Even the most optimistic followers of the U.S. Men’s National Team knew that Sunday was going to be a tough one. Heading to the Estadio Azteca is always a challenge. Doing so on short rest against an in-form Mexico team? It’s CONCACAF’s version of a video game final boss.
With seven new starters, the U.S. took on that challenge, earning a point that could go a long way towards moving them from the Azteca and into Russia 2018.
Was it pretty? No, never. Was it perfect? Definitely not. But it certainly was effective. Playing a new formation with several new faces, it was as strong a performance as Bruce Arena could have hoped for. The U.S. scored early and handled their business late. They survived, but never looked threatened all at the same time.
It wasn’t the best USMNT-Mexico clash of all time, but Arena and the U.S. will take the point and run away from what turned out to be a gutsy performance.
Here’s a closer look at several takeaways from Sunday’s match:
It was one of the most stunning moments in the history of the rivalry. The USMNT’s battles with Mexico have produced plenty of memorable moments, and Michael Bradley’s chip of Guillermo Ochoa is right up there.
When it comes to the goal, there’s only so much to say. It’s better just to watch and applaud, over and over and over again:
If that goal isn’t enough to quiet the “Bench Bradley” bandwagon, I don’t know what is. It was a moment of leadership and poise that was much-needed for a young U.S. squad. It wasn’t even his only moment. Bradley nearly fired the U.S. to a win late as his shot caromed off the post.
Overall, it was a typically Bradley performance with a world class golazo sprinkled in. Bradley was an anchor with a rifle attached, and he was a vital part of one of the USMNT’s best and most meaningful Azteca performances.
DEFENSE STEPS UP
Geoff Cameron earned honors as SBI USMNT Man of the Match, but he was far from the only one to shine in the U.S. backline.
Let’s start with Cameron, though. The Stoke City defender was sensational. He stepped forward when he needed to step forward. He cleared away dangerous ball after dangerous ball. He was a vocal leader and a physical leader, all but plugging up the entire center of the field.
Tim Ream turned in what may have been his best USMNT performance and Omar Gonzalez was his typically-steady self. But DaMarcus Beasley and DeAndre Yedlin deserve extra props. Beasley, playing Mexico for what felt like the 600th time, gutted out injuries and his advancing year in a gutsy performance. He was unlucky on the goal. It happens.
Yedlin, meanwhile, started slow and got better as the game progressed. Hirving Lozano is nothing short of a terror and Yedlin largely kept him in check. He was poor early and Mexico targeted him, but he stepped up and took every one of their punches.
Since Arena’s return, the defense has been a strength. On Sunday, the USMNT allowed its first goal from open play since Arena’s rehiring, but there’s nothing you could say to diminish what was a strong defensive effort from a makeshift backline.
ARENA’S SPOT-ON TACTICS
Confusion. Bewilderment. Tentativeness.
Those were the general descriptions when U.S. Soccer announced Arena’s lineup on Sunday. However, when all was said and done, a surprising lineup looked more and more like a coaching masterclass.
We knew Arena was going to deploy a five-at-the-back set but we didn’t know he’s be this ambitious in filling it out. He removed starting goalkeeper Tim Howard in favor of Brad Guzan. Defensive regulars like Jorge Villafana and John Brooks were out. Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey, two of the team’s past and present stars, sat on the bench for the opening whistle.
It was bold, and it worked. With Christian Pulisic and Paul Arriola swarming, Mexico was pinned deeper than Juan Carlos Osorio would have liked. An early tactical switch was an admission that Arena’s initial lineup was a winning one. He out-thought Osorio early, and frustrated Mexico enough to limit them to just one shot on target.
With eight points through four games, Arena’s USMNT restart has gone as well as U.S. Soccer could have hoped, and Sunday’s draw was his most impressive coaching performance yet.
YOUNG STARS RISE TO CHALLENGE
Christian Pulisic’s name is the first on the teamsheet. Kellyn Acosta’s and Paul Arriola’s aren’t. However, all three youngsters stepped up in their own way to help seal the draw on Sunday.
Following his postgame guarantee on Thursday, Pulisic was always going to be a target. He wasn’t clattered like many expected, but he was a focal point for Mexico’s defense. The midfielder was largely held quiet on the attacking end, but his pressing and work rate kept Mexico on their heels throughout the 90 minutes.
The same can be said for Arriola, who worked his butt off throughout the match. He was energetic and efficient. It wasn’t sexy, but Arriola worked as hard as anyone for his 65 minutes on the field.
As for Acosta, what an effort. Tossed into the fire, Acosta stood out as one of the USMNT’s best players. He could have done better on the goal sequence, sure, but Acosta’s maturity and poise were on display in a big way. If he wasn’t in the conversation for a more consistent spot, he certainly is now.
Did Sunday’s draw seal a spot in the World Cup? Not quite. There’s work to be done, for sure. September’s home match against Costa Rica is an important one. It was always going to be.
But the momentum boost, the confidence? That certainly came on Sunday. The U.S. stared down the Azteca and didn’t blink, sealing just the third all-time tie at the stadium. That’s something you can build on all summer and, ultimately, in the fall when qualifying resumes.
Instead of heading into a summer on a low, the U.S. enters on a major, major high. The Gold Cup is obviously a much different competition with a different level of importance, but the next several months will be filled with plenty of goodwill.
Now, that goodwill can all disappear with another clunker against Costa Rica, but the USMNT is a in a good place heading towards 2018.