United States grind through difficult conditions to defeat Mexico
SAN ANTONIO --
Circumstances inevitably stripped away some of the luster from this meeting between the United States and Mexico. The makeshift playing surface, the missing stars and the truncated schedule influenced the quality of the proceedings considerably and left both sides to cope with the situation in the best possible manner.
Those issues did not detract from the essence of the affair, though. The commitment and the energy inside the Alamodome reflected the rivalry at hand. For all of its foibles, this game still mattered to the people invested and involved in it.
"Look, these games are special," U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley admitted after the victory. "There's no two ways about it. There's a buzz and there's a sense of excitement that's just different. There's no other way to put it. When you're in the bus before the game driving to the stadium and you look out the window, you see green, you see red, white and blue and you know it's going to be a special night."
It proved particularly memorable for an American side once again triumphant over its bitter rival. Five Points digests yet another 2-0 victory for the Americans and explains how they continued they recent dominance in this fixture.
Both teams compensate for the dreadful field
The playing surface warranted a considerable amount of attention in the buildup to the game. Both teams understood the possibility of a poor playing surface when they signed on the dotted line, but they did not necessarily expect the predicament they actually encountered.
It took both sides several minutes to adjust to a bumpy surface ill suited to neat work in possession. Mexico spent most of the opening 15 minutes thumping long balls toward Eduardo Herrera, while the Americans toiled as they tried to figure out how to amend their own brisk work accordingly. Both teams eventually settled into the task at hand, but they wrestled with peculiar bounces and wretched footing for the duration of the night.
"Both teams tried hard to play good soccer because it was very difficult -- as coach [Miguel] Herrera also says -- on this field," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "It was very bumpy. It was difficult to keep the ball going in the combination play that both teams like to show. But they tried. Both sides tried to create chances and the energy was outstanding."
Mexico finds ways to play through midfield ...
El Tri adapted the conditions more quickly despite the dearth of international experience within the ranks and asserted dominion in possession as the first half progressed. Most of the profit came from vertical balls through the midfield diamond as Carlos Esquivel and Luis Montes exploited modest positioning issues in the American shape.
Mexico enjoyed considerable success on its right side by pushing wingback Gerardo Flores high on the right and tempting Joe Corona into making decisions about the spaces he needed to cover. Corona often found himself caught between drifting out to mark Flores or sliding inside to provide cover on the active Esquivel. Those issues left him caught in two minds and provided ample room for Esquivel and Flores to play around and through him. Flores benefited on the overlap and posed a threat with his delivery into the area (four crosses in the first half, per Opta statistics).
The dynamic allowed Mexico to maneuver high up the right and pile the pressure on the American defense. Mexico boss Miguel Herrera correctly praised his team for a decent first half, but he also understood the performance lacked the necessary sharpness in the final third.
"They were quite good," Herrera said in his post-match press conference. "In the first half, the team played pretty well, created plays and threw crosses in from the right and the left. ... They would create issues because they were delivering the ball into the middle. There were two plays where Herrera got tangled with the ball and it came at the cost. Luis Montes shot at goal as well. It did not go as we would have liked, but we had shots."
... without picking apart American rearguard
The credit for those restricted efforts falls to the generally compact work in the defensive third. The organization within the ranks allowed the Americans to cope with Mexico in possession and survive some mistakes in possession inside the defensive third.
Much of the credit rests with the evident willingness to contribute to the defensive efforts. Several midfielders tracked back throughout the course of the night to frustrate potential opportunities. Kyle Beckerman once again proved an effective shield in front of the defense by sliding intelligently and sweeping up issues when El Tri managed to play through. The back four leaned on the sterling Omar Gonzalez to cope with the steady diet of crosses and long balls and trusted everyone else to ensure Mexico never found space through the line.
"Thoughout the team, there was good chemistry and good energy," Klinsmann said. "They were helping each other all over the field. It was fun to watch."
Those collective efforts essentially halted Mexico's largely tidy midfield work before it amounted to much of anything. Most of the inroads came from bobbles and slips created by the odd individual error and the patchy surface, not through incisive play. The firm base allowed the Americans to address some of the spacing at the interval and take firm control of the game after play resumed.
Halftime change addresses the issue in midfield ...
Klinsmann responded to the first half display by making three changes at halftime. The most influential switch came on the left side of midfield as Miguel Ibarra replaced Corona. Ibarra did not exert much influence going forward, but he provided some necessary balance to shore up some of those first half concerns.
The decision to insert a more natural wide player allowed the Americans to occupy the wingbacks more easily in the second half. Mix Diskerud noted after the game that he drifted inside naturally because he usually operates in central midfield (and the diamond often encourages it, but he also spent considerable time in the second half near the touchline inside the Mexican half to pin back Efrain Velarde, according to the Opta heat map of his movements after the interval.
Those subtle tweaks restricted most of the spaces ceded in the first half. There were fewer instances where Mexico played through the midfield. The supply toward Herrera and the anonymous Cubo Torres vanished. With the Mexican threat curtailed, the Americans grasped firm control of the game, moved higher up the field and tromped toward yet another dos a cero.
... and paves the way for a strong finish
The transition from Mexican superiority to American victory started with intelligent play to create the opener four minutes after halftime. Bradley cleverly turned his marker at midfield to maintain possession and mine the stretched Mexican shape. Jordan Morris made a run beyond his years to pounce on a fortunate direction and then slotted home coolly to provide a tangible advantage.
Bradley also played a vital role in the second by taking advantage of the space afforded to clip a ball toward Juan Agudelo on the left. Agudelo settled brilliantly, sliced inside and tucked home to double the advantage shortly after the hour.
The combination of precision in the final third after the break and the solidity exhibited throughout the night proved more than enough to see out the game. There were no doubts about the result in the wake of Agudelo's goal, no sustained wobbles to undermine the sort of result always craved against a bitter rival.
"When you look all over the field, the way we handled the game was very good," Bradley said. "It wasn't an easy night to play. We had to mix things up. It wasn't going to be a night where you could make a lot of little passes because the field didn't allow for it. I thought we mixed things up well. We were able to play at times. We were able to use our speed and our power at times. We closed things down. I thought we handled the game well."