Sports

Lessons Learned from USA’s Historic Victory over Mexico

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So much of what we do when we sit back and discuss the U.S. National Soccer team operates in the margins, the gray areas, the big picture and the abstract. There's always something, a yeah but ...

We're always looking for the right context, to make declarative statements and swooping judgments because a soccer game can't just simply be a soccer game, it has to be a 90 minute referendum about the state of the sport in America.

Wednesday night's landmark 1-0 victory by the U.S. on the dreaded Mexican soil of the Azteca Stadium was, rarely, not one of those times. There's really do debate in the issue a 1-23-1 lifetime record in Mexico is whole heaping lot better than 0-23-1. (Oh where have you gone Steve Sampson?)

More importantly it puts to rest the talk about the United States being unable to win in Mexico. For years as a kid, growing up a UConn basketball fan, the media and pundits would mention -- constantly -- how Jim Calhoun was the best coach to never take a team to a Final Four. Finally that changed in 1999 and the Huskies have won three NCAA titles since and, yes, had some rules violations along that way, too.

The point is, it's always good in a sporting context to get the proverbial 'monkey off your back.'

There's no way this win, set up by a late goal in the 80th minute by Michael Orozco Fiscal (huh?) and some impressive saves that only Tim Howard can produce is going to usher in a new wave of American success South of the Border. Odds still remain that the U.S. soccer team is going to have about as much luck in Mexico as a protagonist in a Larry McMurtry novel does down there.

Yet, the stigma is over.

Mexico is still going to be as hard as hell to beat down on the road, especially in a game that matters, but the air of invincibility has been forever taken away from El Tri.

A thought struck me in the hours following the game and the oft-circulated Instagram photos posted by Maurice Edu. What stands out, beyond the obvious jubilation of the players is Jermaine Jones hooked up to an oxygen tank, like some 350 pound NFL lineman during a preseason game.

Is it possible, as people like Landon Donovan have talked about for years, the true weapon Mexico has at the Azteca is the altitude and opponents needing to adjust to it? That said, in a friendly with it's lax substitution rules, Jurgen Klinsman was able to make more changes than he would in an actual game, so odds are the winning goal wouldn't feature three players fresh and rested off the bench.

Wednesday the famed stadium, barely 40 percent full (if that) didn't seem all that hostile. Sure there was the typical booing of the U.S. National Anthem and all that jazz, but an empty stadium and a seemingly disinterested Mexico team didn't make for the most intimidating atmosphere in the entire world.

Obviously, too, somebody in the Mexican Federation screwed the pooch royally. In a match that should have been a victory lap for the U23 El Tri team that won an Olympic gold medal, it became major egg on the Mexicans face ... and they probably didn't even make all that much money either via the lack ticket sales. The irony, here, is Mexico if it was looking for a payday should have scheduled a game against Bosnia or Ecuador or somebody like that at Jerry Jones' stadium in Dallas, which would have drawn a huge crowd.

You know what, though, that's Mexico's problem.

If you want to argue this changes the dynamics of CONCACAF and means more than the U.S. ending their woeful track record on Mexican soil, be my guest. Remember international soccer is prone to sweeping judgments off one or two games. Consider barely 24 hours ago everyone was riding Mexico's jock as a favorite at the 2014 World Cup. A lot can happen, just as outside of the bubble of never winning in Mexico, the win Wednesday by the U.S. doesn't do a ton other than lift the confidence of the players involved.

For one, rare night in U.S. Soccer the result is all that matters.

And there's no arguing that as history has changed as a result.

Random Thoughts:

* Just to get on board with everyone else, Geoff Cameron was excellent in a central defensive roll. Hope he's able to keep it up and get playing time at Stoke City. If he does, the U.S.'s concern about calcifying legs of Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu are a little bit less pressing.

* Suppose this is more of a coincidence than an irony, but winning goal by the U.S. was set up by two marvelous pieces of skill by Brek Shea and a cheeky backheel by Terrance Boyd, then finished by Ozorco Fiscal. It provided a bit of redemption for Shea and Boyd, both parts of Caleb Porter's failed Olympic team earlier this year. It's not the gold medal like Mexico won, but it's a nice consolation.

And if we think back four years, it was Orozco Fiscal who picked a third-minute red card vs. Nigeria in the Americans final group stage game in Beijing, which ultimately cost them a chance to advance in the 2008 Olympics.

* There's not a lot more to be said about Howard. Yes, he does yell at his defenders and get beat on some longer goals with poor positioning, yet the ridiculous reaction saves he made late to deny Chicharito (who also missed a sitter) make him the United States' most valuable player, game-in, game-out.

* Not sure why Klinsman brought in Landon Donovan when he seemed both physically and mentally unavailable during his half of play. There were those retirement rumors kicking around about him this week. He wouldn't be the first soccer player to call it a career in his early 30s because of burnout.

* The less said of the lineup Klinsman fielded, the better. The Jermaine 'Yellow Card' Jones, Kyle Beckerman and Danny Williams midfield trio might be able to win a Fabulous Freebirds style three-man tag team match, but, you know, soccer includes midfield distribution not simply crunching tackles. The U.S. got a historic result in smash-and-grab fashion so we'll overlook this, but this midfield was dross.

* Another game and another game waiting for Jose Francisco Torres to show something -- anything -- of why some people are so gaga over him.

* This match -- and the result -- again highlighted a key difference between club and international soccer. With enough moxie and resolve you can succeed like the U.S. has -- do nothing most of the match -- but steal results with goals on set pieces or against the run of play. This works in one-off matches, less in the grind of weekly league soccer.

It's also why the U.S., until it's overall technical ability improves in the midfield, is going to remain maddeningly inconsistent. A team strong enough to win at Italy in Mexico in 2012, yet unable to get a 1-0 led against Guatemala to hold up in a World Cup qualifier. It's why it's anyone's guess which U.S. team shows up in Kingston next month to play Jamaica in a qualifier.

* In a nice bit of simulcasting the U.S. scored its goal right about the time my Wednesday night trivia team, the n.W.o., retained it's championship belt via a final-round tiebreaker. Nice work by my friends Mike, Shannon, Nichole and my brother Pete.

* Anyone that knows me or reads me knows I'm a massive cynic -- some would go as far to say smug, condescending asshole.

That said, this was a great result. A great one.