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USMNT 1, Mexico 1: The SBI Breakdown

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.


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.


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.


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.


  1. When the starting XI was announced I have to admit I was worried. I wasn’t concerned with the formation so much as some of the players who started. I though Arena had lost his mind starting Beasley, Ream & Gonzalez. If fully admit that some of it was that I don’t care for Ream & Gonzalez…I just don’t trust either of them. I loved Beasley, but still feel that his time has passed. I’m happy that in this game it worked out….but hopefully next time we use that formation we have better options available….Brooks, Villafana, Miazga/CCV (?).

    Overall was impressed with Acosta & Arriola. Both did extremely well for their 1st major taste of playing against Mexico. Acosta balanced out Bradley well….providing the speed & energy to harass the Mexican players. The partnership looked much better than MB & JJ has in recent games. I think this was the final nail in JJ’s international career…at least with the “A” Team.
    Arriola started well, but seemed to lack a bit on the defensive side. IMO he’s a good offensive option off the bench, but shouldn’t be a starter. Wide Midfield will have some real competition in the near future….Pulisic, Fabian, Arriola, Nagbe, Zardes, Saief, Gooch, Lletget, Roldan (Yes I realize that some of these guys aren’t true wingers…but all can play on the wing)

    Hopefully during the GC we’ll see how the rest of the pool stacks up to those who played in these past 2 qualifiers.

  2. I find it ironic, that Arena is considered a genius for changing around lineups to something the US is not very experienced, and to a lineup that Klinsman tried in the last Mexico game but proved unsuccessful then. The main difference? I think Arena got the lineup for this system right and certain players happened to be available and peaking at the right time.

    • I think the main difference is that Arena planned this out for a month and practiced with the payers for the entire camp to make sure everyone knew what to do and how to play. JK changed on the fly and just assumed the players would understand how to adapt, when in fact it just confused them.

    • Obviously as Jonathan pointed out prep time was a factor as Bruce had two weeks to put this in place and sounds like was working on it from the beginning with these players. Second, its the same formation in name only in Columbus, Chandler and Johnson were being played as WB and last night Beasley and Yedlin were definitely FBs. That makes sense trying to dictate the game on home soil, if the guys had had more time to prepare. Last night, the idea was clearly to absorb and limit the space in behind, Omar wasn’t being stretched to the corners because Yedlin was playing deeper, that allowed Omar and the other CBs to maintain their shape and handle Hernandez and the crosses into the box.

      Yes, the formation was pretty negative with a lot of hit and hope, but that idea did well for Iceland and Portugal last Summer at the Euros and Sweden WNT in the Olympics.

      • Yedlin was High up for most of that game… he was up fouling the MF player with Gonzo and Acosta covering… that is why he got the yellow card. he didn’t become a true LB until we started getting gassed and lost control of the MF in the second half.

      • I didn’t record it so I might be wrong I felt like he really started sitting deeper after the Mexico goal and certainly to start the 2nd half.

  3. There is still a long way to go and the game vs. CR is more vital than this one since we really need to win all our home games. Thus, we shouldn’t get too excited. Mexico was missing like 5 starters so we had that going for us. I remember when many readers/posters heavily criticized the US for playing bunker ball/parking the bus, etc. and giving up any chance for possession. Now we are praising it. The key in any tournament is results. How you get them isn’t important. There are no style points in soccer. Still, we were lucky to have so little possession and give up only 1 goal. A Mexican golazo (like the one in the playoff for the Confederations Cup berth) and most here would be complaining about the style of play.

    • Agree about not getting too high on this result, but not the rest of your analysis. I thought that even though we bunkered, we also had more quality chances than we normally do in Azteca. If the Gonzo header, Wood flub, Bradley post, or Pulisic miss had been a little better, we could have walked out with a win. I thought quality chances were pretty even actually, not having seen any actual stats on that. I remember the days when we got one or two looks at goal per game down there, and if they didn’t go in we had no chance. I don’t think we will see this formation again during qualifying, so it is okay for a one time thing to get a point in a hostile atmosphere.

    • I agree with Jonathan. Mexico had way more possession but it was by design and Mexico wasn’t really being dangerous with that possession. They only had 4 chances that I can remember: the Vela goal (that resulted from Wood missing that sitter), the Chich chance when he crashed in Guzan, the Herrerra free-kick which wasn’t from open play and that Aquino miss. Guzan didn’t have to make any saves really.

      USA had way more chances even though they only had 30 percent possession.

      Klinsmann would have probably just had the players run alot in “preperation” for the game. Fitness Fitness Fitness but no tactics.

    • To some extent I agree with you that a couple of inches is making the difference in people’s minds. That free kick was beautiful, 1 inch lower and that goal changes the game immensely. But don’t start talking to me about how many starters weren’t out there (Altidore, Dempsey, Brooks, Fabian, just to name a few)… you play with the team you have (it was a criticism I never understood of Jurgen too). Anyway, I don;t understand why Fabian wasn’t brought in for Beasley in the second half so we weren’t pinned so far back (beas was absolutely gassed there). I also didn’t understand why he waited so long to make his last two subs… part of why we got so pinned back was the lateness of those subs… we should have made 2 subs in the 60th to keep fresh legs and keep our wing-backs up higher.

      Anyway, it was a reasonable performance and I am duly impressed with Arena over the past 4 games. I really did not think he had it in him, and so I am eating my crow.

      • I think playing the WB/FBs deep was the plan, after Yedlin having trouble in the first half. We sacrificed really any organized counter to cover for Yedlin and the tiring Beasley. Dropping those two forced Pulisic and Arriola deeper and left only Wood to start the counter with. Mexico also subbed off Alanis who is a CB who was playing FB and that made the attack much stronger and kept our backs home as well. However, that pushed Lozano inside allowing Omar to mark his Pachuca teammate and mitigated Lozano’s speed that was troubling Yedlin in the first half and was a problem in Columbus in the 2nd half.

      • Yeah, I am starting to wonder if FJ is falling out of favor with Arena. He really has not looked very good in the last few games, and he always seems a bit aloof or reserved, but he would have been a perfect sub last night.

      • Johnny, I agree that the Mexico substitution made a huge difference. Johnathan, that is an interesting take. I wonder about that, or whether he really just had his plan and was sticking to it… it is an interesting thought.

    • can’t get down with this theory that we were somehow lucky to have gained a point due to the mexican team missing a few players, well, were missing 7 starters so if anything Mexico may have lucked out!

  4. I know it’s Mexico @ Azteca; I know it’s a WCQ–that said, it ain’t ever a good look when it’s your #6 who is your most potent offensive threat.

    Put any spin on it you want, it’s still bora-ball.

    • I defended JK when he trotted out bora-ball or bunker-bob style play in must win games too. That being said, I think the game looks a lot different if either A) Wood actually hits that ball with his foot or B) Acosta actually fouls the counter attack. His failure to foul there was pure MLS naiivete.

    • Don’t know how you can say it was Bora ball when the US created more chances, had more shots on goal and more corner kicks than Mexico…did we absorb a lot of pressure, absolutely, but that was the plan and considering there were 7 changes to the lineup i don’t see how the point was gained could be looked at as somehow weak?!?! People like to look at possession as an indicator of the better team and i say thats ignorance and a limited knowledge of the game. At the end of the day its what you do with that possession and Mexico was restricted with what they could do with the ball, thanks to Bruce’s tactical flexibility and logically thought out game plan. WCQ’s aren’t always the prettiest, its about gaining the necessary points to qualify, the progressive and attacking soccer can wait till we’ve qualified first haha

  5. Anyone that watched the 2002 World Cup knows that Bruce can be very good in changing formations, tactics, and lineups from game to game, depending on the opponent. He is a solid situational coach, which is why he was the perfect hire for what the USMNT needed after the disastrous start to the Hex. I trust him to get us to Russia and am not particularly worried about what we do afterward just yet (hopefully, the federation has ideas, but living in the moment is vital right now).

  6. Agree with Cameron as motm, but the player that impressed me most was Acosta. Speed, skill, and some bite as well. He also served up a couple of nice free kicks, one of which Gonzales should have put on goal. Gonzales played well also, and definitely looks an aerial threat on set pieces. Arena’s tactics were spot on, now we know how to play Mexico.

  7. If Omar doesn’t grease his hair so freaking much one of those headers go in, just kidding good game overall by him. Still scares me everytime he’s got the ball at his feet though, he played well

  8. I have two thoughts on the game.

    One, shame these games will be absolutely meaningless when the expand the World Cup, because that was a ton of fun.

    Two, Arena really got the job done in Mexico. Does Jurgen? I don’t think so. No disrespect to JK ( even though he disrespected all of us too many times), Arena is just a much, much better coach.

    • ha, as I recall, JK got a tie in Mexico the last time too… right after the snow bowl game, when everyone was worried we wouldn’t qualify. My memory may not serve correctly, but I think it was 0-0.

  9. Funny you say Acosta could have done better on the goal given up, when he ran with the runner, then tried to recover to block the shot.

    Cameron, SBI player of the game….did neither.

    Both had a good game, overall.

    • To me Arriola looked in the best position to step up to Vela, but its not a terribly relevant detail now. Important thing is one of Arriola, Cameron and Acosta has to pressure the ball. Lesson learned

      The balls on Arena to throw 7 changes out there…ooof. The formation change wasn’t a HUGE shock to me because we really do have the personel to run it, but cannot get over the 7 changes. Unprecedented roll of the dice in USMNT history from my recollection.

    • I think what he meant was that Acosta should’ve committed a professional foul on Chicharito to stop the counter and let the defense reset instead of running right by Chicharito. That was obvious to me as I saw the play unfold live. Acosta also had a bad pass and a bad touch that led to Mexican chances, so to me he didn’t have a very good game.

  10. Can’t say enough about the effort to keep shape the and close down defensively. Held Mexico to only a half chance inside the 18 and 3 dangerous shots from distance (1 goal). Arena will take that any day.

    Great tactical flexibility shown by the players to adjust to this new setup and execute. Is this the new blueprint when facing superior opposition? What spots in the starting 11 are up for grabs now? Looks like there is real competition for places heating up for the next 12 months.


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