GLENDALE, Ariz. — When the final whistle blew on the United States men’s national team’s schizoid 2-2 draw with Mexico on Wednesday night, there was a pervasive sense that a real opportunity had been squandered. An opportunity to make real gains in confidence before the upcoming World Cup; an opportunity to cast the arch-rivals further into turmoil, too.
Within the larger body of work of this team, the Americans’ first half had been transcendent. Moving and passing with venom and conviction, they quickly put their southern neighbors 2-0 behind. But a slow start out of half-time enabled Mexico’s re-entry into the game. By the time the Americans found their footing again and had integrated a raft of substitutions, the score was tied. And very late on, a dubiously disallowed goal and ungiven penalty prohibited the win they felt they deserved.
Nevertheless, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his players were adamant that something tangible and useful had been gained from the game.
A sudden formation change - a 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield, rather than the customary 4-2-3-1 - proved hugely beneficial to the team’s rhythm and retention of the ball. How much it had to do with Sunday’s dismissal - or "reassignment," as a press release put it - of Martin Vazquez as Klinsmann’s assistant in charge of tactics and his replacement with "adviser" Berti Vogts is a matter of conjecture, but the difference was striking.
"We played at a tempo that they were uncomfortable with," said Michael Bradley, the American standout. "We were able to close them down and really push the tempo."
Ever since Klinsmann pivoted from a 4-4-2 with two holding midfielders to a lone-striker system in early 2012, he had been more or less rigid in his formation. He wanted his wingers to join the attack and his full-backs to push up behind them. But this scheme was often unconvincing, as the personnel suited to this style was lacking. It also made the team predictable.
"We need to have at least two, if not three, different systems for the World Cup to kind of confuse hopefully the opponents a little bit," Klinsmann said.
On Wednesday, with two strikers aligned side by side and Bradley in their wake as an attacking midfielder, the wingers were free to cut inside - the better to let the backs overlap, and to help the holding midfielder shield the defense on turnovers.
By clogging the central space in which the Mexicans like to operate and pushing forward en masse, the Americans unsettled their guests. "What we wanted to do was pinch in and help those guys [the defense] when the ball turned over," said left winger Brad Davis. "And still be in those good spots to win the ball right back and have another opportunity to get after them."
Although the second half collapse may have invalidated any psychological profit the game could have yielded, it didn’t undercut the value of the new distribution of players across the field. Plainly, the diamond formation played into the strengths of a lot of players. The absent Jozy Altidore would no longer be quite so isolated when he re-takes his spot in the starting lineup. Fellow forward Clint Dempsey wouldn’t have to drop off so far to help make the play, taking him out of the offensive equation. The wingers, who are mostly converted central players anyway, aren’t required to push forward past their comfort zone.
And then there’s the good it does Bradley’s game. Unshackled from some of his defensive duties, Bradley’s contribution in pressing Mexico high and getting the attack started was profound. After all, he scored the first goal, gave the assist on the second and set up a third attack that might have resulted in a goal.
"The hope was that he gets into the box," said Klinsmann. "The hope was that he was actually also dangerous to score and gives Clint and [striker Chris] Wondo[lowski] help. Often [in the past] we had situations where we didn’t get enough support to our forwards and especially when you look at Jozy. Often we had kind of had him disconnected. I think with two forwards … it’s going to be more difficult for opponents to read us."
Now, Bradley could run rampant, but only because Kyle Beckerman was inscrutable in his defensive dedication as the holding midfielder behind him. Beckerman has his limitations as a soccer player, but trying to do too much is never one of them. "You’re playing with a guy in Kyle who does a good job in taking care of things and being disciplined so it gives me more freedom to be mobile," said Bradley. "There’s no doubt I enjoy that."
The question becomes whether you’re willing to sacrifice Jermaine Jones, the team’s underrated enforcer, in order to fully unleash Bradley’s vast skillset. Because his usual partner in central midfield has too many attacking aspirations to devote himself to such a self-effacing role. It takes a total resignation to doing the dirty work - the thing Beckerman has specialized in.
Certainly, as exciting as this new and rare tactical exploration was, this new formation won’t be a solution to each and every opponent. But to find a new all-purpose go-to formation wasn’t the point, exactly. Klinsmann was short on options. He only had one, really.