By Ridge Mahoney
Any team can have a bad day at the office, especially when those self-proclaimed masters of the game tear through the foyer and boardroom and lunchroom at will, flicking balls here and there as several Brazilians did in that famous Nike airport ad of several years ago.
Tuesday night at Gillette Stadium, the Americans all too closely resembled those flailing, floundering security guards grabbing futilely at Ronaldo, Cafu, Romario, et al, as they whooshed through checkpoints and corridors and even cavorted on the tarmac for a few seconds. On three days’ rest after gritting their way past Peru, 2-1, the Americans never matched Brazil for pace or cohesion or anything else as this latest generation, that of Neymar and Hulk and Willian -- on this night, especially Willian -- and Marcelo and David Luiz inflicted a severe lashing, 4-1, and left keeper Brad Guzan marooned and mystified.
Surely the USA won’t be as badly outclassed against Mexico on Oct. 10 at the Rose Bowl. Or will it? Mexico labored mightily in July to reach the Gold Cup final but once it got there rather easily dispatched Jamaica, which had beaten the U.S., 2-1, in the semifinals and looked the better team while doing it.That is the more disturbing benchmark of where this USA team is right now, regardless of how sharply stings this latest defeat to Brazil. How can the same nation that beat Germany and the Netherlands in June stumble against Jamaica in July? Yes, competitive matches are not friendlies but the Americans had previously lost just once in 22 games to Jamaica. And Jamaica's historic success may be fleeting: it needed a last-minute goal Tuesday to sneak past Nicaragua on aggregate, 4-3, in a Concacaf World Cup qualifying series.
However, Mexico looked sharp and confident against Argentina on Tuesday, grabbing a 2-0 lead before the No. 1 ranked nation in the world rallied for two late goals that salvaged a 2-2 tie. Mexico needed some sharp saves from keeper Moises Munoz to hold off Argentina until the 85th minute, and though forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez didn’t do a lot more than convert a penalty kick and flub several primo opportunities, fellow attackers Hector Herrera and Raul Jimenez cut open the Argentine backline on a few occasions.
Jimenez ran down one of many raking long balls Mexico used during the match and drew a foul from Nicolas Otamendi, who plays for Manchester City and is of a higher class than anybody used recently during Klinsmann’s chopping and changing of the back line. Herrera scored the second goal a minute after Munoz stoned Angel Correa with a superb one-handed save in the 69th minute. Miguel Layun, a menace many times from the left mid spot he plays in Mexico’s 3-5-2 formation, centered a ball that a wide-open Herrera had ample time to collect and blast into the net.
In its previous game -- played on the same day the U.S. beat Peru -- Mexico tied Trinidad & Tobago, 3-3, so it obviously has questions about his own ability to defend, just as does the U.S. What this latest Brazilian embarrassment means for head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his employment status in the long run is being hotly debated despite U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati’s post-Gold Cup statement that there won’t be a coaching change regardless of the Rose Bowl outcome. Any such dynamic is subject to change, but all that matters in the immediate future is the Mexico match.
TERRIBLE TIME TO TINKER. Why Klinsmann believed his incessant experimentation was the right option against Brazil is impossible to comprehend. Even with its best players in top form and playing in their preferred spots, the U.S. is a few rungs lower on the ladder than Brazil. So he plays a serviceable wide midfielder (Alejandro Bedoya) in the middle, rolls out a brand-new centerback pairing (Ventura Alvarado and Michael Orozco) that had never played together centrally for the national team, and watches a debacle. Michael Bradley played one of his worst games in a U.S. jersey, and the absence of Clint Dempsey left the U.S. toothless in the final third.
Brazil on a good day can make just about any team look ponderous, but the Americans were painfully slow of foot and thought. The attacking acumen of Bradley, the pace and daring of Gyasi Zardes, the power (and luck) of Jozy Altidore, the bite and touch of Geoff Cameron and the menace of DeAndre Yedlin that carried the Americans against Peru vanished at kickoff on Tuesday. Say what you will about talents and strengths and weaknesses, but seldom does an entire team seem laden by listlessness. They just didn’t look ready for anything, much less Brazil, and without Dempsey, who even on his worst days can bring some swagger and predatory instincts to the party, the U.S. ran aground in the middle third.
RALLIES REVEAL FLAWS. Throughout his tenure, Klinsmann has won praise for salvaging a bad first half and generating positive results. It’s an important skill to have, that of making changes and moves at halftime to galvanize a revival. Rallying to defeat world-class powers such as the Netherlands and Germany, who were beaten by the Americans five days apart as recently as June, confirmed a knack to come back that Klinsmann also uncorked last year at the World Cup.
But extensive halftime changes also confirm poor decisions initially for a) the starting XI, or b) tactics, or c) both. Making it better at halftime only partially compensates for getting it wrong at the start. After years of watching sluggish starts and heroic rebounds, more and more critics are suspecting that Klinsmann’s reputation as a master motivator and prosaic planner is quite accurate. There’s a shelf life for coming back against good teams in tough conditions, as the Gold Cup semifinal showed.
AND SO TO MEXICO. If they are to rebound in the Rose Bowl next month a few things have to fall into place:
Back line -- Klinsmann needs to pick the right pairing and make it work. Whether that’s the return of the Omar Gonzalez-Matt Besler duo or a mix-and-match of Alvarado and Orozco and John Brooks, the coach has to get this right. What the Americans will do in the middle against Mexico is one big muddle.
The outside slots are also unsettled. Cameron and Tim Ream floundered in Gillette after strong showings Friday, and before the Peru game Klinsmann stressed the value of DaMarcus Beasley, who suffered an injury on the first day of preparation and didn’t play in either game. Orozco started against Peru at right back and slid into the middle upon the entry of Cameron at halftime. A healthy Fabian Johnson would certainly help no matter where he plays.
Central midfield -- Jermaine Jones struggled against Brazil, but he’s still rounding back into shape after months on the sidelines recovering from groin problems. With another month of MLS games, he should be ready to face Mexico, and maybe Klinsmann goes back to teaming him up with Kyle Beckerman as was done in the World Cup. Yet both players are 33 and will be sorely tested by Mexico’s skill and speed. Danny Williams has more range but less experience.
Dempsey -- Bradley, Zardes and Yedlin helped supersede the absence of Dempsey against Peru. Mexico’s three-man back line, anchored by ex-MLS bust Rafael Marquez, can be breached. Yet despite his importance to the USA -- 114 caps, 43 goals -- Dempsey has never scored against Mexico in nine appearances, and if Altidore is lurching through another dry spell for TFC in October, dependence on Dempsey increases.
Guzan in goal -- Contrary to his mantra that every player is competing for a position all the time, Klinsmann welcomed back Tim Howard from a hiatus with a caveat – he’s the backup at least for now. If that means Howard needs to win back the starting job, okay, but instead Klinsmann guaranteed Howard a place on the bench against Mexico.
The issue isn’t whether Guzan played himself out of the starting lineup in either game -- he didn’t -- but whether this inconsistency confuses other players, those under pressure to perform or fall down the depth chart. Perhaps Dempsey and Bradley can consider themselves locks to start just about every game, yet Klinsmann’s stance is that nobody else enjoys that luxury. Did the anointing of Guzan chip away a bit more of Klinsmann’s quirky persona just when there needs to be stability and confidence?