USA shows best, worst in draw against rival Mexico in friendly
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The United States men’s national team took risks by playing Mexico so close to the World Cup and deploying a bold, untested tactical formation Wednesday night and the rewards were mixed. A soaring American first half in which they took a 2-0 lead was followed by one of decay and then a disheveling implosion, ending in a 2-2 draw.
After a string of underwhelming results in recent months, a 0-0 tie with Scotland, a 1-0 loss to Austria, a 2-0 win over South Korea’s B-team, a 2-0 loss to Ukraine comforting win over the team’s arch-rivals could have done much for morale and momentum. But they let it slip from a firm grasp.
Before the resumption of this fiery North American derby, there was, of course, gamesmanship. The Mexican anthem was sung and its singer concluded with an impassioned "Viva Mexico!" to the delight of the overwhelmingly pro-Mexican crowd of 59,066 at the NFL venue named for a university that has no physical campus, but somehow has a stadium.
When the home team’s anthem concluded, the rabid American Outlaws fan group raised a tifo depicting Graham Zusi’s face between a pair of wings. "De Nada, Mexico," it read. "You’re welcome, Mexico," a reference to Zusi’s late equalizer in qualifying back in October, which saved the Mexicans from elimination on the road to Brazil.
Ahead of the game, Mexican manager had denied that Mexico owed its place at the World Cup to the Americans though. If anything, he reckoned, the United States owed his country for California.
His assistant coach Santiago Banos tweeted an invective-laden rant about the perceived inefficiency of the police escort to the stadium, where the Mexicans arrived 40 minutes later than expected. "[Expletive] Gringo escorts!" he railed in Spanish. "Good for nothing! They don’t even have the siren turned on! And we told them we’re late and nothing!"
With the shenanigans concluded, the USA appeared at the kickoff in a daring (for them) 4-4-2 formation, yet more tinkering from head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, just 75 days before his team plays its World Cup opener against Ghana. The midfield diamond behind two strikers represented a departure from his long-standing 4-5-1 with two holding midfielders. In its essence, it boiled down to Michael Bradley becoming a central attacking midfielder, rather than a holding one, and Clint Dempsey moving up beside the target striker.
This formation and an ever-growing sharpness on the ball created real problems for Mexico in midfield from the start. The Yanks spread the ball about with ease and confidence. Bradley was a revelation high up the field, where he hadn’t played consistently for many years. He seemed to be absolutely everywhere, having been gifted the room to let his supercharged engine run wild and enabled by holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman’s total devotion to shielding the defense.
Bradley’s zealous pursuit of the ball paid a handsome dividend early on. In the 15th minute, after goalkeeper Moises Munoz had only just managed to palm away an Omar Gonzalez header off a Brad Davis free kick, Zusi sent the ensuing corner soaring over the jostling pack and deposited it by the far post. Bradley, sporting a Band-Aid from a gnarly gash on his bald head incurred in recent battle, met the ball there, beating Jesus Zavala to it, and slammed it into the gaping net.
When Clint Dempsey dispatched Tony Beltran with a great pass into the no-man’s land up the right in the 28th minute, the stand-in right back chipped a ball into the streaking Bradley. He headed the ball on towards the second post, where Chris Wondolowski, a player very much on the bubble for a place in Brazil, got away from his man Rogelio Chavez and slide it home to double the score.
"Dos a cero!" the suddenly vocal USA fans chanted, reminding their foes of the score in the last four World Cup qualifiers between the teams on American soil, and their meeting in the round of 16 of the 2002 World Cup.
Emboldened, the Americans even tried their feet at some uncharacteristic trickery. Every bounce seemed to fall just right for them just then. After the half-time whistle went, the Mexicans stood around for a few moments, stunned.
“Mexico started well and then we took over,” said Klinsmann. “We really had it under control, scored the goals.”
But that hallowed score wouldn’t hold up. Mexico’s surge was mounted early in the second half. And within four minutes, Rafa Marquez, the Americans’ wily old antagonist, ran off a pick on Gonzalez on a Marco Fabian corner and headed in the 2-1 unmarked. Several alert Nick Rimando saves prevented further damage for a short while.
“We told the players, ‘be right alert,’ from the first minute of the second half,” Klinsmann said. “But they were not. It took them too long to get back into the game and then some mistakes that you can’t make [happened].”
In the 67th minute, however, the Mexican onslaught became too much to handle. On yet another break, Paul Aguilar pulled his shot off the far post and Alan Pulido reacted before his marker Gonzalez did, to dink in the equalizer. By then, a flurry of subs seemed to have stifled the Americans’ rhythm. But in truth, Mexico was too much for them to handle after the half, in a total role reversal from the first act.
In the late going, the Yanks re-established a grasp on the proceedings and Eddie Johnson seemed to have bagged the winner with a tidy finish in the 85th minute, but he was called offside on a desperately close call which seemed harsh upon review. Next, Julian Green, making a serviceable debut, took a tumble into the Mexican box but earned no penalty.
The Americans understandably felt hard done by.
“We should have gotten a clear goal,” said Klinsmann. “We should have gotten a clear penalty.”
His players agreed.
“A fair result was 3-2,” said Dempsey, the captain. “If you look at the last goal that we scored was onside.”
“It’s a shame. It would have been a great goal,” added Landon Donovan. Then he shrugged his shoulders. “It happens. People make mistakes.”
And so, dispiritingly, a draw was all the Americans would have to show for 45 of the best minutes of soccer they have played under Klinsmann. Because they followed it on with thirty of the flattest, tearing down much of the psychological capital they had built up.