Performance against 'better' Mexico promises a brighter future for the USA

One of the first musical documentaries, even styled as a rockumentary, was the video production of the making of the charity single, “We Are the World.” In an epic all-nighter, celebrity musicians recorded the song written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson. At one point, however, a disagreement surfaced about the word better vs. brighter in a lyric. The compromise eventually was to use both, in different places.

It came to mind after the Concacaf Nations League final on June 6, reading through various reaction pieces, especially some Spanish-language ones, that maintained Mexico played better, despite falling in overtime to the USA, which won 3-2.

The view of "Mexico played better, but lost," is not a new one. In the historical record (36–15–20), Mexico has dominated the overall matchup between the two teams, but lost several key games, including a 2002 World Cup elimination game that sent the USA squad to the quarterfinals for the first and only time this century. The early aughts saw a fair number of USA wins over El Tri, as Mexico’s team is known. The "Mexico as moral victor, even while USA actually won" concept was often maintained as justified by pointing to classic characteristics, such as a flurry of Mexico shots on goal, a lopsided possession percentage, and a stellar goalkeeping performance by a U.S. player.

Sure enough, statistics indicated some of that scenario was valid. In the Nations League final, the USA maintained only 43% of the ball against Mexico’s more dominant 57%. Not one, but two American goalkeepers, Zack Steffen and Ethan Horvath, made impressive saves in the game, none more so than Horvath’s parry to deny Andres Guardado a late tying goal from the penalty spot.

But the USA matched Mexico exactly for shots on target (7), so it wasn’t as if El Tri generated far more quality chances. The USA developed more corner kick opportunities, including two that resulted in goals.

More importantly, though, there were elements cropping up in the U.S. play that couldn’t be registered on a stat sheet. Call it sauce, call it impudent improvisation, call it trying stuff -- a creative spark too many workmanlike U.S. players traditionally often lack was evident time and again. Whether it was Gio Reyna firing from distance or Sergiño Dest on a mazy run up the field, the unexpected, both delightful and dangerous, was often evident on the USA side, while Mexico played generally more predictably, cleanly.

That’s no surprise, given the quality of veterans on the El Tri squad, like Guardado, Hector Moreno and Hector Herrera. But all of them are in their thirties now, and the four-year gap in average years to the recent USA squad is problematic because once any or all of these players start to lose a step, there isn’t a backup groomed and ready to go.

Guardado, who had the supreme humility and class to congratulate Horvath for his memorable save, is an example of how Mexico can and does send players abroad to succeed in Europe. Guardado has been abroad for a decade now, but while he may have blazed a trail, the path hasn’t been followed by numerous Mexican players. There certainly isn’t a large generational wave of Mexicans abroad at present like there is for the USA.

What’s most hopeful for USA fans and worrisome for Mexico’s is that the "USA players weren’t great," take has a degree of merit. Potentially the greatest talent of the USA’s current generation, Christian Pulisic, despite a well-taken penalty kick, didn’t have an especially impactful game vs. Mexico. Young defenders, like Mark McKenzie, made errors that led to Mexico scoring and spent much of the match struggling to adjust and recover. Tim Ream, an older and never especially quick defender, has definitely lost a step. But the truth that hurts, at least if one is a Mexico fan, is if the USA can wobble, recover and still defeat Mexico while never completely gelling cohesively or playing at their top level, what happens if and when that improvement arrives?

The youth alone of the U.S. squad indicates a high ceiling for ultimate performance. The competitive environment many of the current players are in points to more development coming soon.

Though a listless Costa Rica squad in a friendly following the competition win isn’t the most reliable benchmark, the USA also put in a confident performance, getting four goals past the Ticos on Wednesday. Mexico wasn’t able to earn a single goal in regulation of the semifinal of the Nations League six days earlier against the same team. Baby steps of USA improvement can escalate in speed and greater consistency to outpace Mexico even more soon.

With players like Guillermo Ochoa and Guardado leading the way, Mexico currently has a valid claim to being the better team on paper over the USA, but that’s not ultimately how results are decided. Beyond the counterpoint of, “Scoreboard,” in the latest win, the USA squad right now is more dynamic, more electric -- simply brighter.

In the upcoming Gold Cup, the pendulum of glory can swing back to Mexico. If El Tri secures the trophy, it could be again a case of better beating out brighter, but that’s yet to come. Today, at least, the sun is shining on the U.S. men's national team, since the 14-year hex of not defeating Mexico in competitive tournament play is done and dusted. The new trophy has been secured. The young Americans, gleeful in victory celebration, held it aloft, light reflecting off the gleaming surface. They were the ones who made a brighter day.

27 comments about "Performance against 'better' Mexico promises a brighter future for the USA".
  1. Kent James, June 11, 2021 at 10:05 p.m.

    14 years; I knew it had seemed like forever, but I didn't realize it actually was.  The author makes some excellent points, but only time will tell how things these teams will compare.  They will certainly be close enough for the foreseeable future that either team can win any given game.  Classy move by Guardado to congratulate Horvath. I love an intense rivalry, but I hope it is respectful rather than hateful.  

  2. R2 Dad, June 11, 2021 at 11:20 p.m.

    The international game favors youth, especially when we are talking Denver, Azteca, Houston, Manaus or any of these other trying locations. Italy (average age today: 28) tends to favor older players, but they have also underperformed the past 15 years. So I don't expect Mexico to get any younger right away, or much better. The only caveat I would say would be Efrain Alvarez, who might be our kryptonite if Tata is shrewd enough to play him. I did not see Guardado talking to Horvath but salute his classy gesture. Any way you slice it, this is going to be a good summer for watching the sport. I am very glad to have this gift after a year of dismal lockdown.

  3. Frans Vischer, June 12, 2021 at 1:28 p.m.

    I have to agree that Mexico played the better game, which. as the article states, makes the US win all the more remarkable. I would add Sergino Dest to the list of those playing below their ability. 
    But also, this group of US players, due to most playing in Europe, have had little time to gel as a team. With most Mexican players playing domestically, they are more available to their coach. And the average Mexican age being higher, they have spent far more time together and finessed a cohesive style of play. 
    Berhalter has had little time with this current group. Given that time, this young US group, (and others waiting in the wings,) are going to be a force. As they learn each others' quirks and habits, a flow and style will develop that will make this team lots of fun to watch! 

  4. frank schoon replied, June 12, 2021 at 2:53 p.m.

    Frans , the best team doesn't necessarily win. Mexico played soccer, the US didn't. They scored 3goals ,all on dead ball plays, not by soccer. The problem today with soccer is that lesser teams can win on basis of dead ball plays, 2 corners. They usually spend a lot of time on those deadball situations. Mexico made the mistake of giving away corners, especially to a team that not only outweighs ,but outsizes them.......When Ajax won the '95 cup with Van Gaal as coach, they had the shortest backline in Europe, so made sure that they as far away from their own goal as possible in order to avoid corners or direct kicks from fouls...

  5. John Sabala replied, June 15, 2021 at 1:57 a.m.

    Deadball plays are all apart of soccer and can be an equalizer for teams.  Scoring in the run of play is not the only way soccer is played.  The last men's World Cup saw 70% of the goals scored were from set pieces.  So being able to execute them, and also defend them is all a part of the soccer game.  It is ludicrous to say soccer is only happening during the movement on the field. Teams often try to create corner chances and yes spend a lot of time on these types of plays.  Broaden your perspective of the game. All of the European based US players play at a higher level at top clubs.  I think GB does not know how to employ this team and is beyond his coaching acumen.  Give the US some credit for player development, we just need to get the right coach in place to get this team to perform at their potential level.   

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, June 15, 2021 at 10:42 a.m.

    John, I think you are intentionally avoiding Frank's point. The Laws define when the ball is in play and player movement is not a factor.

    Frank's point was that dead ball plays allow weaker teams to beat better teams. While you refer to dead ball plays as equalizers, I believe that the entertainment value of the game suffers when one team cannot create any chances during the run of play.

    So both teams should be able to create chances during the run of play as well as score via dead ball plays.

  7. Santiago 1314 replied, June 15, 2021 at 9:34 p.m.

    Bob,Frank... If "The Better Team" would execute "properly" their Numerical Superiority  on their FKs, PKs and Corners; they would probably always win... I can't agree that "Dead Ball Situation" are a Benefit to the "Weaker Team"... Which side would you want to be on.???... The one with 10 Corner Kicks or One, The Team with 10 FKs or One, The Team with 3 PKs or One.???... I Rest my Case.!!!

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, June 15, 2021 at 11:11 p.m.

    Santiago, you lost me. I can't see anything in your post that is contrary to what I said.

    My interpretation of what you said is that there is no benefit to weaker teams from dead ball plays because the better team is still the better team and will "almost always" win.

    The phrase "properly execute their numerical superiority" I simply don't get. They should never have numerical superiority unless playing down. The defense should always have time to establish a balanced defense.

  9. Carlos Rocha, June 12, 2021 at 1:40 p.m.

      As far as "Soccer" goes, I couldn't tell you what the "plan" is for the U.S. national team in terms of trophies. But in Football the goal is and has been to dominate, if nothing else. To try to create a legacy. A good one.
    As for this performance in the Nations League the saying goes; "You may win the battle but you'll lose the war."
    We seen this before.
    The USMNT has been "at it" for quite a while now. Are they gonna get better with this win and performance? I'm not holding my breath, sorry.

  10. Carlos Rocha, June 12, 2021 at 2:36 p.m.

    Brazil was playing Football, not "Soccer" when they won their 5 World Cup titles. Just saying.

  11. Goal Goal, June 12, 2021 at 3:04 p.m.

    Frank, I didn't think Mexico played well at all and as far as soccer the U.S played worse but we won.  When we get to the cup it will be as it always has been.  The U S has the talent but coaching does not know what to do with it.

  12. frank schoon replied, June 12, 2021 at 4:34 p.m.

    GG, Mexico played well, relatively, but didn't play smart as I stated....I can't believe they actually but the simplest form , which dead ball plays.....Don't forget Mexico's problem is also that they don't produce great scorers..... 

  13. David Ruder, June 12, 2021 at 7:07 p.m.

    Frank, dead ball plays are created by hard play and rewarded if taken advantage of. For all practical reasons, the US came in the game one goal down, yes real mistake. I disagree with Andrea Canales That Christian Pulisic did not have an impactful game, besides the well-taken penalty kick. I think Christian had a very impactful game many times without the ball with his diagonal runs, always being followed by one or two defenders creating space for mids and forwards. When he did have the ball he was immediately surrounded by three defenders, at times he was able to shake them loose and make some intelligent passes. His excellent corner kicks resulted in 2 goals, he should be kicking corners for Chelsea, at least on the left side.   

  14. frank schoon replied, June 12, 2021 at 8:04 p.m.

    David, true , dead ball plays can be rewarded through hard work and other times it doesn't.  My point is that in the last  25 years or so, teams have begun to emphasize more and more reliance on dead ball plays for they lack the creative aspect. This is also why teams practice counterattacking soccer, due to lack of creative play and players. it is what it is.  

    i forgot how the second goal was scored on the corner, but the first corner by CP was pure luck as most of them is simply a toss up. The dream team of BARCELONA coached by Cruyff in 90's never practiced corners . Kicking a ball in crowd of players who grab, push and trip, foul and try to impede each where rarely a ref makes an attempt to call does not require great kicking is a crap shoot. 

    A smart team needs to reduce the chance of opponents scoring by making  sure not give away corners and stupid fouls right outside of the penalty box....


  15. Carlos Rocha, June 12, 2021 at 7:49 p.m.

    Don't mimic the game. Play the game.

    Have a nice day.

  16. Mark Landefeld, June 12, 2021 at 8:36 p.m.

    Am I alone in feeling that what possession the USA had was "feeling" more threatening than Mexico?

    That 4 year age difference -- that's a whole WC cycle.   The gears at FMF must be turning right now.

  17. Bob Ashpole, June 12, 2021 at 9:55 p.m.

    Excellent article. 

    While others have applauded Mexico, I was disappointed in Mexico's play. They are a shadow of what they were 4 years ago. When you judge athletic performance, you should do it by comparison to yourself. That is the only way to measure progress or lack of progress. As for the match, the only statistic that maters is goals scored.

    I agree with Frank that the lack of goals scored during the run of play is disappointing and reveals how effective keying a defense on Pulisic is. Can you imagine what difference it would make if Pulisic was given any space?

    When I was teaching U10s how to play I spent zero time on restarts, and 100% focused on the run of play. In practices and matches, I had the team put the ball back in play as soon as possible and then attack in the run of play. There is no point in working on restarts (not talking about defending here) if a team can't create chances during the run of play. Playing soccer has to take first priority. Otherwise you are just giving up on the future.

    I especially liked the point that if the US can win on an off night, it doesn't bode well for Mexico in the long run. The US players will undoubtedly get better over the next 8 years.

  18. Bob Ashpole, June 12, 2021 at 10:13 p.m.

    I might add that you punish the opponent for overloading the defense on a player. I found checking runs before receiving the ball to be highly effective at removing a man marker from the play, usually creating a 1v1 situation for you and a numbers up situation overall. Just make sure your play is done before the marker can recover. It does take quickness, energy, and timing (reading the game) to pull off, but I don't see why checking runs won't work at the top level too. The teammates are pros after all.

    This is very similar to the situation that people now refer to as the "false nine" as if no one ever did it before. The CBs are punished for marking the CF. The simplest tactics can be very effective when well done.

  19. Bob Ashpole replied, June 12, 2021 at 10:18 p.m.

    If that was what Pulisic was doing, great. The TV broadcast never shows things like checking runs away from the ball. US TV coverage usually stinks. It ain't pointy football. You can't produce a soccer broadcast the same way without missing important action.

  20. R2 Dad replied, June 13, 2021 at 12:18 p.m.

    Bob, US broadcasters and producers still haven't got the hang of televising the sport, relying on all the bad NFL habits then wondering why it falls flat. Our WC coverage gets cringeworthy. The hazard has been cranked up further now that talking heads feel obligated to drag race into every conversation.

  21. Carlos Rocha, June 13, 2021 at 9:34 a.m.

    The lion is not "king" of the jungle because it is fastest or biggest. It is "king" because he is laziest. 

  22. Bob Ashpole replied, June 14, 2021 at 12:41 a.m.

    I liked that very much, although I think few US fans will understand your point. 

  23. Glenn Alpert, June 14, 2021 at 11:56 a.m.

    Talking about the result of the game and "who played better" are two different things. With a large enough sample size, the teams that play better soccer typically win more games.

    National Team soccer is a small sample size - the only time we get to see enough of a sample where better soccer leads to more winning is during qualification rounds, federation tournaments (copa america, euros, gold cup etc). We were able to see two one-off games where the US did not appear to control the game, but managed to find a way to win. Every team has its strength, and one of the strengths of our national team is that will to win and will to dig out a result.

    But, as soon as we start playing teams that are playing too far above our level (not just a notch), that will to win will just help us hang in the game by our teeth instead of tipping the balance. 

  24. Bob Ashpole replied, June 15, 2021 at 10:49 a.m.

    Glenn, the problem is that the will to win and grit are common traits in international soccer. Without them, a national team doesn't deserve to be on the field. By themselves, they aren't going to make a team superior to another.

  25. Glenn Alpert, June 14, 2021 at 11:59 a.m.

    I am looking forward to the world cup next year when out USMNT gets put under the microscope at the highest level. Like many of you, I see some issues that get glossed over or passed over when the team wins. This will only make us better.

  26. frank schoon, June 16, 2021 at 12:06 p.m.

    Santiago, where have you been the last 30years. There is a reason why there is more emphasis placed on deadball plays as a playing tactic ,especially there are weaker teams. Teams that park the bus the whole game who lack good integral play will go with that's that simple.

    <" "Dead Ball Situation" are a Benefit to the "Weaker Team"...OFCOURSE they are a benefit to a weaker team ,especially went they are not good at stringing more than 2passes in a row. 
    The team you mentioned with 10Corner kicks means they are probably the dominant or better team and they earned these corner for their continued attacks. A weak team is just happy to get a corner kick and if they score ,they could possible even win...and that is not unusual. 

  27. Carlos Rocha, June 17, 2021 at 5:47 p.m.

    Well, it''s Soccer America's job to try to understand and maybe translate what I mean Bob Ashpole. Not mine. I'm just a "keen" observer. I refuse to think that U.S. Soccer fans, as intelligent as they are, they don't know where they're Soccer still is after 30 years.

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