COLUMBUS, Ohio — The chants went up as they filed out of the stadium, small packs of green-clad glee that had been waiting for this moment for 15 years.
“DOS A UNO! DOS A UNO! DOS A UNO!”
Dos A Cero (born 2001, died 2016) was a golden era for U.S. Soccer in Columbus, an era of four World Cup qualifying wins by the same 2-0 score. May it rest in peace. Mexico finally buried Dos A Cero on Friday night, emphatically shoveling dirt on its grave when Rafa Márquez—the same Márquez who’d earned two red cards against the U.S. over the years—connected on a late free header to give Mexico a famous 2-1 World Cup qualifying victory at Mapfre Stadium.
For the last two decades the U.S. has more or less owned Mexico on set-pieces, especially in this stadium. But on Friday the tables were turned, and the result was a gut punch to a U.S. team that thought if anyone was going to score a late winner it would be the home team.
And yet for all the mentions of dos and cero and uno on Friday, the big question leaving the game was about that surprising tres: The three in the back that Klinsmann surprised everyone by deploying at the start instead of the four-man back line that we have almost always seen in recent years. You could call it a 3-5-2 with Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood up top—or a 3-4-3, as Klinsmann did, counting Christian Pulisic as “having all the freedom to roam with the two strikers up front.”
Pulisic did O.K. in that central role, even though this, too, was a major surprise for a player who some thought might not start this game and who hadn’t played centrally all year for club or country.
But the real talking point from the first half was the excessive open space in the U.S. half and the manifold Mexican attackers finding it, whether the perpetrator was Tecatito Corona, Giovani Dos Santos, Chicharito Hernández or Miguel Layún, the last of whom scored the opener 20 minutes in. After 28 minutes, the U.S. decided to switch back to the tried-and-true 4-4-2 and ended up shading the balance of play the rest of the game. But it was the goal before the switch that ended up costing the hosts once Márquez found his header.
Why three in the back? “We trained that. It went really well in training,” Klinsmann said afterward. “The key in that system is that your central midfielders need to get into these one-on-one battles. That’s something that was not happening in the first 25 to 30 minutes. No Michael Bradley, no Jermaine [Jones] got into these battles. Their players could roam, and that puts you in difficulties. It gave them their chances. So we changed it back.”
For his part, Bradley thought the credit should go to the tactical machinations of Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio, who started a small fleet of gifted attackers who exposed the U.S. early.
“Tactically, they do some interesting things, and they spaced themselves out in a really good way,” said Bradley. “You have to have clear ideas about how you’re going to deal with that, how you’re going to close them down. Because if you don’t, then it’s easy to get pulled around, and it’s easy to have guys who step out of one space trying to close something down and that’s exactly the space they’re going to end up playing through.”
Specially, Bradley went on, Mexico overloaded the U.S.’s right side, which meant Timmy Chandler couldn’t step out because Corona was staying high and wide.
“So it wasn’t easy for Timmy to ever step out to Layún,” Bradley said. “The other one who was floating over there was Dos Santos a lot and Chicharito. They had a clear idea in terms of how they wanted to overload that side. It meant Timmy Chandler got pinned back.”
Given that Bradley used the term “clear idea” twice to describe Mexico’s approach, it’s fair to say he thought the U.S.’s wasn’t quite as clear—at least until the switch back to the 4-4-2 got made.
That said, you have to give Klinsmann credit for recognizing the change needed to be made and doing it early, while the U.S. still had time to get back into the game. The Yanks played good soccer for much of the second half, and after Wood’s early second-half goal it seemed like the U.S. might come all the way back to take three points. Omar González had his own open header off a corner kick but was unable to convert. And then, just when it seemed like the game was headed for a 1-1 tie, the U.S. lost Márquez on the Mexican corner.
“Switch off for a minute and you give up a soft goal,” said Altidore, shaking his head. (Klinsmann said he thought Márquez was John Brooks’s mark.)
Suddenly, the U.S. finds itself needing to get a result in Costa Rica, a country where it has never won, to avoid having zero points out of its first two Hexagonal games. CONCACAF World Cup qualifying is notoriously forgiving—remember how Mexico still qualified despite a run of horrible results in the last cycle—and so the alarms will not be sounding even if the U.S. pulls an oh-fer this week.
But the margin of error would get a lot more slim. And nobody on this U.S. team wants that to happen.