It Means Nothing, But It Meant Everything." That is a very good, if entirely fake Smiths song title and a relatively accurate description of the stakes going into Tuesday's World Cup qualifying match between the U.S. men's national team and Mexico's El Tri at the infamous Azteca Stadium. If you've been busy setting up shell companies in Cyprus or catching up on Scandal, here's where we're at: There were three groups of countries vying for World Cup qualification in the CONCACAF region. The top two teams from each of those groups went into the fourth round of qualification, which is called the Hexagonal because shaaaaapes, man. How's that Hex stuff been going for our two protagonists tonight? Glad you asked.
On March 19, the USMNT had its first full-blown scandal of the Jurgen Klinsmann era. The Sporting News's Brian Straus published a damning account of Klinsmann's tenure, citing multiple, anonymous sources who all seemed to form a chorus of that time-honored soccer chant, "You don't know what you're doing." The combination of Straus's exposé, an early loss to Honduras, and Klinsmann, more than a year into his job, seemingly unable to settle on a best 11 players, created an air of uncertainty around the occasionally boring but usually dependable national team. Who knew Philipp Lahm's autobiography would have such an impact on American soccer?
In 2011, I wrote about how, for whatever Klinsmann lacks as a tactician on the field, he makes up for it by being the charismatic communications director of U.S. Soccer off the field. The fallout from the Sporting News piece would be a test, even for a master of message like Klinsmann.
Things weren't looking that much better for Mexico. After being anointed by people such as, well, me as being serious contenders for the 2014 World Cup crown, El Tri also only had one point after one match, drawing with Jamaica in their first Hex game. Carlos Vela had declined a national team call-up, and the crisp, baby-Barcelona passing of recent Mexico teams seemed to be replaced with an overreliance on Javier Hernandez and Giovani Dos Santos.
It was basically circle-the-wagons time for both teams. Each played their second Hex matches last week in Game of Thrones–like settings. Last Friday, the USMNT went north of the wall to get three points against Costa Rica, while Mexico wandered the desert looking for dragons, playing in 100-degree conditions against Honduras, and came out with a hugely disappointing 2-2 draw.
Which brings us to Tuesday night, in Azteca, with the United States sitting third in the Hex on three points, and Mexico below them on two. The top three teams in the Hex go to the World Cup and the fourth-place country faces New Zealand in a playoff. There's still so much soccer yet to play, and both nations will probably go to Brazil in a year, but neither wants to play New Zealand to get there.
Regardless of the likelihood they will both advance, this was still U.S. vs. Mexico. It's the defining soccer rivalry in North America. In this country, this is the blockbuster summer movie of soccer. There are people who wouldn't recognize Jose Mourinho on a subway, have no idea whether Klinsmann coached Bayern Munich, and couldn't care less about the influx of German American players on the U.S. national team. But they will watch U.S. vs. Mexico. It may not be as feisty as it was in years past, it may not be a deciding match in World Cup qualifying, and it may be taking place close to a lot of bedtimes on the East Coast, but it's still a big deal. Strap in, get a snack, and wear something liquid-proof.
High-pitched hissing-boos from the Mexico crowd and a barrel-chested sing-along from Michael Bradley, who has somehow Ewing Theory'd his own father. This is pretty cool because that's basically what most American men do for the first 30 years of their lives.
0:45 — Dos Santos does a little bit of probing early on, chasing down a ball to the near corner and firing a cross-cum-shot at Brad Guzan. When the United States won in Mexico last year, Tim Howard was the reason. Timmy is out of action tonight because he BROKE HIS BACK. It's likely the result of screaming intensely at Phil Neville, but I can neither confirm nor deny that.
2:40 — It's not exactly Chile under Marcelo Bielsa (classic Chile reference), but the USMNT has eight or nine players in the Mexico half, and half a dozen patrolling the area outside the penalty box. Interesting tactical move from noted tactical-illiterate Klinsmann.
5:40 — After a Mexico corner that involves a lot of pushing and shoving between Hernandez and Guzan (and Maurice Edu), and a bit of spitballing on my part to come up with a plot for a Running Scared–style buddy movie called Little Pea & The Guz, Ian Darke informs me (and everyone else) that the away team in the Mexico-U.S. rivalry hasn't won a World Cup qualifying road game in 41 years. More numbers that don't lie: Mexico is 68-1-6 in home World Cup qualifiers. So you're telling me there's a chance?
5:55 — Alternate Running Scared title: Maurice & The Beas.
7:39 — The well-traveled DaMarcus Beasley, playing in the relatively new position of left back, gives Villarreal's Javier Aquino a shove in the back. Looked like it happened outside of the box, but after some of the calls we've seen in big matches recently (Nani!), Beasley can count himself lucky to walk away with a yellow.
12:30 — Hernandez has made only 15 Premier League appearances for Manchester United this season. He's scored eight goals, but seems to be fourth in Sir Alex Ferguson's striker pecking order behind Robin van Persie, Danny Welbeck, and Wayne Rooney. You know something must be up since Rooney's training regimen is basically this
14:10 — This is the best little bit of play from the USMNT yet and it's all Clint Dempsey. Deuce picked up the ball deep, and decided to be a great, crazy, UGK-listening bald eagle and swoop into Mexico territory all by himself. After a 30-yard run, he delivers a perfectly weighted through ball to Herculez Gomez, which gets knocked out of play by Mexico for a U.S. corner.
14:40 — During the corner the U.S.'s size advantage is obvious, with the likes of Geoff Cameron and Jozy Altidore towering over their Mexico defenders. Cameron shows off some of his Stoke City Jedi (the Luke kind) by nearly sending in a rocket-propelled header. Unfortunately, he also shows off some of that Stoke City Jedi (the Darth kind) by suplexing his marker. Somewhere (probably in Stoke), Tony Pulis is air-drying after a shower and swishing a sifter of liquified coal.
16:52 — Chicharito is caught a mile offside. Somewhere (probably in Dubai), notorious purveyor of the offside arts Michael Owen is watching a robot race on a camel and smiling.
18:45 — All the U.S. attacking seems to be running through Dempsey. He's just better than his teammates. Part of that is natural ability, but some of it is because he's been playing at a higher level for longer than everyone else wearing a U.S. national team jersey tonight. The experience he gained plying his trade with Fulham and now Tottenham, playing in big matches against England's best clubs, is clearly showing. There's a brief patch where he makes a driving run, changes his mind to dump off to Cameron, and immediately demands it back in one touch from the Stoke defender. Cameron isn't quite on Dempsey's wavelength and you can see how little things like that hinder not just the U.S. team, but international teams in general. If Cameron and Dempsey play together nine months of the year there's no way Cameron doesn't know Dempsey wants that ball back right away. This is one of the frustrating things about watching international soccer for me; the product doesn't match the passion. Do I care more about U.S. vs. Mexico than Tottenham vs. Inter Milan? Of course I do. But it's hard to reconcile the drop-off in play.
19:21 — Matt Besler, who has acquitted himself very well in the first third of the match, gets a yellow for bringing down Dos Santos in the middle of the field. That's two of the U.S.'s back four on yellows. There's already an experience deficiency back there — Besler and his central defensive partner Omar Gonzalez only have six national team caps between them. The last thing Klinsmann wants is for his backline to be hamstrung by yellow cards.
26:12 — Two missed opportunities, one for each side. For the U.S., Gomez bricks a corner kick (which increasingly look like they will be the away team's best chance of scoring), while at the other end, Jesus Zavala gets a point-blank look at Guzan's goal and heads the ball right at the Aston Villa keeper.
28:00 — There's this Saturday Night Live sketch from a long time ago (Season 17, according to AskJeeves) that just popped into my head. Steve Martin is hosting and he comes out and it seems like he's going to introduce the musical act, but instead shouts, "Ladies and gentlemen, here come THE ENERGY BROTHERS!" And Chris Farley and Adam Sandler come out and proceed to destroy a banquet table of food, and generally go totally beserk. Javier Hernandez is the lost Energy Brother. He got scythed down right inside of the U.S. half, got up, ran like he was Ryan Gosling and saw Rachel McAdams standing in the U.S. goal, and leaped, headfirst into the net, nearly nodding in a cross. That was awesome. Energy Brothers, man. Mexico has seven shots, U.S. is getting shut out.
34:38 — I'll have to look at the possession numbers at halftime, but I'm a bit surprised with what I'm seeing tonight. The U.S. seems a little more patient, playing a high line, with a lot of swapping of positions. Graham Zusi, an attacking midfielder, just tracked back and put a tackle on Andres Guardado all the way at the U.S. touchline. Cameron is getting forward, Bradley is dropping in as an auxiliary center back, Dempsey is playing off Altidore, making semicircle runs. I know this is weird, but Dempsey is reminding me of Brandon Jennings. He's making these little dribble-handoffs the same way the Bucks guard does.
When the U.S. gets the ball it's keeping it for a little while. On the other side, Mexico seems to primarily be playing on the counter, trying to catch one of the U.S. defenders too high up the pitch, out of position.
(The most interesting stat I saw coming out the first half was this: Bradley had the most touches with 47, while Hernandez had the fewest with nine.)
38:14 — Bradley almost puts the U.S. ahead with his own Energy Brothers run.
This one started deep in his own territory, featured a one-two with Dempsey, a one-two with Altidore, and a full-speed collision with Jorge Torres Nilo, who stays on the ground. That was one of the best attacks I've seen under Klinsmann. I had always thought of Bradley as the kind of guy who would tape Larry Lester's buns together
That was pretty stupid of me. He's turned into one of my favorite midfielders to watch. Ever since Bradley moved to Roma, I feel like his play for the national team has become more and more expressive. Guys who can shield the back four and make runs like the one he just made are very rare. Bradley is the closest thing to prime Steven Gerrard that the United States has ever produced.
42:45 — That's a widowmaker pass from Carlos Salcido. Sorry, Mrs. Zavala.
That'll do, right? Even if the U.S. had stood around like a bunch of Easter Island statues, most people would have taken a 0-0 scoreline at the half. As a bonus we got some Bradley-Deuce showtime football to feast on. These guys don't seem intimidated at all by the atmosphere, the location, or the competition.
45:59 — Besler almost knocks in what would have been a knife-in-the-heart own-goal to start the second half. That would have been a long walk from Mexico City to Kansas.
50:46 — Beasley is limping a little after getting roasted for the umpteenth time by Aquino. Bradley and Edu look a little flat-footed, and maybe the adrenaline is wearing off and the experience of running around in a blizzard for an hour and a half on Friday is starting to catch up with the U.S.
54:36 Altidore comes off for Eddie Johnson. Back in 2009, Bill Simmons wrote a column about visiting Azteca to watch these two teams square off. One of the more striking observations I noticed when rereading the piece was this: "If you don't think the next five years of Jozy's career could potentially swing the future of soccer, you're insane." Altidore still shows flashes of real talent and remains an imposing physical specimen. After kicking around the Spanish, English, and Turkish leagues, he has finally found a home in the Dutch Eredivisie with AZ Alkmaar, scoring 18 goals in 15 league matches. Altidore's last five years — and the static nature of his play over that time period — say more about the USMNT than they do about him. I think the U.S. is a little too good for where it is, developmentally, as a soccer-playing nation. Ideally, a raw talent like Altidore would be given the opportunity to be the focal point of the team. He is, after all, the best American striker of his generation. If you wanted to find out just how good he could be, you'd have to build a lot of your play around him, give him a lot of chances. Instead, under former coach Bob Bradley and Klinsmann, the U.S. has been much more of a collective, relying on hard work, maintaining their shape, and turning to individual moments of brilliance from Landon Donovan to pull them through. It's certainly had its rewards (Algeria, guys!), but you have to wonder whether a talent like Altidore's has gone a little underdeveloped because we've conditioned ourselves to expect present-day success, no matter what it means for the future.
56:43 — Meanwhile, as Altidore sulks on the bench, Beasley is looking about as healthy as Willem Dafoe at the end of Platoon. Not sure Klinsmann took off the right player there. If Mexico scores because Beasley busts a gasket, we will all look back and think about how we knew better than the former Bayern Munich and Germany manager because sports.
63:00 — Even if the U.S. loses, the big takeaway from this match will be this: Gonzalez should be the anchor of the U.S. defense for the next two World Cups. He's handling through balls and dangerous chip passes; he's helping his fullbacks, and clearing crosses. Just watching him patrol the back line, confidently passing to start movements, reminds me a little bit of a younger Rio Ferdinand.
70:30 — Brad Davis comes on for Gomez, who hasn't done anything since Knoblauch-ing that free kick in the first half.
72:00 — Angel Reyna is on. Yes. This dude has one of my favorite goal celebrations:
My favorite goal celebrations? Glad you asked:
1. Diving into the crowd, Carlos Tevez–West Ham–style.
2. Badge kissing (I'm sentimental and probably not that smart, but I love this) or pointing to the back of the shirt (I'm trolling, by the way).
3. Keep Calm, Pass Me the Ball.
4. The run over to the bench.
5. Anything other than Gareth Bale's stupid heart hand thing.
Reyna immediately makes an impact, nearly heading in a Dos Santos cross, but Zusi made a 40-yard run to either deflect or distract the ball from sailing in.
73:08 — Beasley down on the ground again, this time with an ankle injury. I think his new nickname should be "It's Just a Flesh Wound."
It's still 0-0.
75:30 — Reyna makes a great, slashing run into the box and squares it for Aquino, who gets a good look at goal before getting absolutely JOHN DEERED by Edu. Mexico has a real case here; Aquino got mowed down.
81:20 — Dos Santos throws up a prayer of a shot that probably scares Guzan a little more than it should have. The air is going out of this game.
88:00 — Hernandez just misses connecting on a corner kick. I usually abhor debating who does or doesn't deserve to win a soccer match, but the U.S. certainly doesn't deserve to lose this one. It's all getting a little end of The Wild Bunch right now.
92:50 — Reyna uncorks what must be the last meaningful shot of the match.
94: and change — Here are some thoughts for the road: Guzan makes a case for becoming the U.S.'s no. 1 keeper; Gonzalez can stamp his name on the team-sheet for the next several years; this looks like it's becoming Deuce and Bradley's team; I like Edu and Bradley in the central midfield way more than Jermaine Jones and Bradley; this was a pretty dull match; I might be nervous if I were an El Tri fan (or at least get familiar with New Zealand's national team); in less than a week, Klinsmann has gone from being a manager on the hot seat with a possible mutiny on his hands to getting his second significant result in Azteca, solidifying both the U.S. World Cup qualifying campaign and his reputation. With these two results, Klinsmann, the charismatic communicator, has sent the most powerful message of his reign in charge of the national team — and he didn't say a single word.