Azteca win another boost for the American psyche

Azteca win another boost for American psyche
By Ridge Mahoney Friday, Aug. 17, 2012

If there’s been a common theme to responses supplied by American players regarding the last year under the tutelage of Jurgen Klinsmann, aside from universal admiration of his playing career, the younger contingent all come back with variations on the same theme: “He’s giving guys like me a chance.”

In this context, “chance” is not the odd invitation to training camp and maybe playing a few minutes, if that, before being shuffled back down the depth chart. Rightly or wrongly, those who were on the outside looking in believed that predecessor Bob Bradley was “locked into his guys,” as one player put it, and reluctant if not adverse to giving extended runs to others.

This topic would have to be examined on a case-by-case basis, and those Bradley critics may forget that Charlie Davies, then just 20, debuted for the USA in a pre-Gold Cup 2007 friendly against China before he had scored a professional goal, and Jozy Altidore debuted for the senior team aged 18 years, 11 days. The stigma applied to Bradley, of course, is that he handed undeserved starts to his son, Michael, at the expense of other players and didn’t always adhere to his decree that a player needed to be playing regularly to get starts.

This is the sentiment of some fans and reporters, and hasn’t been expressed by any national team players, per se. Yet regardless of whether or not Klinsmann can transform the national team into something more pleasing and stylish, he’s been able to inspire younger players who may have been discouraged by the previous regime as well as retain a spirit of resilience.

The Bradley Era included an upset of Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinal, winning the Concacaf Hexagonal for the first time, and also topping a World Cup group for the first time. Since Klinsmann has coached the team in just two competitive matches, there can’t be any reasonable comparison in this regard, but as friendlies go, beating Italy in Genoa and Mexico in Azteca Stadium are difficult to downplay regardless of the circumstances.

Of the two games, beating Italy might have been a better performance from a soccer standpoint, though in both matches, the home team didn’t seem terribly motivated until it fell behind. More importantly, the Americans melded poise with intensity, and managed to absorb the pressure they couldn’t always alleviate by keeping the ball. They didn’t allow an unfamiliar environment or talented opponents to faze them, and in the case of Mexico, when its fans started to get antsy and the players started to sputter, the USA took advantage. A couple of excellent saves from Tim Howard, some vital defensive plays by Geoff Cameron and Graham Zusi, and a scything run by Brek Shea to set up the only goal did the trick.

Regardless of tactics or systems, or even personnel, teams that make plays at critical times win a lot of soccer games, but one can never be sure when that moment will arrive, or who will be called upon. For Mexico, Javier Hernandez had numerous chances to score the goal that might have won the game, but failed to do so. The Americans got their winner when three subs — Shea, Terrence Boyd and Michael Orozco Fiscal — seized the moment.

Maybe Klinsmann had contributed to a sense of Mexican smugness by acknowledging the “gap” that had opened up between the rivals at the youth levels as well as the senior team. Maybe all of Mexico had been distracted by the gold-medal-winning Olympic team, which was presented and honored at halftime. Playing at night instead of under a broiling midday sun helped the Americans, too. In any case, Mexico showed little if any of the fire and passion with which it had roared past the USA, 4-2, in the 2011 Gold Cup final after falling behind, 2-0. If the gap didn’t close by the USA beating Mexico on its home soil for the first time it certainly narrowed.

There were defensive heroics, of course, and a lot of lung-busting work as well. All such elements will be needed in the 14 qualifiers — four in the current semifinal phase, 10 in the Hexagonal — that lead up to the 2014 World Cup.

After a year in charge, debate rages over whether Klinsmann has, or ever will, transform the national team into something more pleasing and stylish. Glimpses of that have been seen, yet to date, his greatest accomplishment is convincing another class of players they cannot only do the job but conjure up methods to master the moment of truth.