(Eds: With AP Photos.)By JIM LITKEAP Sports Columnist
The Americans got away with one. There’s no denying that.
Mexico, playing at home, was the better team. They possessed the ball more, created more scoring chances (17 shots to 1) and corner kicks (15-2) and rarely stopped surging, even after one questionable call went against them early, bookended by an undeniably bad call late.
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Facing a young and inexperienced U.S. defense, they effectively turned the last five minutes of Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier at Azteca Stadium into target practice. For once, it wasn’t enough.
”You’re never going to come to a place like Azteca and go out and have it nice and easy,” U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan said after the 0-0 draw. ”So we knew at some point, it was going to come, the pressure was going to come, and we were able to deal with it.”
As a result, the man who wound up on the hot seat at the end was not the one some people expected going in. The injustice of it all no doubt was still sinking in when Jose Manuel De la Torre, the coach of soccer-mad Mexico, was asked afterward whether he expected to keep his job.
”I’m not responsible for that decision,” De la Torre replied coolly. ”We have worked hard. The federation has the last word, they and the owners take that decision.”
It’s one measure how far the game has come in the United States that his counterpart, Jurgen Klinsmann, likely would have been grilled – though not nearly as quickly nor audaciously – if his team had lost.
Most American sports fans are distracted by the NCAA tournament, or by the incredible run LeBron James is on, perhaps even waiting for spring training. And to be fair, despite all the history hanging over this game – in a place where the Americans had managed exactly one tie in 14 previous tries – it’s still early enough in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup for both teams to get in under the wire comfortably.
De la Torre made that argument, pointing out that Panama, the surprise leader of the CONCACAF group, has five points and his team has three, with the potential for 21 more points still out there.
”It’s close and of course we are not where we wanted to be,” he said. ”Our obligation is to win at home, and we have left points behind, two points out of six is low, we have that clear.”
The Americans are snugly in second with four, but the bigger surprise might be that finally, there are some expectations for the U.S. side, That was reinforced by the stir a story in the Sporting News kicked up at the start of last week. Quoting unidentified players and people close to the team, it portrayed Klinsmann, a great German player and one-term World Cup coach, as out of touch with the sentiment in his locker room and a poor tactician to boot.
That the U.S. team beat Costa Rica 1-0 in a blizzard in Colorado a few days later did little to quiet the restive mood. Some players were upset with how he benched Carlos Bocanegra, a stalwart of the national team and long its captain. Others were disgruntled over what they viewed as favorable treatment afforded a handful of German imports – all four the sons of U.S. servicemen – and how Klinsmann often kept everyone uncertain about their spot by posting his starting lineups at the last minute.
Klinsmann had employed a different lineup in each of his previous two dozen games and Tuesday night was no different. An injury to Jermaine Jones, the most accomplished and experienced of the four German imports, forced his hand on a change in the midfield. Yet the move that came in for the most criticism was his defensive back four, only one of whom – an aging and increasingly fragile DaMarcus Beasley – boasted any real international experience.
”Technically we were very well organized. We shifted well. We closed all the spaces down,” Klinsmann began. ”Everybody worked hard for each other.”
A moment later, he added, ”The guys were outstanding. Our back line, you know, many said inexperienced, they deserve a huge compliment.”
Whether Klinsmann addressed that part directly at his critics, only he knows. He took over the U.S. program in July 2011, and if the product on the field looks little improved, his results have been nothing short of exceptional. He keeps insisting that teaching Americans to play the way the best countries in the world already do – keeping the ball and playing fast, intricate combinations to crack open opposing defenses – is going to take time, and he hasn’t apologized for ruffling players’ feelings looking for a group willing to try.
What’s clear is that he hasn’t found those 11 yet. Against Mexico, they relied more on athleticism than skill: a cat-quick goaltender, the one position U.S. players master early, and taller, faster defenders who repelled wave after wave of attacks – including three corner kicks in the final two minutes of stoppage time – by heading the ball or booting it away from the danger.
The best thing that emerged from the draw, other than the point – the only other point a U.S. side has earned in Mexico came in a draw in 1997 – was the emergence of Omar Gonzalez as a rock in Bocanegra’s old job, at the center of the defense, a development that could pay big dividends down the road.
Klinsmann wisely avoided any mention afterward of the close calls that could have paid immediate dividends for Mexico. The first one came when U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley pulled down Javier Hernandez, running without the ball in the box. The second, much more egregious, came when Maurice Edu tackled Javier Aquino, who had the ball and was just steps from Guzan, from behind.
Maybe Klinsmann didn’t see the need. Among the other things the rest of the world already knows about the beautiful game that he believes they will understand in good time is this: It’s not always fair, either.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.