Commentary

Americans' sporadic performance mars a great night for soccer

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)

A great game took place at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus Friday night.

By “great” I mean exciting, dramatic, passionate, compelling, a match full of hard tackles and slick passes and rife with harrowing, end-to-end attacks and balls pinging off bodies on the goal’s doorstep as well as the woodwork. Action flowed back and forth as the teams took turns pushing the play and in the final moments the oldest player on the field delivered the decisive blow.

It just about lived up to all the hoopla and anticipation that had been simmering about "Dos a cero" and four in a row and the fortress that is Columbus, except that only one team came out of the blocks determined and sharp and intent on winning, and that team wasn’t wearing red, white, and blue. 

Instead, Mexico, led by the great tinkerer and ex-MLS head coach Juan Carlos Osorio, looked the more likely winner for much of the match and not only did it score a crushing goal in the 89th minute to secure a 2-1 victory, one of the rivalry’s all-time villains – or heroes, depending on which side of the border loyalty resides – inflicted the killer finish.

And just to rub in some sal (Spanish for "salt") defender Rafael Marquez scored from a corner kick with his head, thus smiting the Americans with two of their own best weapons. Marquez darted to the near post and glanced a curling corner kick from Miguel Layun over keeper Brad Guzan and inside the unguarded back post.

The goal cancelled out a superb equalizer by Bobby Wood during which the U.S swept upfield about 70 yards to score within a handful of seconds. Layun had provided a 1-0 lead during an opening period of Mexican superiority and American ineptitude, and though the USA righted itself sufficiently to control the ball for significant periods it did not outplay Mexico often enough or ruthlessly enough to win the game.

Mexico, as usual, played the more polished soccer but unlike in previous visits to Ohio, for the most part kept its poise. Taking the lead for the first time in a qualifier since Kasey Keller's attempted clearance crashed off the head of Carlos Hermosillo in Foxboro, Massachusetts, and into the net 19 years ago, Mexico dictated the tempo, lost command, and then finished the stronger of the two teams to claim an historic victory.

It was great entertainment if not great soccer, which is about the best you can hope for in Concacaf World Cup qualifiers, which are often plagued by insipid attempts to defraud the referee and all manner of scuffling and barking and macho posturing. This game produced those elements as well and late in the match Mexican midfielder Carlos Salcedo duly checked off another box by drawing a second caution and thus a dismissal.

He will miss the second round of the Hexagonal, as will USA goalie Tim Howard for a very different and more worrying reason. Howard strained his right groin taking a goal kick, which required head coach Jurgen Klinsmann to replace him before halftime with Guzan, who moves into the No. 1 slot for a match Tuesday in Costa Rica.

Said game now takes on staggering importance. Though it is just the second of 10 Hexagonal tests, away qualifiers in Costa Rica are nightmares on most occasions. The Mexico game not only confirmed a few nagging fears of American fans it also coughed up a couple of new ones.

Blame for the Americans’ poor play in the first half-hour fell upon a formation that Klinsmann labelled a 3-4-3 yet could have been a 3-5-2; whatever it was, an injury to linchpin midfielder Andres Guardado and switching to a 4-4-2 formation yielded much better play by the USA in the latter stages of the first half, and a strong start to the second half produced Wood’s impressive equalizer. But midway through the second half, the momentum shifted again and of the chances that fell to both teams only Marquez delivered a first-class finish.

A labored, constipated start is surely not what Klinsmann forecast when he left Sacha Kljestan and Alejandro Bedoya on the bench in favor of Christian Pulisic in the middle and Timmy Chandler at right midfield, or wingback if you prefer. Pulisic, though he improved when shifted to left mid, didn’t look overmatched or confused in the unfamiliar formation, but several teammates did.

Clean touches and crisp passes shifted the ball amongst the Mexican players while Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones chased shadows in central midfield. Layun and Giovani dos Santos ran rings around Chandler and took aim at Omar Gonzalez, marooned as the right end of a three-man back line. John Brooks bailed out the USA by heading clear numerous crosses and though Matt Besler, deployed on the left, won several tackles he also fouled in risky areas to provide Mexico with free kicks. Only late in the first half and early in the second did the USA look like it had the measure of Mexico, which forced two good saves by Howard before injury forced him out of the game and also dinged shots off the post and crossbar.

Along with poor touches, bad decisions plagued the Americans. Bradley took a weak shot instead of serving up a wide-open Wood, Jones flew into a few reckless tackles, Besler challenged in vulnerable spots, etc.

Before the game, Marquez said Mexico relished the opportunity to exorcise those demons of four straight defeats and through the best qualifying performance seen from a Mexican team since a 2-2 tie at Foxboro Stadium in 1997 the visitor did just that.

The Americans have their own demons to contend with on Tuesday, along with a bevy of questions of how they will play and if they can play well. The Columbus streak is of the past. The future starts in just a few days.

11 comments about "Americans' sporadic performance mars a great night for soccer".
  1. Gail E Schad, November 12, 2016 at 9:16 a.m.

    when is us soccer going to get rid of jts coach. last night was one of the worst displays I have seen from us soccer. his choice of players and formation stinks

  2. beautiful game, November 12, 2016 at 10:13 a.m.

    Wood, Johnson, & Pulisic were the only quality performers on the pitch...Altidore did a few nice moves, but that was it...first half team rating D-; second half B. Rafa's last minute goal was a defensive mental lapse only found on a high school pitch. Player cohesion is the biggest problem.

  3. Wooden Ships replied, November 13, 2016 at 5:27 p.m.

    I agree with your assessment I w. IMO, Guzan was asleep on the Rafa goal. Keepers are in charge of how they want the corner defended. At that pint in the game I would have two on the posts. I would also had the players aware of the space emptied (where Rafa made his run) prior to the kick. First rule: don't let a near side run beat you. You don't send a central defender out of the area of the 6. Looked like to me that Jozy was trailing several steps behind, which is no shocker. I'm hoping my memory isn't foggy on that point. Either way, I didn't see Guzan dedicate a player to watch that run. JK is always preaching experience, seniority. I don't think Howard, nor Harvath would have played that corner the same way. I never, as a player and a coach, put a team loss on an individual and I'm not now. It's one snapshot over 90 minutes but it was rather embarrassing that late in the match and at a National level.

  4. Frank Cardone, November 12, 2016 at 10:58 a.m.

    JK has proven to be the wrong choice but US Soccer does not want to admit it. Last year I wrote to Sunil Gulati about this. Did you? The score at halftime could have easily been 3-0. What is Jermaine Jones doing in the starting line-up? JK must go.

  5. Miguel Dedo, November 12, 2016 at 11:38 a.m.

    The match was, as Ridge describes it, exciting, dramatic, passionate, compelling.
    The outcome was a fair measure of how good the US is at this game. We should learn to enjoy and appreciate what we have. To posit that changing the coach would make the US significantly better is like believing that Donald Trump will make the US economy and society significantly better.

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, November 12, 2016 at 2:18 p.m.

    I actually thought that the US individually played as well as Mexico. The differences between the two teams that I saw were all a matter of organization. I think that Mexico is proof positive that changing coaches can make a great difference in how well a national team plays.

  7. Kent James replied, November 12, 2016 at 3:13 p.m.

    Miguel, while I agree generally that the games is to the players rather than the coach, so changing the coach will only make marginal improvements, in the game last night, JK certainly made a very noticeable error in his formation and player selection. The 3-5-2 was exactly the wrong formation to start, though to his credit, JK changed it pretty quickly. Jones, Gonzalez and Chandler should not have started, though all the other selections were good. Gonzalez gave us a 3rd tall centerback, and he’s not as good with the ball as the other 2, so it should have been Yedlin, Johnson, Besler and Brooks (with Yedlin and Johnson to deal with the quickness Mexico has on the flank, which is much too much to ask of Besler and Gonzalez). Chandler is not a bad player, but he just doesn’t add anything. Jones adds bite, which against Mexico is not crazy, but he’s just come back from injury, doesn’t have much offensive ability (though his shot from distance can be excellent, and I was disappointed he didn’t try it a few times last night), and I don’t think the rest of the team lacks for bite. I’m not always a Klestjan fan, but he has been good this year and we could have used his passing ability instead of Jones physical play (though he did make a few good tackles).

  8. Frank Cardone replied, November 13, 2016 at 10 a.m.

    Miguel,

    I was delighted when JK was appointed but his tenure as coach has been anything but stellar. Important: Your reference to Trump is very petty and does not belong in this discussion. I will stop here because I am a gentleman.

  9. Kevin Leahy, November 13, 2016 at 4:41 p.m.

    Carlos Vela gave the U.S. fits all over the field. Johnson had a very difficult match but, to his credit, kept working. It is pretty bad when the players have to make the change on the field because, the coach got it wrong. Sunil better be paying attention,

  10. beautiful game, November 14, 2016 at 11:11 a.m.

    Bob A., I don't see what u see, individuality only counts when it matters either on offense or defense...team play makes that happen.

  11. Bob Ashpole replied, November 15, 2016 at 4:11 a.m.

    The good individual play with poor organization indicates a coaching failure.

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