Qualifier for 2014 World Cup in Brazil… USA Shuts Out Mexico For a Triumphant and Glorious Victory
It’s almost hard to believe, but in recent months fans of the US Men’s National Team have become accustom to winning, and winning in a certain kind of style.
Friday’s unpleasant result vs. Costa Rica turned that style on its head, leaving us all to wonder if recent wins, goals and the overall quality on display through most of 2013 amounted to pile of fools gold being swept away by the tortuous winds of World Cup qualifying.
Though the U.S. had defeated Mexico 2-0 in every qualifying match Columbus Crew Stadium has hosted, there was enough trepidation going into Tuesday’s fixture to stir the nerves of the most optimistic.
Mexico may have just fired their manager, and their camp may be as tumultuous as it’s ever been, but they’re still Mexico. They may respect us now, but they always want to destroy us. They may not be the most talented side El Tri has ever fielded, but they have enough talent to defeat any team on the globe if they’re at their best. They may not be the most experienced group, but if they righted the ship Tuesday night they could redefine what has been a disastrous qualifying campaign.
If Mexico were to right their ship, the U.S. were as vulnerable as they’ve been since their loss to Honduras in Tegucigalpa earlier this year. Clumsy and foolish yellow cards from Friday’s match with Costa Rica left Jurgen Klinsmann without key contributors to recent success, as Jozy Altidore, Geoff Cameron and Matt Bessler would not be available due to suspension.
Injury to Brad Evans didn’t help the selection process either, after Evans performed so well in the August friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina. But more importantly, Michael Bradley’s scratch from the lineup on Friday night due to a fluke ankle sprain, only served as further notice that Bradley is the corner stone of the USMNT’s structure and on field success. Without his talent, leadership and calming presence in the midst of adversity, the U.S. midfield lacked shape and balance against Costa Rica. While the current squad is composed of fine professionals who can perform as admirable replacements, nobody in the U.S. midfield is capable of filling Bradley’s boots.
Of course, filling Bradley’s boots is too much to ask of any member of the team, but Mexico had to know this, and also had to know this was their chance. Tuesday night was their opportunity to alter the direction of their effort to qualify, and to alter a dismal history of crucial losses at Crew Stadium.
With the stage set, if the U.S. was to solidify their position as CONCACAF’s finest squad, and secure their place in Brazil, they would need as much skill as they could muster, but more importantly they needed a demonstration of will and determination. They would have to absorb the Mexican onslaught that would surely come, transition into counterattacks with patience, and resist temptation to over commit moving forward.
Given the team selection and kind of match it was bound to be, this was the formula that would have to do. It didn’t have to be stylish, it didn’t have to be pleasant, but if executed correctly it would work, and it did.
Mexico came alive in the first twenty-five minutes like the sleeping giant they’ve been in the last year and a half: dictating tempo, winning possession, pressuring the U.S.’ back line, and testing Tim Howard on numerous occasions. With Mexico on the prowl, the U.S. struggled to gain their footing.
Beckerman and Jones were dutiful, but looked flat at the outset and couldn’t connect through the midfield. Donovan and Dempsey were eager to make their mark, but the Mexican’s were more energetic and industrious, quickly thwarting each forward move.
As electric as the Columbus crowd may have been, in the early stages Mexico were the aggressors, and they looked like they could silence the voluminous U.S. support in the blink of an eye.
But as the match advanced, the U.S. settled into a rhythm, sporadic as it may have been. Jones and Beckerman slowly gained confidence and offered enough stability to keep the U.S. efforts intact. Their pairing wasn’t pretty, but it was effective enough. Defensively, Gonzalez and Goodson were virtually impenetrable on the ground, unbeatable in the air, and on their flanks Beasely, Johnson and eventually Parkhurst, were steady and sound.
With the Mexican’s stymied by a strong U.S. back four, the semblance of a counter-attack began to take shape, and with it Eddie Johnson, Donovan and Dempsey started to make waves.
Of the three, Donovan was the key.
Helping to anchor ESPN’s pre-match coverage, Jorge Ramos insightfully noted that of the twenty-two starting players Landon Donovan was the most important of them all. Whereas Mexico was a team searching for its soul against their U.S. rivals, Donovan, he said, possessed the personality and character to approach the rivalry with the kind of experience and knowledge to manage whatever adversity the match would present.
Ramos couldn’t have been more on point. Donovan buzzed up and down the wing, tucking into the middle when needed, backtracking to help in defense, eventually creating chances for his teammates and himself as opportunities developed. Eddie Johnson’s powerful header to open the scoring set the U.S. on their way, but Donovan’s late goal was the dagger that virtually guaranteed qualification, and given his personal odyssey in recent months, it was fitting way to punctuate his return to international competition.
For a night that was defined by workmen-like efforts, there was enough history to produce some poetic irony after all. As Clint Dempsey’s late penalty sailed wide, the U.S. completed their fourth straight 2-0 qualifying victory over Mexico in Columbus Crew Stadium. The historic coincidence of Dempsey’s miss was not lost on U.S. supporters, and in the language of our rivals south of the border, “Dos a cero!” echoed in the night with the joyous realization that Brazil was surely on the horizon, and United States is now soccer’s standard bearer in the CONCACAF region.
By night’s end, the U.S. achieved their seventh World Cup qualification in as many attempts, and the celebration was on. With the World Cup in view, the focus will shift from qualification to fine-tuning and what will prove to be a very difficult final squad selection. But for now, we can all enjoy the poetry of a Tuesday in Columbus. “Dos a cero,” indeed.