USMNT Dominates Mexico, Sort Of
How appropriate. 2-0. Dos a cero. Jürgen Klinsmann reëstablishes his supremacy over Mexico and his team's form, just as we began to doubt him again. We should've known better. Or should we have?
Here are my takeaways from the friendly result against El Tri:
The Yanks played like Mexicans, and it was awesome
Mexican fútbol is known for flair and creativity; you prove your cajones by daring to attempt the spectacular rather than managing to achieve the safe. Dribbles, spectacular through balls, cheeky flicks, one touch, volleys, it was all on display tonight...from the hosts. Despite a mediocre run of results and a young, cobbled-together team that only had a few days together in training, they displayed rare swagger and chemistry. There were a few audacious long balls that had the crowd ooh-ing and ahh-ing, and even one from the golden right boot of Michael Bradley that released Juan Agudelo for his emphatic goal. Bradley bossed the midfield with an inevitability that recalled his healthy days back in Serie A. The movement all around was great, and the fullbacks bombed forward to give the otherwise narrow team some width. All three forwards who saw the pitch distinguished themselves with exciting, explosive play.
With the game so open going forward, it's perhaps unsurprising that it was also open in the other direction too. The Mexicans were also in a mood to show off and got in more than their share of highlights in buildup. There's never a lack of intensity or desire when these two nations meet. The only difference, really, was that the US pivot (manned first by Kyle Beckerman and then by Perry Kitchen) combined with the back line to keep attackers outside danger areas that kept the chances speculative at best. There were a few nervy moments out wide, but DeAndre Yedlin and Greg Garza, the pacey fullbacks, used their speed to recover well. The center-back tandem of Ventura Alvarado and Omar Gonzales was great in the air but didn't look to be on precisely the same page for much of the match. For those reasons, although it was a dominant performance, it was only a few breaks away from being a much tighter game. There's plenty to work on in the film room. However, a neutral could hardly ask for more fun from a friendly.
This is the style that Jürgen promised when he arrived on the scene: proactive, confident, and attacking, and no hint of the pervasive inferiority complex that American soccer has carried with it as an unsophisticated outsider to the world game. We've seen it in glimpses before, so I'm not getting my hopes up, but it's reassuring to see this team is capable of playing that way.
We looked good...suspiciously good
Sometimes, when a performance stands out compared to previous performances, we can take it at face value, and revel in our improvement. Other times, the improvement is so drastic that we ignore outside factors at our peril. I hope it's not the latter, but I think it may well be.
First off, the pitch was abominable. Your local AYSO team plays on a surface of similar quality, and Mexican fans have every right to complain about it. While both teams are affected by the pitch, the results are rarely equal: a poor pitch meant for more long balls and aerial duals, and the bigger, more physical Americans benefited from it. Moreover, a sample size of 90 minutes is far too few for those moments of luck to cancel each other out; Juan Agudelo undoubtedly would not have broken George Corral's ankles on a firmer surface with a simple side step, and that alone would've denied him the space he needed to strike that excellent low drive to put the game out of reach.
The other factor, and one I think is more notable, is who was available for selection. Yes, the Americans were missing out on veteran stars like Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Brad Guzan etc, but that's nothing compared to the talent Mexico did without: Javier Hernández, Giovanni Dos Santos, Jonathan Dos Santos, Guillermo Ochoa, Andres Guardado, Rafa Marquez, Jesús Corona (the winger, not the keeper), Miguel Layún, Hector Moreno and more. That's essentially the heart and soul of the team.
As good as "Cubo" Torres is, and as good as he looked in this match, the fact that he's not getting much playing time at his club and was a focal point in this match should tell you something about the relative strength of this lineup. The US may have sent out a B team, but El Tri sent out a C team. That doesn't take away from the performance in its entirety, since I think it shows that our domestic depth is probably superior to theirs for the first time in memory, but it does put a bit of an asterisk on any conclusions you may take away from this match.
Youngsters picked a good time to throw a coming-out party
In a run of poor results, with the depth chart uncertain and major tournaments coming up at both the U-23 and senior levels, this was more or less the perfect time for some youngsters to put their talents on display and restore our faith in the medium-term future of the national side. Jordan Morris wasn't exactly the second coming, but he ran hard, he's flashed the raw traits of a top flight footballer, and the goal was both clinical and assertive. He looks weirdly mature for a 20-year-old amateur. Speaking of that, he's the first collegian to start for at least two decades, and certainly to score. However, he was too young to receive Budweiser's "Man of the Match" because he's too young to drink in the US. Hilarious.
Juan Agudelo, four years after becoming the youngest goalscorer in US history, put in a goal worthy of his redemption. Gyasi Zardes looked fantastic with his back to goal, and has all kinds of upside beyond what we're seeing already. DeAndre Yedlin came out of his Tottenham hiding place to show he can still hack it at a high level. Ventura Alvarado took advantage of his first start with the stars and stripes to put in a really good shift as a center back. Greg Garza got back to his old ways for yet another solid performance on the left. Perry Kitchen looks pretty good as a defensive midfielder, and almost scored en route to his second cap.
The best part? None of the names I've just listed have turned 24 years old. Most of them will be eligible for the Olympic team, and there are a dozen other standouts in that age group that weren't called up here. I think that tournament could provide the platform for the youngsters to make a real statement about the progress of American soccer after failure to so much as qualify the last time around.
Jürgen reaches back to the World Cup, tactically
4-4-2, with what I call a skinny diamond (there are nominally left and right midfielders, but they're really just central midfielders with a primary interest in one side of the pitch), was the primary set-up that Klinsmann used at the World Cup, and hasn't been deployed as-such since. In part, this is due to personnel availability, as are all tactics in the international game. Klinsi has also been experimenting with different looks, including a 3-man back line, and various positional switches.
Back in a formation he clearly feels comfortable with, the team looked a million times better. The four central midfielders in the skinny diamond provided a lot of assurance in possession and good passing lanes between them. The result was fluid passing movement throughout and comfort switching positions to find space. The "wide" men, particularly Mix Diskerud, complemented the advances of the pacey fullbacks perfectly. The trick will be extracting this sort of team play from personnel that don't necessarily match this formation, or against stiffer opposition. Moreover, it's always important to develop a plan B or plan C when plan A isn't working, and for all of Klinsi's flexibility, I don't exactly know what those backup plans are yet.
Why were these guys even called up?
Of course, when you call up 22 guys for a friendly, only 17 of them are allowed to play. But I enjoy trying to read the tea leaves about who was left out entirely anyway. Bill Hamid makes sense, since he's already gotten some senior action and is in good form with his club. The rest are a bit more puzzling.
Julian Green gets his third consecutive call up with exactly zero minutes on the pitch. I think it's obvious by now that Klinsi is trying to make a point, either to Green himself or to the rest of the team. Green has endured a nightmare of a season at loan club Hamburg, and this may just be a chance for mentoring about professionalism and how to keep your wits amongst such frustration. Alternatively, if the rest of the team is the target of the lesson, Jurgen may simply be putting them on notice that no excuses will be tolerated and hard work is expected, even for his golden boy. Otherwise, it would seem like a good opportunity to give him some desperately needed playing time; an opportunity not taken in recent months.
Lee Nguyen, Matt Besler, and Chris Wondolowski are all MLS vets in the middle of their seasons in which they are leading their teams. Therefore, it's unsurprising that they weren't asked to risk fatigue and injury by playing in the match. However, all three of them are on the periphery of the top 23 players in the pool and could badly use the opportunity to prove themselves: Nguyen has yet to play meaningful minutes in the current regime, Besler has dropped off precipitously since his standout World Cup, and Wondo is 32 years old and was a borderline talent to start with. While they could use training as a showcase, and perhaps it was purely for their veteran leadership that they were selected, I can't help but think some younger prospects might have benefitted from the experience more if they were merely there for practice. Also, I can't imagine the players themselves (or their MLS managers) were particularly happy with their absence from club training that didn't even merit a cap.
On to the next one
If you're skeptical of this result because of aforementioned factors, none of them will be present in early June, when the US takes a road trip to the Netherlands and Germany to play in top-flight stadiums against storied European elites. It will be the last chance Jürgen has to tune up before the Gold Cup and the European sides will be in the midst of their European Championship qualifying, so expect the competitive level to be high for a friendly.
Until then, take lukewarm pride in winning North American bragging rights until we get to test them competitively this summer.