A week ago the United States national team found itself injury depleted, dealing with some internal turmoil and not so far from a full-blown crisis.
These things do change quickly, though, and tonight finds the United States with four big points from a pair of matches over five nights, striding away from a memorable few days, comfortably positioned in final round World Cup qualifying.
The Americans were hardly overwhelming in a 0-0 draw with Mexico, but Jurgen Klinsmann and his patchwork back line will be far more pleased with Tuesday’s result than the hapless Mexicans, who have (Shockingly!) zero wins after three matches in the final stage of CONCACAF regional qualifying.
The United States never put a shot on goal Tuesday. But neither did they allow much bother for goalkeeper Brad Guzan as quality center back play and a first-half defensive adjustment reduced Mexico and high-scoring Mexican striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez – who remains on the hunt for his first goal against the United States – to a series of half-chances and a couple of unlucky, close-in ricochets.
Guzan handled a few routine balls and needed to make one late, quality save. But Tim Howard’s replacement was hardly tested otherwise by a rather stale and uncreative Mexican attack. Including last August’s 1-0 win for the United States, El Tri has not scored on the Americans at Azteca Stadium in more than 180 minutes.
The United States is tied for second with Costa Rica and Honduras in the six-team group (from which three teams automatically qualify for Brazil 2014). But with the toughest match (away to Mexico) behind them, and with four of seven remaining matches on home soil, the Americans have reason to like their positioning tonight.
“I think when many people doubted us, when many people said it couldn’t be done, that it was over, we came together as a group,” Herculez Gomez told ESPN after the match. “We showed tremendous attitude, tremendous willingness to sacrifice for one another … I’ve got to applaud my teammates. It’s a great group of guys, and we couldn’t have asked for any better.”
This was just the second time the United States earned a point in 15 World Cup qualifiers in Mexico; the U.S. record there now is 0-13-2.
U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann made just two changes form the team that stamped “mission accomplished” across last Friday’s snowy proceedings outside Denver. Maurice Edu was in for the injured Jermaine Jones at the holding midfield spot. And Matt Besler got his first World Cup qualifier start for Clarence Goodson, who picked up a minor injury in Friday’s 1-0 win over Costa Rica.
Mexico’s plan was clear – and it was causing some U.S. defensive headaches early. El Tri looked for Gio Dos Santos or Javier Aquino on the right or Andrés Guardado on the left with diagonal balls, repeatedly catching the U.S. fullbacks a little too far forward.
DaMarcus Beasley looked particularly bothered, reinforcing the worry that the veteran midfielder, pulling emergency left back duty, would be stretched in a match that demanded more defending. Indeed, Mexico at Azteca is a wholly different beast than what Beasley saw Friday at home against Costa Rica.
Two U.S. men had yellow cards in the first 20 minutes. In fact, Beasley needed just eight minutes to get his booking for an unwise push in the back on Aquino.
Those weren’t the only defensive issues early. Jesus Zavala was allowed a wide open header off a free kick, as Geoff Cameron appeared to lose his man. And the United States’ midfield was allowing too much service from 35-40 yards out, begging for trouble with a goal-scorer of supreme instinct like Hernandez is around.
But a defensive tweak helped as what looked like a 4-2-3-1 to begin Tuesday’s contest evolved necessarily into more of a 4-4-2. When Graham Zusi and Herculez Gomez moved their starting positions along the flanks about 10-15 yards back, providing more assistance to their fullbacks, the Mexicans looked slightly less dangerous.
Mexico, running out of ideas, became predictable. They remained dangerous on the flanks, but Besler and especially Omar Gonzalez remained faithfully in the center, refusing to be drawn out, and were so dominant in there. Cameron also did solid work in his second consecutive start at right back.
“‘The back line was outstanding,” Klinsmann said. “It’s really wonderful to see these guys take on these challenges. And it’s a huge challenge in front of 100,000 people, and it seemed like it didn’t bother them.”
Mexican fans will surely be upset about the most dangerous moment for their team, which has not scored at home so far in two final round qualifiers. El Tri was unlucky to be denied a 75th minute penalty appeal when Edu bundled into Aquino from behind 10 yards from goal.