Photo by John Todd/ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
MEXICO CITY– It wasn’t a beautiful game by any means, and any hopes of seeing the U.S. Men’s National Team boss Mexico in Estadio Azteca were probably always unrealistic, but style points don’t matter all that much when history is being written and when American fans think back to Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier.
What will be remembered, and should be remembered is how a U.S. team missing nearly half of the players who would be considered regular starters, and several others who would have been called upon to fill in, still showed enough quality to frustrate and stand up to a dangerous Mexico side in an intimidating environment that had overwhelmed U.S. teams in the past.
What should be remembered is the night two young centerbacks came together to play one of the best games by a young American centerback tandem in years. What should be remembered is that a relatively young U.S. team walked into Estadio Azteca and showed no fear, even if they were outplayed for stretches. What should be remembered was the sight of Michael Bradley bossing the middle of the park in Mexico City in a way no American before him ever did.
What should be remembered is that, for the first time in almost three years, a span of 42 matches, the U.S. used all American-born players, sending a message that perhaps the notion that the American player development system isn’t producing talent might just be a bit misleading.
Were there goals on Tuesday? No. Were there long passing sequences and waves of attacking soccer from the U.S.? No. What there was in abundance was discipline, organization, confidence and a real sense that these players are playing for each other, and playing like a team united rather than a team divided.
Here are some more observations from Tuesday’s match, and the state of the U.S. Men’s National Team after the recent qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico:
GONZALEZ LOOKS LIKE A CENTERBACK TO BUILD AROUND
When Gonzalez turned in a shaky performance against Honduras in his first World Cup qualifier in February, there was a sense that maybe he wasn’t ready for prime time. All he has done in the two qualifiers since is look like a sure-fire starter for the rest of qualifying, and next year for the World Cup if the U.S. qualifies.
Gonzalez has been able to translate the dominant form that made him the 2011 MLS Defender of the Year and 2012 MLS Cup Final MVP. He has been a beast in the air against Costa Rica and Mexico, and his confidence has clearly sky-rocketed. You can pencil him in as a USMNT starter for the foreseeable future.
BRADLEY SET THE TONE IN THE MIDDLE
The early part of Tuesday’s match saw some nervous moments for the U.S., but one stabilizing force throughout the match was Michael Bradley, who was able to keep the ball moving, and deliver passes under pressure even as Mexico tried to put the U.S. under pressure.
How efficient was Bradley in midfield? He completed 57 of 58 passes, the kind of percentage normally reserved for the Xavis and Pirlos of the world. Not only did he help the Americans relieve pressure by being an almost-perfect passing conduit, Bradley was also a force defensively. He made nine key defensive plays in Mexico’s final third, helping provide support for a back-line that saw Mexico throw numbers at them all night.
Bradley isn’t the team’s captain yet, but it is clear he is one of the team’s leaders.
A total of 14 players took the field for the United States on Tuesday night, and for the first time since June 5, 2010, a span of 42 matches, not a single foreign-born player took the field for the U.S. Men’s National Team. Injuries and illness led to German-born fixtures Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Danny Williams, and Timmy Chandler missing Tuesday’s match, and even players like Brazilian-born Benny Feilhaber and Colombian-born Juan Agudelo were out of the mix.
Pointing out that interesting stat isn’t meant to suggest Jurgen Klinsmann shouldn’t consider his German-American contingent. Those players have put in their time and are absolutely viable options. The point of noting the All-American squad is because it shows that there is American-born talent coming through the pipeline. It is also an interesting note considering former U.S. head coach and current LA Galaxy boss Bruce Arena’s comments suggesting that all U.S. Men’s National Team players should be American born.
“Players on the national team should be — and this is my own feeling — they should be Americans,” Arena told ESPN the Magazine. “If they’re all born in other countries, I don’t think we can say we are making progress.”
On Tuesday, with players like Brad Guzan, Bradley, Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Graham Zusi turning in strong showings, it was tough to not think “we” are making progress.
KLINSMANN HAS EARNED SOME LEEWAY
When the controversial Sporting News article surfaced a week ago slamming Klinsmann as being an ill-equipped head coach with overmatched coaching staff behind him, it helped shed light on long-rumbling notions that Klinsmann wasn’t capable of doing a good job with the U.S.
His job is far from done, but after securing four points from two matches and pushing the Americans through a pair of memorable results despite missing several starters due to injury, Klinsmann has earned some breathing room and deserves some credit for the work he did.
He started Beasley at left back, and gave Matt Besler a start at Estadio Azteca, two moves that few would have imagined or suggested a few weeks ago. No, Klinsmann’s moves haven’t been perfect. His decisions in putting a team together to face Honduras didn’t work out, and you can argue he would have been better off starting someone other than Maurice Edu, but he has the team playing confidently as it heads into a June qualifying schedule that features three very winnable games.
This past week’s results have the U.S. heading toward June’s qualifiers riding a wave of confidence, and when you throw in the fact the team has four of their final seven qualifiers at home, you suddenly have a U.S. team that looks like a good bet to qualify for their 11th straight World Cup.
GUZAN PUSHING HOWARD
As much as some fans believe Brad Guzan has overtaken Tim Howard as the U.S. team’s first-choice goalkeeper, the reality is nothing has changed in that regard. When healthy, Howard is still the first-choice goalkeeper for the United States. Brad Guzan has been excellent playing in place of Howard, and he has earned the confidence in his ability from his teammates this past week.
All that said, Howard is a leader on this team who happens to still be one of the best goalkeepers in Europe. What has changed is the gap between Howard and Guzan. If Howard were to struggle to return, or suffer a dip in form, Klinsmann now has a back-up goalkeeper who has faced the toughest competition in CONCACAF and come through with flying colors.
Having two top-class goalkeeping options is hardly a bad thing. It is a luxury the team really hasn’t had since Kasey Keller was at his peak nearly a decade ago, when a young Tim Howard was his back-up. The 28-year-old Guzan should help push the 34-year-old Howard, and it isn’t difficult to envision Guzan eventually taking over the No. 1 role, but anyone thinking Howard has lost his starting job based on two games from Guzan has forgotten the outstanding work Howard has consistently put in for the U.S.
BEASLEY IS BACK
Forget anything you read about DaMarcus Beasley having a bad game against Mexico. The fact is he weathered relentless attacks and more than held his own against some of the best midfield talent in CONCACAF and did his part to preserve the shutout.
That makes two good to very good qualifying games in a week for Beasley, who rewarded Klinsmann’s faith in him, which wasn’t a given for a player who hadn’t started for the national team in almost three years.
Is Beasley a long-term option at left back? Not really. Fabian Johnson remains the first-choice option there, and Edgar Castillo should be the back-up once he returns from facial fractures, but Beasley has given the team some added depth and he just might play his way onto the roster going forward as a sort of jack-of-all-trade option.
CAMERON JUST MIGHT STAY AT RIGHT BACK
When Klinsmann moved Cameron away from his regular centerback role, there was some concern about whether he was playing Cameron out of position, but what he showed at right back in the past week’s qualifiers are exactly why Stoke City have played him regularly at right back.
Cameron is fast, athletic, and his size gives the U.S. yet another big body to defend set pieces. There is no denying that Cameron is one of the best centerback options in the pool, but with Gonzalez blossoming and Matt Besler looking like he could be a perfect long-term partner for Gonzalez, Klinsmann could be tempted to move Cameron to right back for the long term. That move makes sense especially if Stoke City continues to play him at right back.
And what of Steve Cherundolo and Timmy Chandler? A healthy Cherundolo is still the best right back in the pool, because of his ability to defend and provide an attacking threat, but he is also 34 and showing signs of wearing down. As for Chandler, he has yet to show any consistency on the international level and he just might wind up being a better right wing option for a U.S. team that is still a bit thin on the flanks.
IS IT TIME TO START ANOTHER FORWARD BESIDES JOZY?
The short answer is no. While you can make the argument that he was invisible offensively against Mexico, you can’t say that without pointing out the fact that the entire U.S. midfield was too busy providing defensive support for the back-line to generate any sort of effective service for Altidore.
What Altidore did do in the past two qualifiers is try to provide pressure from the front, helping put pressure on opponents when they have the ball in their own third. it should also be noted that he helped set up the game-winning goal against Costa Rica by sending in a hard shot that was deflected for a winner. That effort was part of a good night in the snow for Altidore, who is showing a stronger willingness to put in the defensive work that he has long been criticized for not doing.
The U.S. has two home qualifiers coming up against Panama and Honduras in June, and those games should allow Klinsmann to field a more attack-minded team, a team better-equipped to make the most of Altidore’s strengths. Judging Altidore on a pair of road qualifiers where the midfield was largely ineffective, sandwiched around a snow-covered home game, isn’t really fair.
All that said, Altidore is going to have to start producing eventually, and this summer will not only be a great chance for him to break through, but also a chance for other forwards to impress Klinsmann. With some friendlies on the docket, and the Gold Cup looming in June, players like Terrence Boyd and Eddie Johnson could take advantage if Altidore continues his goal drought.
What do you think of these observations? Agree with any of them? Disagree with any of them? What was your biggest takeaway from the U.S. team’s 0-0 tie vs. Mexico?
Share your thoughts below.