly. Jozy Altidore and Dempsey were anonymous throughout, failing to impact the game even on the rare occasions the beleaguered midfield got them the ball.
As for substitutions and lineup, there was a lot to be desired. The lineup was identical to the beginning of the 2014 World Cup, save Gyasi Zardes filling in for the ill Alejandro Bedoya. No alternative has been found to improve upon that group's limitations, which in turn are only getting more pronounced with age. Michael Bradley broke down the tactical see-saw in depth for the media after the game, more or less conceding that they were unable to hold onto the ball and were simply murdered in wide areas as a result of losing the chess match.
I agree with Bradley's assessment. There were more or less no natural avenues through the middle of the field to connect the back line to the front, since Bradley had to drop deep in order to contain Mexico's attack. The strikers were completely unable to hold the ball up without dropping so deep as to collapse the formation, leading to a choice between lesser evils. Out wide, Jones and Zardes were both out of position and had to over-compensate on one end of the field (defensively for Zardes, offensively for Jones) in order to do both parts of their job. As such, they succeeded in neither. A one-striker formation with a double-pivot would've been a much more appropriate response.
As for substitutions, Klinsmann reported afterwards that his third substitution was forced when Fabian Johnson (who was dreadful in defense, by the way) was forced off with an injury. His first two (Wood on for Altidore, Yedlin on for Zardes) did seem to be excellent responses to the environment, giving more pace, energy, and two-way play to his side. However, if anything, they seemed to highlight the naiveté of the starting point.
To be fair, Tuca Ferreti was a worthy advesary. Despite some questionably-effective substitutions, his 4-3-3 with a rotating hydra head of three venomous strikers and El Tri legend Rafa Marquez holding down the pivot in midfield proved to be a masterstroke. There was never a point when the US looked comfortable with the angles and movement between Chicharito, Peralta, and Raúl Jiménez.
Ferreti, too, is a great character for followers of football. Wearing the same sort of bib that photographers do on the sideline so that security doesn't remove them from the pitch, he gesticulated and danced with feeling that seemed to emanate directly from the pulse of his team. After the match, he struck a tone of gratitude, invoking the example of no less than Jesus Christ himself to emphasize the importance of a giving spirit that knows no limits.
Interim manager perhaps, but one heck of a personality and not a bad tactician on his day. He's earned his place in El Tri history.
US Soccer Fails To Meet Program Goals In Spectacular Fashion, Klinsmann to Keep His Job Anyway
You can't accuse either Klinsmann or the brass at US Soccer of lacking "vision." To even the most casual observer, their goals are obvious: grow the popularity of the game domestically, develop the grass roots talent pipeline that has been so rich for so many other American sports, and win the respect of the broader footballing world by competing (and succeeding) in as many tournaments at as many age levels as possible.
Today, at least three major opportunities were spurned. Most obviously, they lose the opportunity to compete in the 2017 Confederations Cup, which pits continental champions against each other the year prior to the World Cup. Earlier in the day, the U-23 side were comprehensively out-played by Honduras in a "win and you're in" match that would've sent the Stars and Stripes to next year's Olympics. On home soil, no less. Instead, they have to win two consecutive matches against Canada and Colombia to get to the promised land. Third, the US spurned a rare chance to win a trophy, no matter how ersatz it may seem.
They even failed in Klinsmann's stated goal, to "win over our Mexican friends" and make inroads in their dual-national fanbase. Optimistic projections from inside US Soccer prior to the match suggested that as much as 40% of the crowd would be in red, white, and blue, on its home turf. Indeed, it was a bit more even than in 2011, the last time these two great rivals matched up in this venue, but I can't imagine it was much more balanced than 80-20. And not one El Tri fan that I spoke to would even so much as consider changing colors. Simply put, there is a long way to go before the US team inspires the sort of loyalty and passion that their southern neighbors do.
Yet Klinsmann won't be fired. Of that, we're sure. Sunil Gulati wants to chart a course of stability and big-picture development, and firing Klinsmann after losing a thrilling match as an underdog in a contrived cup final doesn't really fit that bill. There will surely be vast online armies calling for the German's head in the coming days, but there are no indications from the inside that any shakeup is likely anytime soon.
And that's ok. There has been progress. Progress, perhaps, but like every other development in modern US soccer, a bit too slow for the average fan's liking. The reality is that international coaches are at the mercy of their talent pools, and have very little impact on them.
That means the forthcoming World Cup Qualifying results won't be appreciably worse for his presence. Nor appreciably better for his absence.