Michael Bradley

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Fearless Arena, USMNT overcame all risks vs. Mexico

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The ship is steadied.

That’s the upshot of Bruce Arena’s second international break with the United States men’s national team, where the Yanks dominated Trinidad and Tobago before drawing Mexico on Sunday in Azteca.

The latter is a far more impressive result, with Arena’s game planning getting due credit and Michael Bradley’s early goal making sure it had every reason to flourish in the thin air of Mexico City.

[ MORE: Player ratings for USMNT

Arena’s 3-5-2 took some significant risks, and it’s a credit to the coach and players that even the ones that backfired didn’t hamper the team in pursuit of a result.

The moves that didn’t work are even debatable. DaMarcus Beasley received little help when Carlos Vela toasted him with a counter attack goal, and the left back was limited anyway by an early injury (Whether Arena should’ve bit the bullet and used an early sub with Jorge Villafana is another discussion).

Putting 21-year-old Kellyn Acosta next to Michael Bradley was another risk that mostly worked, though the moments that made that adverb necessary were big ones. Acosta was cooked by Javier Hernandez with a nutmeg and then stayed with the hobbled striker as Vela worked his way to scoring position. That’s two errors on a big play, and it’s almost certain a more experience player takes a card for a tactical foul on Hernandez at midfield. But the Yanks escaped, and now the promising Acosta has an invaluable evening under his belt. Risk rewarded in that sense.

Then there’s Brad Guzan — and I’ve beaten this drum before — who was just fine but not Tim Howard. I realize Guzan has Azteca success, but for me there’s a gulf between the two MLS keepers.

As an aside, it bothers me that preferring Howard — probably the most accomplished of an amazing history of American goalkeepers — could be perceived as a shot at Guzan, who is a fine goalkeeper. But give me Howard every darn time.

It’s more difficult to expound upon the positives because “man those center backs did their job” is often the least sexy route for a writer. But there’s an easy argument that Tim Ream and Omar Gonzalez are better for a three-man unit than in a center back duo. And even if it seems an easy trust for Arena to use Cameron as “the man”, it was taking a chance in a big spot.

He also resisted the urge to rest Michael Bradley, who hasn’t been bad but has also not been himself for some time with the USMNT set-up. It wasn’t just the long-distance goal that proved this move astute, rather the calm of the regular metronome in the center of the park.

And as much as I argued for the exclusion of Darlington Nagbe from the XI for this contest, it took guts for Arena not to start the electric Portland Timbers attacker. It’s often going to be a problem to use both Nagbe and Christian Pulisic against teams that can do work in the center of the park, especially while we wait for Pulisic’s continuing evolution. Both are risk/reward players and on a night that saw the Americans anything but successful in keeping the ball — blame an otherworldly night from the magnificent Hector Herrera.

Consider this: Mexico had 67 percent possession and 84 percent pass success. That’s not a horrible night by any means, and the Yanks still managed a point.  I mean, look at the below screen grab from CONCACAF.com. Almost every Mexican player to play significant minutes attempted more passes than the American leader: Pulisic.

Yet it doesn’t feel like a lucky result, and that perception is a feather in Arena’s cap. On a night where Hector Herrera cranked one off the pipe, the Yanks scored an amazing but fortunate goal, and several big name players were kept from the lineup, the U.S. got a result that feels just.

The boys have bought in, most naysayers shut up, and hope springs eternal even with the knowledge that the Yanks will likely be in CONCACAF’s fourth place following Tuesday’s qualifiers in Costa Rica and Panama.

Arena’s gameplan sets USMNT up for point in Mexico

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After 90 minutes of hair-on-fire soccer at Estadio Azteca, the U.S. national team has just its third competitive point at Mexico’s national stadium. The lessons from Sunday’s clash in Mexico City are infinite, but for now, let’s look at three key elements of Bruce Arena’s gameplan, and give the USMNT boss some deserved (and vindicating) praise.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

It’s good to have a plan

Arena went on to say they were “positioned to get three points today,” and he couldn’t be more right (Mexican coaches and players should be saying the same thing, but the game was that close). The last time the Yanks visited Azteca in World Cup qualifying, that wasn’t so much the case.

Let’s go ahead and list, in detail, all the ways Arena set his team up for this specific game, against this specific opponent:

1. Three center backs — It was effectively five across the back for much of the night, and it created a numerical balance that rarely allowed the USMNT to be overloaded in its defensive third. Working on something in training, and refining it in a friendly, before calling upon it in a meaningful game is covered on the first day of Management 101. Not everyone attends the first day of class, though, and that’s understandable.

2. Midfield partnership — It’s impossible to say what Arena would have done if Jermaine Jones had been healthy. The temptation certainly would have been there to roster him and call on the “old head who’s been here before” for a game like this. What’s not difficult to say is this: “Plain and simple, Kellyn Acosta makes Michael Bradley better.” Bradley’s only able to aggressively step up and win the ball high in midfield, as he did just before scoring his goal, if he knows Acosta’s behind him and disciplined enough to fill the space vacated if Bradley is unsuccessful. Let’s have a quick look at Acosta’s positioning when Bradley makes his move…

Not to oversimplify everything asked of a central midfielder, especially in a midfield-two, but Acosta, at the age of 21, already shows the kind of discipline that has never been a particular strength of Jones. (Sidenote: that’s totally fine, and in no way a knock on Jones. It’s only ever actually been a problem because he was shoehorned into a horribly ill-fitting role his entire USMNT career.)

3. Personnel to fit the counter-attacking approach — Under the previous coach, the USMNT set out to defend deep and hit teams (especially better sides) on the counter with frustrating regularity (considering the possession-based, attacking soccer that was promised in August 2011). Sometimes they were successful, but mostly it just frustrated (USMNT fans, not opponents).

And, why was it so? Let’s consider the personnel which has gobbled up the majority of starts in the final third over the last half-decade: Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore are each fine players in a system that plays to their strengths, but attacking open space is just about the last thing the two of them do well.

By swapping Altidore for Bobby Wood, and Dempsey for Paul Arriola, Arena put a bit of pace on the field — players who are comfortable (and effective) running at defenders in the field. For the 79 minutes Wood was on the field, Mexican defenders were aware of him running in behind weighed heavily, and kept them honest. Against a forward like Altidore, they’re able to creep further and further forward, shrink the field and recycle possession in the middle third again and again.

Arena even played a pair of central midfielders who thrive at playing long balls to runners in space. In theory, and an environment slightly different than Azteca, Bradley and Acosta feed those quick wingers and let them stretch their legs to devastating effect with a forward who can keep up, make smart runs inside the box and finish his chances.

For the first time in a long time, the building blocks appear to be in place, and genuine progression from one game to the next is clear as day. I’m encouraged and hopeful in a way that I’d long since forgotten.

Player ratings from USMNT’s 1-1 draw in Mexico

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The U.S. national team secured itself a massive point away to Mexico, inside Estadio Azteca, Sunday night, with many thanks to a handful of standout defensive performances, and a legend-securing performance from its captain.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

GK — Brad Guzan: 5/10 — With Mexico putting just one shot on target all night, Guzan didn’t make a single save. Someone else may have done better on the goal, but it’s a tough one to fault the goalkeeper for when so many things went wrong in front of him.

CB — Tim Ream: 6/10 — Of the three center backs chosen by Bruce Arena, Ream was challenged the least as the majority of Mexico’s advances came down the right side of defense. When called upon, though, Ream was solid, and was rarely isolated and hardly put a foot wrong.

CB — Geoff Cameron: 8/10 — On every occasion that emergency defending was required, it was Cameron who made the last-man clearance, interception or tackle all night long. Playing in the middle of three center backs really suits his strengths — passing out of the back, recovery runs, and one-on-one challenges — and covers up any shortcomings as an aerial dueler.

CB — Omar Gonzalez: 7/10 — Someone had to dominate the air as Mexico opted to play long diagonal balls into and around the USMNT penalty area, and Gonzalez was up to the task. Again, it’s a three-man unit which puts everyone into their own best possible role.

LM — DaMarcus Beasley: 5/10 — It should be said, Beasley retired from international soccer in 2014, played a farewell game in 2015, and was called upon to start the qualifier away to Mexico in 2017. Any shortcomings are hardly a Beasley problem. That said, he got beat pretty badly on Carlos Vela’s goal.

RM — DeAndre Yedlin: 5/10 — Matching up one on one with Irving Lozano is a challenge few full backs in the world would relish, and Yedlin struggled a fair bit early on before recovering nicely, even if with little impact, to last all 90 minutes.

[ WATCH: Bradley stunning chip beats the GK from 40 yards ]

CM — Michael Bradley: 9/10 — From the goal, to the near-god-status-sealing goal, to his breaking up of play in the middle of the field, Bradley was far and away the Yanks’ best player. It’s amazing the kind of performances he’s capable of putting forth with a willing and able runner alongside him in midfield.

CM — Kellyn Acosta: 6/10 — Plain and simple, Acosta makes Bradley, the USMNT’s most polarizing and important player, better. He was perfectly cast by Arena as someone who can cover acres and excel at playing runners into space on the counter. That said, it was his failure to take a chance-killing yellow that allowed the sequence which led to Mexico’s goal to continue.

LW — Christian Pulisic: 6/10 — It was Pulisic’s first “big game” for the USMNT, and his performance was mostly what you’d expect from an 18-year-old in a setting like Azteca: largely invisible with a handful of bright individual moments sprinkled throughout. The counter-attacking game doesn’t quite suit a player of Pulisic’s skill, so we’ll chalk it up as a learning experience.

RW — Paul Arriola: 6/10 — Though deployed as an “attacker,” Arriola’s real purpose in this one was provide defensive cover in front of DeAndre Yedlin, and the Club Tijuana man did just that through 45 minutes. His legs were all but gone in the second half, though, and he last just 20 more minutes.

FW — Bobby Wood: 5/10 — Reason for Wood’s inclusion was clear: he offers the speed you need when sitting deep and looking for chances to counter. Those moments rarely presented themselves, though, and he ended up the least involved player on the field.

[ RECAP: Resolute USMNT earns its point at Azteca ]

Sub — Darlington Nagbe: 4/10 — The only player who saw the field and truly struggled, Nagbe entered a frenetic, back-and-forth game at a really difficult time (64th minute, just as both sides were kissing discipline goodbye and engaging in an end-to-end affair. There are reasons, but it was easily Nagbe’s worst showing in a USMNT kit.

Sub — Jozy Altidore: 5/10 — Seven touches after coming on as a 79th-minute substitute, and just one pass completed. It was a key pass, though, and led to Pulisic finding a bit of open space and firing wide in the 89th minute.

Sub — Graham Zusi: N/A — 92nd-minute sub, brought on solely to run the clock down in stoppage time.

Head coach — Bruce Arena: 10/10 — The kind of gameplan and in-game management the USMNT has been missing since the summer of 2011, and maybe longer.

USA 1-1 Mexico: Resolute USMNT earns its point at Azteca

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Three points would have been fantastic for the standings, but as far as mentality and psyche go, the U.S. national team’s 1-1 draw away to Mexico, inside El Tri‘s national house of horrors, Estadio Azteca, will provide so much more than a point for Bruce Arena’s side as they begin the stretch run of 2018 World Cup qualifying.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

The tone was, predictably, made very clear from the outset, as Carlos Salcedo committed a pair of borderline red-card offenses inside the game’s first three minutes — a pair of flying elbows, the first to the head of DaMarcus Beasley, and the second to Bobby Wood.

The Yanks didn’t take the bait, though, and kept their wits about them. Just three minutes later, they went 1-0 ahead courtesy of the earliest goal an American has ever scored at Azteca. Michael Bradley stepped high into midfield to cut out a pass before racing forward and spotting Guillermo Ochoa well off his line. The USMNT captain wasn’t shy to shoot as he let fly from 40 yards out, chipping Ochoa in spectacular fashion (WATCH HERE).

The lead was relatively short-lived, though, as Mexico turned their only first-half shot on goal into an equalizer. The USMNT defense bent but rarely broke during the first 45 minutes, and the 23rd minute was one of very few moments when El Tri‘s dangerous attackers isolated American defenders in open space. Carlos Vela got a step inside of Beasley and fired low past Brad Guzan to bring the hosts back to level terms.

[ WATCH: Bradley stunning chip beats the GK from 40 yards ]

The second half began with the two sides trading 10-minute spells of sustained possession in their opponent’s half of the field, but creating little more than quarter-chances from lofted diagonal balls and crosses into the box.

The bend-but-don’t-break approach nearly collapsed on the USMNT in the 71st minute. After sitting absurdly deep in their defensive half for much of the half, a golden chance or two was always going to fall Mexico’s way. Hector Herrera unleashed a free kick from 25 yards out that had beaten Guzan to his left, if not for the underside of the crossbar denying the Porto midfielder a stunner.

Two minutes later, it was the woodwork on the other end of the field that kept Mexico on level terms. Bradley unloaded a heavy ball on the half-volley from all of 30 yards out. Ochoa was 50-50 to make the save, at best, his left-hand post to thank in the end.

All things considered — questionably one-sided refereeing in favor of the home side, a largely even balance of chances, and the adjustment to 7,200 feet of altitude on two days’ rest — a hard-fought point earned is a fair result for both sides. Delight for the USMNT, disappointment for Mexico.

AT THE HALF: Vela cancels out Bradley’s bomb — USA 1-1 Mexico

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Exhale. And, exhale. And, once more.

After 45 minutes of Sunday’s 2018 World Cup qualifier in Mexico City, the U.S. national team and Mexico are all square, at 1-1.

[ LIVE: Follow Mexico vs. USA ]

Michael Bradley’s opener came after just six minutes, from 40 yards out, as it sailed over the head of Guillermo Ochoa and hit the back of the net inside a stunned, silent Estadio Azteca (WATCH HERE).

Mexico hit back not long after, though, as Carlos Vela finished a lightning-quick counter (after Bobby Wood whiffed a golden chance from six yards out on the other end) by beating DaMarcus Beasley atop the 18-yard box and firing past Brad Guzan to make it 1-1.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

With 45 minutes to go, it’s all to play for. The Yanks would be thrilled with a draw, while El Tri will accept nothing short of all three points. Hit the link above to follow along with the action at Azteca, and of course, check back with PST for all the post-game coverage you could possibly want, tonight, tomorrow and the days to come.