There is a line in J.R.R Tolkein’s “Return of the King” that goes a little something like this. “There was never much hope. Just a fool’s hope.”
When U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann named the 23-man roster for tonight’s game against big rivals Mexico, IN Mexico, I believe something similar to that Tolkein quote was going through a lot of USMNT fans’ minds. We had never beaten Mexico in the famed Azteca Stadium.
Hell, no one has really beaten Mexico at home. Out of the 119 games that have been played in the stadium before tonight, only eight of them have ended in defeat for the Mexican NT. EIGHT out of 119!
Klinsmann headed to Mexico City with a team most would probably call scrappy – we only had a few regular starters; a very, very inexperienced back line, and, well, a fool’s hope of coming away with a draw, much a less a win. Especially since we’ve NEVER won in Mexico City.
Well, get out your history books, kids. Because tonight, Jurgen Klinsmann’s scrappy USMNT changed what you know about the rivalry between the USMNT and Mexico.
It really wasn’t one of those exciting games; for me it was one where I was desperately trying not to panic. I felt that our players had the same vibe as well. And while things were not perfect for the U.S. boys, there were a few things that worked in our favor.
1.) The combination of Geoff Cameron and Maurice Edu in the back line. Yes, you read that correctly. Cameron, who I have always been iffy about, was given the go-ahead for the center back spot. And Edu, usually a great holding midfielder for the red, white and blue, took up along side him. Klinsmann’s mission for these two? Stay tight and do not let Javier Hernandez behind you.
This was a huge task to set before them, but let me just say, they went above and beyond the call of duty. Especially Geoff Cameron. Boy, you kicked some ass. He played as if he had something to prove and really, he did. And I am very happy to say that he proved me wrong. Cameron was excellent at tracking back and shutting down when needed. Staying tight in the center proved to make our backline more solid than, say, when it spreads out. So touche, Herr Klinsmann. You called it right with those two.
2.) Tim Howard. This really is no surprise to anyone, and if it is, then you haven’t watched Howard play much. I will explain no further, except to mention that amazing save he made in the dying minutes of the game. I thought it was in. The whole stadium thought it was in. But Howard slapped it away and it was hustled out by the back line.
When I get video of it, it’s going up here. Because I still can’t believe he saved that. He had the most touches on the ball for the night than any other USMNT player. He was incredible and amazing. Enough said.
3.) Perseverance. The USMNT have always been known for their “never give in or quit” attitude. Some times it feels like the team just hangs on by a few threads to get to the end of the 90. But tonight was different. The perseverance from the team to hold on was very solid. I was worried a few times there would be a slip and Hernandez would get that ball in the back of the net, but there never seemed to be anything frantic about the back line. Did they scramble a bit and have to make quick decisions? Well yes, but they weren’t entirely as frightening as I’m use to seeing from them.
There were only two times that I was really frightened our backline would slip; right at the beginning of the second half, and in the dying minutes of the game. At both points, Mexico was desperate to prove a point. Their fans were silent and they were frustrated. And through all that, the USMNT stayed strong. Our possession wasn’t great and it seemed like we really didn’t have a midfield at all tonight (just one more indication that Michael Bradley is an integral part of the team there). But once things settle in the second half, the USMNT started to show some pressure against the Mexican defense. All we needed was the right sub in ….
4.) Brek Shea. Okay I know what you’re going to say because really, after the dismal season the young FC Dallas striker has had, it’s no wonder he was even called up in the first place. But Shea can come through once he gets out of his head, and his emergence in tonight’s game was clutch. After only minutes of being on the field, Shea created the opportunity in the box and chipped a ball in front of the Mexican goal. With a little wrangling from Terrence Boyd, Michael Orozco Fiscal was able to score. It was part luck, but it was also part having players in the right spot and creating chances. Shea did that.
5.) Mexico’s turnovers. So, the USMNT possession wasn’t spectacular. But if you look back at the last half hour of the game, Mexico’s wasn’t that grand either. I’m not sure what happened with them; maybe they got frustrated, maybe they were tired, maybe they just couldn’t figure out our back line. Whatever the case, they started giving up the ball a bit more. And we started moving it through the midfield a bit more and suddenly, their keeper had to wake himself up a bit.
Some times all you need is a few mistakes from the other team to build your confidence and give you the opportunities you need to finish. Mexico actually gave up some to us and it was something that boosted the USMNT.
There was all this talk from the commentators about some silly gap between Mexican soccer and U.S. Soccer. I don’t know what they were going on about, whether it actually had to do with talent and ability or cultural significance. But there is one thing I do know. Mexico were on a high thanks to their U-23s team Gold medal win in the Olympics. They were probably feeling pretty good going into this match and they would have been right too.
But there is change happening in American soccer. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Klinsmann is doing things with this team. There are a few things I wish he would let go, but not all change is bad. He’s finding the combo we need and he’s driving a new style into these players’ heads. A style of fierce and fast attack and strong, tight back lines. Was it a bit of luck and Tim Howard that saved their asses tonight? Yes. But in the end, after watching this game, I think the USMNT can say they came to win, they worked hard and they got a historic result.
Just a fool’s hope turned out to be pretty damn good for us this time.