USA Dispossessed of Azteca Dream

I am a US Soccer fan.   I can be both biased and irrational and at game time I am often both.

Today, “my” US team lost to Mexico in the fabled Azteca stadium.  Again.   And that makes me pretty angry.

Now, a few hours later, as I step away from my biases and irrationality I can admit that this result is no surprise.   The US National Team is neither as good as casual fans thought we were after the Confederations Cup results, nor as bad as the 0-5 result in the Gold Cup Final that had the diehards worrying we were.

We could argue this (isn’t that what ‘we’ do?), but to me it is clear.   We’ve seen the “A” team do everything from get embarrassed in Costa Rica to shine for 135 minutes against Spain and Brazil.    We’ve watched the “B” team dispatch with local rivals with grit and guile and then crumble like a house of cards with 70,000 fans leaning on it against Mexico in the Gold Cup final.

So keeping World Cup qualifying against Mexico in perspective, we split the home/away series with Mexico just the way you’d expect.   Does that make me happy?  No.   Does it sound about representative of where we are?  More or less, yes.

The US was not embarrassed and they battled admirably.  Many will point to Mexico’s “luck” – a “wonder strike” from Israel Castro, a bounce that fell exactly right to Miguel Sabah – and maybe there was some of that.   But while the early US goal had emotions raised, we were again unable to possess the ball and would be chasing the game at altitude, in the smog and with that, the writing was on the wall.

So we may not be either as good or bad as we sometimes obsess about, but lacking a solid possession game that allows us to manage a match will always be a ceiling above which we’ll struggle to climb.  When is the last time – outside of beating up on the mighty soccer power of Grenada (who didn’t even have a fit Shalrie Joseph) – that the USA has held the ball, passed it with purpose for long stretches and imposed their will on a game?   I am having trouble naming too many recent examples.

I’m not invited into the US locker room for pre-game preparations, but I can imagine Bob Bradley said something like “stay compact, move as a team, don’t chase and get caught out of position” and MY PERSONAL FAVORITE “when you get the ball, keep possession as much as possible, pick your chances and be smart to conserve some energy.”   OK, I cannot guarantee those were his words, but I can guarantee the advice didn’t include “boot the ball frantically up-field, or to a Mexican, or wherever, just don’t keep it.”

So the question is: how is that where we ended up?  How is it that we end up there so frequently?    I wish I had an answer other than:  we simply aren’t capable of playing possession soccer against better teams.   Why?   History of our development has always favored athleticism over skills, a history whose imprint we are still trying to shake.   When the best teams hold the ball, your athleticism becomes pretty unimportant.  (“Wow, look how fast he is running around over there without the ball. He must have a great 40 time and an unreal vertical leap.”)

Transitioning to a more skillful game won’t be easy, but if we are to be a true contender in world soccer we best push for it sooner rather than later.    Tactics, players, development, mentality… it is all affected, and will provide reasons to blog, argue, bitch and moan about for the foreseeable future.

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“Cero a Cinco” Caps a Long Soccer Weekend

Well, that was quite a weekend of soccer.   My eyes hurt.

“Cero a Cinco”

Surrounded as I am by a large Colombian family of in-laws, I understand and revel in the “Cinco a Cero” (5-0) hysteria that rang down as a high-note of 1994 World Cup Qualifying when Colombia downed Argentina by that score in Buenos Aires.   Any Colombian of the right age will remember that night, or at least remember the hang-over from the partying that ensued.   And why not?

I never expected that today’s Gold Cup final could be the flip side of that for the USA vs. Mexico. Since this wasn’t a World Cup Qualifier, it certainly doesn’t carry the same weight as that Colombian victory . . . but Mexico really needed a victory like this against the US to set them back on the right path.  And I’m sure they are delirious South of the Border.  (Well, or in lots of places North of the border too, like Giants Stadium which looked like an Azteca preview party today.)

On Friday, I acknowledged that we didn’t yet know enough about our USA “B” team and that “. . . it’s Sunday against Mexico for the final where we’ll really learn something.”  Well, lesson learned.

Stepping back . . . a questionable penalty tilted the field toward the US goal and then the flood gates opened. The US team on that field is further away from the best 11 we’d start than the Mexican team was from their best eleven (since it certainly contained some first team starters.) And for good stretches of the match, the US looked as dangerous as Mexico.  At 0-5 though, none of that will matter, nor should it.

There is a bigger picture here, both in terms of the Gold Cup and the US v Mexico rivalry.

Gold Cup: As I noted on Friday, the pressure in the Mexico/Costa Rica Semi-Final was much higher than what the USA faced against Honduras – a representation of the fact that the USA’s group stages overall shouldn’t have been that hard to get through. Reaching the final inflated expectations which were brought down to earth in a hurry today. When we started this competition, everyone acknowledged this was NOT the best eleven for the USA but would provide an excellent growth opportunity and learning experience for a (mostly) young US Squad. Well, this is one lesson the players on that field won’t ever forget.

US v. Mexico: US fans have had it easy for a while. The USA has “owned” Mexico on our soil, beat them at the World Cup and overall had a pretty clear sense of superiority about them recently.  Is that real though? Are we better than Mexico? Probably need to define “better” . . . our best eleven can beat Mexico’s best eleven, we’ve proven that. But be it the National teams or club teams (as evidenced in Superliga, CONCACAF Champions League, etc.), what was proven today is that there remains a pretty serious experience gap after you dig deeper into the roster.

Again, I’ll avoid player ratings here, as there will be too many offering opinions already. I heralded Jay Heaps for his improved play after a rough start . . . if I were clairvoyant, I’d have begged him to take the accolades and run for the hills.  Missed opportunities in the final third and tackles that needed to be all or nothing but missed that mark were shared by many. Risks were inevitable after the team was a down by a couple goals  . . . but the disintegration of the back line screamed for experience. Too bad Jimmy Conrad’s bell was rung against Panama, he might have helped.

The real question is what will happen on August 12th in Mexico City. Can new found confidence push Mexico to leverage the Azteca advantage and romp once more?  Will the USA “first-eleven” feel the need for some “revancha” in Mexico and be even more motivated than they already were?

MLS Games

Funny things happen when the New England Revolotuion can get some of their better players (Shalrie Joseph, Steve Ralston) on the field.   They win.   I have a secret (and perhaps unreasonable) hope that this season has some potential left. Why? Based on no-data to prove this it seems to me that many teams which start out gangbusters tend to run out of luck (injuries) or otherwise lose their way by the playoffs, whereas the teams who work through early season injuries/issues are fresher and more focused come playoff time. Hmmm, perhaps all we need to do is sneak into the playoffs and keep recovering from injuries.

David Beckham played and even shook a fan’s hand, but he didn’t score.  His captain did.  Both were out done by the more than half-field goal by Claudio Lopez.

I didn’t see the Red Bulls / Colorado game, but I didn’t really have to, did I?  RBNY really is THAT bad.  Unfortunate for MLS.   Hysterical for a Revs fan.

World Football Challenge

I struggled to care about these games. How is it possible that some of the best teams in the world are visiting and I struggle to care?  Frankly, it’s sad to me that the crowds are coming out for a pre-season warm up “competition” in such numbers as to suggest they had no other soccer to watch in this country. I thought Taylor Twellman’s (whose team gets maybe a third of today’s crowd) tweet said it all “gosh I wish the stadium filled like this for OUR games be so cool.”   Yes, it would . . .

Taylor also tweeted on the joys of playing on natural grass. Which makes me wonder . . . if it is feasible to install a grass field for some of these one-off games is it really out of the question for MLS to do something for the part of their season that doesn’t conflict with the NFL?

As for the AC Milan / Inter Minal game, the idea that this game was anything like a true “derby” is laughable if I’m being generous. I’ve been to a European derby (Chelsea/Arsenal), a Brazilian Derby (Fluminense/Flamengo — OK, preseason, but still) and actually stood in the last row of Inter’s Ultras at the amazing San Siro.   The intensity of those games is hard to describe.   What happened at Gillette earlier today pre-season warm up with a little extra juice than the others we’ve seen in this tournament.  But not much more.