By Zach Bigalke
Preempted by Little League baseball, I turned from ESPN2 to Univision to watch the beginning of the showdown between the United States and Mexico in Philadelphia. It was the first opportunity to atone for the come-from-ahead loss to the Mexicans in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final. It was also the inaugural game for the Americans after Jurgen Klinsmann took over the managerial duties from the axed Bob Bradley, after all, and I wasn’t about to miss a single minute.
By the time American audiences were able to catch the English-language broadcast on basic cable, the regional champs were already up 1-0 on enemy soil and were playing the same fluid style that had stolen away the title and cost Bradley his job. The lineup looked quite different than the one that previously lost to Mexico, and the result looked even more tentative than they had toward the end of Bradley’s tenure as head coach.
Proactive the first half was not, as the USMNT played on its heels through the first half. The roster had seen several alterations, but none of them really looked like positive change. Gone from the back four were Clarence Goodson and Eric Lichaj; in their place were Edgar Castillo and Michael Fiscal. Absent from the midfield and attack, the trio of Alejandro Bedoya, Freddy Adu and Clint Dempsey were swapped out for Kyle Beckerman, José Torres and Edson Buddle.
None of them looked comfortable together as the Americans failed to register a single shot — either on goal or off target — in the first 45 minutes. Coming out of the locker room after halftime, there was nowhere to go but up for the Yanks.
A good chance came in the 55th minute as Carlos Bocanegra got a header on goal that forced a brilliant save from Guillermo Ochoa. It would be the first shot registered in the game for the home side and the best chance they had seen against the Mexicans since the first half of the Gold Cup.
Half an hour from full-time, Juan Agudelo came into the contest as a substitute for Buddle and Brek Shea came in for Jermaine Jones. The 18-year-old Agudelo used his speed right away to inject a little pressing energy into the attack. The Colombian-born striker is precisely the type of player (read: Latin American) that Klinsmann has hoped to introduce in greater numbers to the American side. And Shea, the 21-year-old who has been steadily improving in MLS, likewise provides crucial youth to the lineup.
But one or even two players cannot make all the difference, and El Tri continued to apply pressure on Tim Howard’s goal despite the awakening American attack. Agudelo could rip off all the 40-yard runs he wanted but there was little support to make anything of the energy infusion. Soon, though, the last piece of the puzzle would come onto the field and complete the puzzle that had been vexing the American attack.
Agudelo’s pass to Shea allowed the latter to set up 24-year-old Robbie Rogers for the equalizer in the 73rd minute against the run of play — mere seconds after Rogers had come into the game for Michael Bradley. It appeared to awaken the home team, as they pressed forward further and took their chances.
Mexico regrouped and soon reclaimed possession. It seemed that the Yanks would be content for a draw; Mexico looked hungry to spare themselves the kiss with their northern sibling. The Americans were countering — nearly going ahead ten minutes from time as Rogers put a shot over Ochoa’s crossbar.
And then the roles kept reversing, as Rogers and Agudelo continued to produce the most competent offense either side was concocting in the final 15 of the game. Rogers was pulled down by Gerardo Torrado as he swept up a headed pass from Agudelo and advanced on goal; the Americans hounded the referee as he produced just a yellow card.
Ultimately it would end in a draw, everything that Klinsmann and company could possibly have hoped for after playing so passively in the first half. Mexico, dejected by the equalizer after going ahead in the 17th minute on Oribe Peralta’s redirection of the Andrés Guardado cross on a corner kick, had no answer for the youth movement Klinsmann finally went with in the second half of the game. Try as they would to get the lead once again, they started to take too many chances and looked uncomfortable in the end…
What did we learn from this first contest of the Klinsmann tenure? First and foremost, it was once again a tale of two halves, as we saw so often during Bradley’s tenure. How much was the listless first half followed by the inspired substitutions that sparked the comeback in the second half different than anything that ol’ Bob could have done? While it was merely a friendly, with both sides fielding experimental lineups, a few things can still be deduced from this outcome.
First, if Klinsmann is going to try to instill a more attacking style in the American lineup, he needs to do so not with the recycled elements of Bob Bradley’s roster but by finding the complimentary parts that can embrace a new era of the game in the United States. It was noble to give chances to guys like Edson Buddle, but the 30-year-old clearly did not have the legs to run up and down the pitch for the full 90 minutes and actually make a difference.
Second, the United States does have the type of players that Klinsmann seems to want to utilize in his system. The trio of Agudelo, Shea and Rogers should factor into future U.S. lineups with greater impact; on a night when it looked like the Americans were incapable of anything but a lackluster effort, these three youngsters came into the match and immediately bolstered a listing attack. They offer some glimmer of hope that Klinsmann’s style can indeed find the personnel to implement his grand plans.
Ultimately what this match proved was that the Mexicans overall still have greater depth of talent than the Americans. They are more comfortable in their tactics and playing with one another. But there are component parts to the American side that do have the potential to play Klinsmann’s brand of attacking soccer. The balance of power is still decidedly to the south in this North American rivalry, but early returns show that there is indeed potential for the future of the U.S. men’s national team under Jurgen Klinsmann — if the proper personnel can be found to compliment the spark shown by the youngsters that showed so much promise on this August evening in Philadelphia…
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