Like the country it represents, the United States men’s soccer team entered a world of uncertainty this week. Unlike the U.S. nation itself, we can blame Mexico for the change in mood.
Team USA lost 2-1 to Mexico on Friday at Mapfre Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Rafael Marquez scored the winning goal in the 89th minute to consign the U.S. its first home loss in FIFA World Cup qualifying in 15 years. Conversely, Mexico notched its first road World Cup qualifying win over its archrival since 1972. While “El Tri” has kicked off its final round of World Cup qualifying with a bang, team USA has stumbled into an iffy future ahead of a difficult trip to Costa Rica.
Here’s how it happened:
Mexico needed less than 10 minutes to hit top gear, thanks to its strong mentality, superb organization and effective game plan. The opposite was true for Team USA, whose head coach, Jurgen Klinsmann deployed his players in an unfamiliar, 3-5-2 formation.
The U.S. players clearly weren’t comfortable in Klinsmann’s tactical set-up, and Mexico dominated the first half hour. Miguel Layun put Mexico in front in the 20th minute with a long-distance goal that strangely beat goalkeeper Tim Howard. In fact, Mexico could have led by more had it not hit the post twice in the first 25 minutes.
Team USA gradually improved toward the end of the first half. Then it came out swinging in the second, with Bobby Wood scoring a fine goal in the 49th minute. Wood’s strike filled the U.S. with belief, which it used to overrun Mexico for much of the second half.
Klinsmann’s lineup and formation gambles didn’t work. That he made them in such a big game is confusing and justifiably fuels criticism he faces.
One shot, one kill
The teams looked set to battle to a draw. That is, until Marquez scored in the 89th minute on Mexico’s first corner kick of the game. Klinsmann explained in his postgame press conference why Marquez had a free header at such a pivotal moment.
Before the game, Marquez, 37, already was a hero to Mexico fans and villain to their U.S. counterparts. That’s set in stone now. Forever.
Rough play characterized the game throughout, and the referee responded by issuing a nine yellow cards — six to Mexico and three to the U.S. — and a red one to Carlos Salcedo late in second-half stoppage time.
We expected a physical contest, and the teams delivered from start to finish. While tension threatened to boil into a melee at times, it never did. Maybe it’s because the teams posed together for a moment of pregame solidarity in the wake of U.S. presidential election.
More likely is that Klinsmann and Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio warned their players against going overboard. The rough stuff was more gamesmanship than chaos, but it was a close call.
What the result means
No more “Dos A Cero” — the U.S. rallying cry against Mexico which references 2-0 wins in Columbus in the 2001, 2005, 2009, and 2013 qualification cycles and the 2002 World Cup.
The dynamic between Team USA and Mexico has changed. El Tri has the bragging rights and momentum.
The U.S. will visit 2014 World Cup quarterfinalist Costa Rica on Tuesday. Another loss will jeapordize Team USA’s chances of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup and make clinching a spot before the last game of the final round — a genuine CONCACAF triumph — all but impossible.
Thumbnail photo via Joe Maiorana/USA TODAY Sports Images