Jurgen Klinsmann faced his roughest stretch yet of his short coaching career for the United States Men’s National Team heading into last Friday’s World Cup Qualifier against Costa Rica. Five days and two games later, all is calm. The USMNT picked up 4 crucial points against Costa Rica (3) and Mexico (1) after losing their first game to a talented Honduras squad.
The US squad carried a dismal 0-13-1 against Mexico into Estadio Azteca in World Cup Qualifiers. Their record in all international games at Azteca was not much better, going 1-23-1 all-time. The first ever win in the stadium came under Jurgen Klinsmann just months before in August 2012. To say the least, Klinsmann had his hands full with last night’s matchup. A World Cup Qualifier in Estadio Azteca is, without question, the toughest environment and game the Yanks will play on their quest to reach the 2014 World Cup.
Coming out of the gate, the United States was in a conservative 4-2-3-1 formation, leaving Altidore alone at the top with three supporting attackers set in behind him. This didn’t and shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Ever since Klinsmann has taken over they have not been an attacking team, and against a Mexican squad with two world class forwards in Giovan dos Santos and Chicharito it made sense to play 4 defenders across the back line with Maurice Edu and Michael Bradley in support at defensive midfield. Right formation, wrong personnel. Jozy Altidore doesn’t have the touch or composure to play alone at the top with his back to the goal. This formation requires the striker to settle balls from the midfield (which Altidore struggles with) and allow teammates to push forward. While Jozy is one of the better options for the US at striker, he is at his best when he has support in the attacking third of the field freeing himself up to run onto balls. He doesn’t have the raw skills to be in this position in this formation. Klinsmann recognized this and and made a great move in pulling Altidore in the second half in favor of Eddie Johnson.
Best Performances for the US Team
- Omar Gonzalez – There wasn’t much doubt here on who to give the number 1 slot to. A big defender at 6’5”, he was all over the place last night. His positioning could not have been better. His timing was a thing of beauty, knowing when to provide support for the other three defenders. He spoiled what looked to be a sure goal in the 54th minute with two Mexican attackers coming into the box to get on the end of a cross. The one thing separating Gonzalez from the world-class defenders (aside from him showing he can do this consistently) was his hurried desire to clear balls out of the back rather than attempt to establish possession and pass the ball up the field. If he can master this one skill set, expect big things from this man. He was in unison with our number 3 slot all night. The U.S. has been desperately searching for a defender to manage its back line. Did they find it last night?
- Brad Guzan – He made some great saves from start to finish. When he was called upon, he was there as the last line of defense. The last 15 minutes of the game he denied everything El Tri threw at him. As much as US fans love Tim Howard, it was nice to see someone make a save and not blow up in a teammate-directed tirade. The job, however, still belongs to Howard.
- Matt Besler – Coming into Estadio Azteca in such an important game, this guy had no chance. He proved everyone wrong, including those that thought Klinsmann made a mistake starting him in the center of the defense on just his second international cap. He seemed in unison with Gonzalez all night long. Klinsmann credits the chemistry to their January camp. He made some great plays all night, stepping in front of through balls and hustling to get back to make plays when he got beat. Besler stepped in front of what was setting up to be a vicious counter-attack and committed a smart foul, earning himself a yellow card early in the first half. He played smart the rest of the game, already carrying a yellow card and proved to be a huge asset to the US defense.
Worst Performances for the US Team
- Maurice Edu – Forget the obvious uncalled foul from behind in the second half which could have ended up costing them the game (and probably should have). He was out of place most of the night and several times let Chicharito go unmarked, particularly on a corner kick in the second half, in which nearly ended up in goal for El Tri. He held possessions coming out of the back for far too long. In the attacking third he hesitated to take a shot on goal (in a game where all opportunities must be taken), leaving a poorly placed ball for Dempsey, which got intercepted.
- Geoff Cameron – Around the 30th minute Cameron let his man get free on a set piece that could have been disastrous for the Yanks. Shortly after, he failed to control a throw from Guzan to set up a promising counter-attack. He also spoiled a chance with a mishit header, when he should have settled the ball to allow the US team to push forward.
- DeMarcus Beasley – His play throughout the game was night and day. He made great plays to stop attacks by the Mexican team, and at other times couldn’t make simple fundamental plays. He was forcing attackers to his teammates to get help and was hustling back when being beat. However, he was getting beat. Several times he seemed nervous, clearing balls instead of retaining possession and working the ball up the field. An awful pass back to Guzan led to a corner for El Tri in the first half.
- Michael Bradley – Another very solid and consistent performance from the best player on the squad. He did well to control the ball and distribute from the defensive third connecting on most of his passes. He was seen hustling back when the defense collapsed. Bradley set up the only true scoring opportunity for the US, connecting on passes Dempsey and Altidore and eventually receiving the ball just outside the 18 yard box. A good defensive play spoiled the opportunity, and I am sure he is wishing his first touch on the final pass was just a little softer.
- Graham Zusi – Decent play from the attacking midfielder. He got in a cross to put pressure on the Mexicans early. He also made a 30 yard recovery run on defense to force a corner kick on a great opportunity for El Tri late in the second half. At times, Zusi looked like he was waiting too long with the ball expecting the perfect opportunity to present itself.
The US Team Going Forward
Coming away with a draw against the Mexicans on their home field is a paramount victory for the United States. Even bigger, they came away with a point thanks to solid defensive play, something that had been absent until recently. The US now sits in third in the Hexagonal round of World Cup Qualifying. They are 1-1-1 and have already played their toughest game.
Going forward, the U.S. team will hope to have both Tim Howard and Landon Donovan back for their next qualifiers in June. One of the biggest questions right now is the attack of the United States soccer team. The Yanks desperately miss Landon Donovan, their vocal leader. He has been the face of US soccer for over a decade now and provides the US team with the option to move Dempsey up top to work with Altidore. On a team that desperately needs a solid striker; Donovan can indirectly provide them with one.