The frigid conditions of eight years past didn't materialize this time at Crew Stadium, yet the Americans still beat Mexico, 2-0. Opening the Hexagonal with a valuable three points provided a few glimpses as to how the team may develop as it prepares for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™.
If there's a lightning rod for exuberance, it's Frankie Hejduk.
Pumped beyond belief after the USA toppled Mexico, 2-0, at Columbus Crew Stadium as the rivals kicked off their Concacaf schedules, Hejduk took a swat to the face from a Mexican assistant coach, who'd supposedly taken exception to what the excitable, nearly delirious American was jabbering as he left the field.
As has been the case for the past decade, during which the bitterest U.S. rival has lost nine and tied two of 11 games played on American soil, Mexico got it all wrong.
It failed to score, succumbed to a pair of strikes by midfielder Michael Bradley and finished the game without its captain.
"I think everyone on our team was really excited to play tonight," said Bradley, whose stellar performance answered that segment of critics convinced only nepotism by head coach and father Bob Bradley explained his consistent presence in U.S. lineups. "Anytime you can play against Mexico it's great, it's also a really important World Cup qualifier. To be a part of a team effort like that and come away with three points is a great feeling."
Hejduk, whose strong defensive play and occasional forays forward from his right back slot frustrated Mexico throughout the match, explained of the postgame incident with assistant coach Francisco Ramirez: "I was actually saying, 'F*** yeah!' I think they thought I was saying, 'F*** you.' It was a misunderstanding and I can see why they would be a little bit upset if they thought I was saying the other one, which I wasn't.
"At the end of the day, no one was hurt. There was a little love tap and that was it. I still have my face. No damage done. It was fun. That's just how emotional this game is and that's how passionate they are about their sport. It was none of their players—I want to make that clear to everyone."
PARTY CRASHER. One of the Mexican players did blow his cool just when Mexico seemed poised to tie the match.
Bradley had banged home the rebound of a saved Oguchi Onyewu header shortly before halftime for a 1-0 lead, but Mexican pressure was increasing midway through the second half when a deflected ball dropped into the U.S. penalty area and keeper Tim Howard jumped to claim it. Defender Rafael Marquez, arriving late, decided to plant the studs of his right foot cruelly into Howard's thigh.
Just a few seconds earlier, a partially cleared Pavel Pardo free kick had bounced out to the left side, where Fausto Pinto hit a low, driven ball that actually struck Giovanni dos Santos as he lay on the ground near the goalpost; the play looked offside but it continued, and when Howard charged out to collect a ball lobbed back into the box, Marquez crashed into him high and late and, well, stupidly.
Referee Carlos Batres sent off Marquez and whatever hopes Mexico had of rescuing a result left the field with him.
Coaches and players change – this defeat dropped the record of Swedish coach Sven-Goran Eriksson while in charge of Mexico to 4-5-1 -- and still the Tri's futility against the USA continues. In the last 11 games played against the Americans in the U.S., Mexico has been outscored, 19-3. Shorn of several important players by injuries and suspensions, it had no margin for error, and err it did.
SET-UP MAN. Landon Donovan, playing behind Brian Ching as a second forward, set up both goals for Bradley. He headed a DaMarcus Beasley inswinging corner kick back into the goalmouth for Onyewu to head on frame and Bradley to dispatch. In stoppage time, Donovan controlled a ball from Jozy Altidore as the late substitute went down under a crunching challenge in midfield and relayed it to Bradley, who drilled a low -- and very save-able -- shot from 25 yards under goalie Oswaldo Sanchez.
Former Mexican international midfielder Alberto Garcia Aspe believes the mindset of current players when they face the Americans on U.S. soil contrasts sharply with the players of his generation in the 1990s, and the Americans are certainly aware of their opponents' nervousness.
"They know how to beat Mexico, they know the weak points," he said with the aid of a translator. "Of course, they also have the mental state and don't let the style of Mexico affect them."
The Mexicans have been sorely missing a player like Aspe in midfield in many of their recent games against the Americans. In the Hexagonal opener, Pardo, while an excellent player in his own right, couldn't hold the ball under pressure from Bradley and his midfield partner, Sacha Kljestan, who balanced each other with intelligent movement and positioning, clear, quick decisions of when to join in double-teams, drop into passing lanes or play the short ball, and most of the finer points required to control the middle.
TRAINING PARTNERS. Bradley and Kljestan played together at the 2008 Olympic Games and have been paired several times on the national team and during training camps. Still, they've taken it upon themselves to tinker and fine-tune their interplay whenever possible.
"When Michael and I have teamed up in the middle of the field, I think we've done well and we have good relationship and understanding," said Kljestan. "Practice is when you have to perfect everything, but we've had a lot of training sessions. During the [European] offseason, he visits his family in LA and comes to train with Chivas [USA], and that gives us even more time to connect and figure out little combinations. We're both good students of the game and we've always had a good understanding. We think similarly."
The goals were fitting reward for Bradley's polished performance and a solid team effort. While a few of the Americans showed the effects of rust and nerves, for the most part they dug in determinedly to blunt Mexico's attacks and wait patiently to launch their own. Aside from an early gaffe by Carlos Bocanegra that provided dos Santos with a close-range chance and a few minor breakdowns, the Americans maintained an intense yet poised demeanor.
COLLECTIVE EFFORT. "Our midfield play tonight, their work as a group, was really important and that sets the tone in the game," said Bob Bradley. "Tonight is a night where we'll go around and talk with each guy about how they played. I don't think it was necessarily a night where we got our best performances from each guy. But I think collectively there was an understanding of the game that had something to do with Mexico and something to do with the conditions."
Mindful of gusting, swirling winds, the Americans preferred to keep the ball on the ground when in possession and keep a spare player nearby anytime they contested a ball in the air. By contrast, U.S. pressure on the midfielders and defenders often yielded hopeful high balls lumped into the wind that Onyewu and Bocanegra usually took care of. Mexican striker Carlos Ochoa, laboring up top more or less on his own, rarely threatened, and an attack devoid of Nery Castillo (who went off early with an injury) and Carlos Vela (suspended) seldom sparkled.
The 2-0 scoreline has become a familiar refrain, often chanted by Sam's Army ("dos a cero!"), starting with the Guerra Fria ("Cold War") at Crew Stadium in 2001, when sub-freezing conditions greeted the Mexicans. Four years later, in the same venue and late-summer weather, the Americans won, again by 2-0, to clinch their spot in the 2006 World Cup with three games to spare.
"In the locker room before the game, we looked at every guy and knew we were ready to play," said Michael Bradley. "I don't think it's one guy, it's not just Landon [Donovan], it's 11 guys committed to do every little thing on the field to make sure we were going to get the result."
There weren't any weak spots in the U.S. performance. Left back Heath Pearce hit a few wayward crosses but held up well under sporadic Mexican thrusts, which were usually disjointed, solo efforts rather than the slick, pacy combination play emblematic of its "A" game yet seldom seen during Eriksson's reign. A taut U.S. defensive net intercepted loose passes and vacuumed up loose balls. If upon gaining possession no opening immediately emerged, the Americans launched leisurely sequences of short, crisp passes and moved the ball into Mexico's half of the field where Donovan, Beasley and Ching knifed through the opposition.
For the next Hexagonal phase the U.S. plays the first of four double-dates, facing El Salvador in San Salvador March 28 and hosting Trinidad & Tobago in Nashville April 1. Howard is suspended, which opens the door for Brad Guzan. Bob Bradley will have a week of preparation rather than the few days leading up to the game in Columbus. Pablo Mastroeni should be healthy – he was suspended for the Mexico game – and Bradley is likely to use another mix of European-based and domestic players.
MISSING PIECES. Former U.S. coach Steve Sampson, who masterminded the most impressive away result against Mexico when the 10-man Americans extracted a 0-0 tie at Azteca Stadium in 1997, believes that Mexico's failures stem, in part, from a combination of factors: sharp improvement by the U.S. and the retirement of veterans like Garcia Aspe, Luis Garcia, Carlos Hermosillo and Zague who could produce under any conditions, as well as rabid expectations from fans and the press.
Even when it took a 1-0 lead against the USA in the 2007 Gold Cup final, Mexico faltered and lost, 2-1, at Soldier Field in Chicago. A few months previous, it had lost a friendly – by two goals to none – in front of a huge pro-Mexican crowd in Glendale, Ariz.
"They don't have a midfield player like Garcia Aspe who fills that role for them," says Sampson. "They have many fine players, but in my opinion, they lack that kind of midfielder and they lack a true goalscorer."
(In the latter case, not only Hermosillo but Jared Borgetti comes to mind.)
"Against the U.S., they put pressure on themselves and it forces them to play tight, conservatively. If they make a mistake and the ball winds up in the back of the net, they question themselves for the rest of the match."
USA-Mexico Report Card
GRADE PLAYER (CLUB) GP/G
7 Tim Howard (Everton/ENG) 36/0
6 Frankie Hejduk (Columbus Crew) 82/6
7 Oguchi Onyewu (Standard Liege/BEL) 39/5
6 Carlos Bocanegra (Rennes/FRA) 63/10
5 Heath Pearce (Hansa Rostock/GER) 22/0
6 Clint Dempsey (Fulham/ENG) 46/13
6 Sacha Kljestan (Chivas USA) 14/3
8 Michael Bradley (Bor. Moen./GER) 26/5
7 DaMarcus Beasley (Rangers/SCO) 82/17
7 Landon Donovan (Bayern Munich/GER) 106/37
6 Brian Ching (Houston Dynamo) 35/10
6 Jozy Altidore (Xerez/SPA) 7/2
NR Ricardo Clark (Houston Dynamo) 18/1
(1=low; 5=average; 10=high)
(This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)
(This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)