I didn’t have great expectations Wednesday for the U-23 friendly between the U.S. and Mexico at StubHub Center and I wasn’t disappointed.
There was plenty to observe and absorb well before the match -- more of a glorified scrimmage and there’s nothing wrong with that -- kicked off at 8:30 p.m. local time with an announced crowd of 3,782 in attendance. Champions League quarterfinal play had concluded with one goal scored in two games, and in the early evening Montreal and Club America served up some riveting fare in a 1-1 tie that sets up an historic showdown next week.
So a long day of tension and drama ended in a low-key setting, yet the U-23 participants brought their focus and intensity if not a lot of polish and poise. Neither head coach was able to field all his top players and Mexico is preparing to play in the Pan American Games in July, so much will change before the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament begins Oct. 1.
As imperfect and impractical as they are, these games need to be played, and the USA desperately needs to step up its game. The Americans have failed to qualify for two of the last three Olympic soccer tournaments. Mexico is the defending gold medalist, a fact ignored by the vast majority of American fans recently seduced by yet another “Dos a Cero” scoreline, this one recorded in a match played on a cow pasture. Whatever.
The Americans duly beat their Mexican counterparts, 3-0, by notching three goals in 20 minutes. The box score will reveal that budding Real Salt Lake maestro Luis Gil squared a ball that Mario Rodriguez tucked away, Christian Dean headed home a Dillon Serna free kick, and Jordan Morris finished a pass Shane O’Neill had crossed into his path.
Much of the play was choppy and littered with mistakes. Some very good attacking sequences ran aground due to poor decisions or a bad touch. Several sharp saves by U.S. keeper Cody Cropper bailed out the Americans and a great chance that Marco Bueno -- who looks like he could be a handful for the next decade -- clanged off the goalpost provided a needed dose of luck. The Americans improved significantly in the second half and were rewarded.
All manner of tactical nuances and strategic underpinnings could be attached to this undertaking, but so gung-ho and frantic was much of the play drawing too many conclusions is somewhat pointless. Most of the Americans don’t play regularly for their teams and melding the situations being experienced by, say Real Salt Lake starter Gil -- who has played more than 100 MLS games -- with those of Rodriguez -- a member of the Borussia Moenchengladbach U-21 team whose contract will soon be up for renewal – illustrates the complex and difficult task faced by head coach Andi Herzog and his staff.
Impressions can be significant in these settings, and the Americans didn’t lack for boldness or confidence. Rodriguez found space on both flanks yet came through the middle at the right angle and speed to put away Gil’s low cross. Fatai Alashe can look completely lost but he covers a lot of ground and as his reading of game situations improves he should grow into a capable midfielder. He broke open Mexico’s midfield to play a ball wide that Gil centered for Rodriguez.
Benji Joya unhinged the opposition a few times by sharply changing direction and speed. A pair of first-half substitutions -- Alejandro Guido had to be replaced by Jose Villareal and then Daniel Metzger -- twice disrupted the midfield yet only temporarily. Joya, in limbo at Mexican club Santos and without a competitive game for nine months, brings ideas to midfield and he’s got some edge to him as well.
It’s hard to tell at times exactly what Jordan Morris has in mind as he powers his way into the penalty area yet things tend to happen, many of them good, when he gets there. His decision-making in the box needs a lot of work; he’s not afraid to take on challengers and by scoring for the U-23s a week after netting for the senior team he’s been labeled the “Mexicutioner” by a few fans.
Morris has some important thinking to do. Europe beckons, as do the Sounders, as does Stanford. At least he has options; most of his American colleagues are laboring to get the playing time they need, and with five months to go until the qualifying tournament, that commodity won’t be in ample supply.