Mexico is reeling, clearly, and the United States is in a better place thanks to a restorative, memorable achievement Friday. Given the initiative in the Jurgen Klinsmann era to press the attack, to pressure teams high up the field – heck, ambitious attacking is in the German manager’s DNA – this might look like the perfect place to carpe that doggone diem and knock the staggering opponents onto their Mexican keesters.
But is it?
In reality, nothing has changed in terms of an American team still missing lots of first-choice defensive pieces.
And nothing has changed in terms of Azteca Stadium being tough as razor wire for collecting points. This is still Mexico, a talented collection even when reduced to a place of lesser confidence. This is still Mexico City, burdened with the thin air (7,200 feet) and smog so thick a U.S. player once told me it was like playing inside a smoky bar.
This is still a stadium of abundant mystique, where Mexico has historically dominated, never mind that draw last month with Jamaica.
A more pragmatic approach seems in order here. After all, even a draw in Mexico City would be seen as a “win” for everyone involved. There’s no question that Klinsmann’s men would feel OK about taking a point from tonight’s match – leaving the Mexicans with just three points from a possible nine, disappointing 105,000 or so fans on hand and stacking yet more hardship on embattled El Tri manager José Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre.
That’s not to say the United States should “park the bus” at Azteca, sitting back in an overly defensive crouch and hoping to tie. Klinsmann will always be hard-wired for the win … but how they go after it needs tweaking for this one.
Inside a building where the team owns a meager 1-19-1 record, the tactics and lineups just need prudent adjustment into something slightly less aggressive, perhaps akin to the useful setup that guided his team into a confidence-inspiring win in Italy last year.
That lineup included three defensive-minded midfielders (Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu and Danny Williams) along with just one striker (Jozy Altidore). Similarly, Klinsmann assigned three midfielders (Williams, Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones) to fairly deep roles last August as the United States upset El Tri, 1-0.
It just makes sense to lean a little more defensive in this one. Who cares if critics complain that defensively inclined tactics look too similar to the way of former manager Bob Bradley? Bradley was a good manager, after all, who guided the team to second-round appearance at World Cup 2010. Yes, his tactics were predictable and conservative – and so what?
Klinsmann arrived with a mandate of moving the program forward, of incorporating more creativity and a set-up meant to seize greater initiative. But that shouldn’t be done in a vacuum. No one should be hell-bent to attack to such an extent that all practicality goes out the Mexico City window.
A young United States defense didn’t gain that much experience over 90 character-testing minutes in snowy Denver. Omar Gonzalez, talented as he is stall, and the other young defenders still need protection from positions ahead of them. And that back line probably needs a lineup adjustment.
Converted midfielder DaMarcus Beasley was the right choice for a home match against a defensively dug-in opponent. That much was clear from the first 30 minutes Friday – the only period of a unique contest where any discernible tactical shape was evident, before deteriorating conditions made it strictly a game of will, wits and ball-winning.
But Klinsmann should opt for real defenders in this one. Which is why Maurice Edu should be along the U.S. back line, or perhaps one of the younger, true fullbacks, like Justin Morrow. That’s also why Geoff Cameron should remain at right back, helping to pack as much defensive instinct as possible along the back line.
There is still Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (pictured, on right) to deal with.
Playing Beasley further up the field might make sense; he knows the Mexican game and never has a problem honoring defensive duty out of midfield.
None of this is to say the United States should not try to win; but the way Klinsmann and Co. looks for another historic achievement needs wise management.
For instance, in Clint Dempsey the United States has a man who knows how to manage his fitness (limited, having just come off injury with Tottenham), who understands how to select his moments, and who can still go claim a huge goal even when not at his best. That’s exactly what we saw from the current U.S. captain Friday with an immense strike at DSG Park.
So, they could manage with one fewer offensive type in the starting XI.
To keep the score low, protect the defense, look to pick off a goal and get out of Azteca with a point (or, with some luck, all three) would be monumental. It would leave the U.S. drive for Brazil 2014 in a good place.
The only way to erase all the progress in improved team accord made last week would be to take a 3-0 or 4-0 beating in Mexico City – and who north of the border wants to see that?