Thursday, August 11, 2011

United States 1-1 Mexico: Welcoming the Klinsmann era with open arms

Maybe it's time to start taking Major League Soccer more seriously.

On the same day the league inked a monumental television contract with NBC Sports to give itself a strong presence on basic cable (and even have a few U.S. national team games as well as the MLS Cup playoffs on NBC itself), some of the league's brightest young stars infused that national team with a spark it hasn't seen since South Africa.

In fact, one could compare last night's friendly with Mexico to the Slovenia game from group play in that 2010 World Cup. The Americans fell behind early and took until the second half to really get in to the game. Then they staged a remarkable comeback that should have been completed with victory, but a horror show of an officiating performance stood in the way as it often seems to.

But before we get to that, let's get back to the positive talking points from last night in Philly. The game completely changed right on the hour as blue chip striker Juan Agudelo and 21-year-old winger Brek Shea came on for the lifeless Edson Buddle and Jermaine Jones, respectively. The U.S. had its best chance only a few minutes prior off of a corner but that was due to poor Mexican marking leaving Carlos Bocanegra all alone to be denied splendidly by Guillermo Ochoa. Once Agudelo and Shea came on, that's when the run of play shifted. It took them all of a minute to link up with Shea's nice flick on to Agudelo resulting in a terrific run that was unfortunately capped by a shot well high, but it proved to be a warning shot going forward. Then in the 67th, Shea won a corner...except the referees apparently didn't see it deflect off the back of the Mexican defender and ruled goal kick instead. A couple minutes later, Jose Franciso Torres played Agudelo on but the 18-year-old couldn't maneuver a one on three.

Then Rogers came on for Michael Bradley, who was a major disappointment (see below) and the game really changed. Immediately after, Agudelo should have won a penalty when he was hacked down in the box and there was a nice spell of short passing that made the United State's Men's National Team look like Arsenal or Barcelona for a few moments until Edgar Castillo (who had a nightmare at left back) messed it up.

But then came the goal, where all three super subs linked up. It came off a throw to Agudelo who delivered an absolutely fantastic lob (not his last) to Shea who crossed wonderfully through a few defenders to a wide open Rogers who only had to Chicharito it home to level the score with his first touch of the game. From there, the Americans simply dominated play. Torres, who became a completely different player in central midfield, fired wide after Donovan - who was also injected with life once the subs came on - found him on the left. Then Donovan himself made a wonderful run down the left that very well could've ended in a penalty but didn't. Agudelo/Shea/Rogers linked up again in the 81st for a Rogers shot high and then a few minutes later, Donovan found Shea for a terrific effort from the left that Ochoa had to sprawl to his left to keep out.

After that, arguably the game's biggest talking point happened. A Mexican free kick was denied and quickly turned the other way before Agudelo played an absolutely *UNBELIEVABLE* lob forward for Rogers, who beat a couple of Mexican defenders to it before being pulled down by his jersey by the last man back, denying a clear goal-scoring opportunity. By any possible definition other than a sucker punch or touching a ref, that's a red card but it only got yellow. Officiating's officiating and that of football is probably the worst in the world due to the subjectivity and general cloud of corruption around the sport on the international level but nothing you can do. The other thing to note here is Rogers' outstanding pace - that's not something you can teach. And he's just 24. Shea is 21. Agudelo is 18. This American team is good and this American team is young.

And it finally has the leader that it needs. In the final half hour, that game completely turned on its head. Those thirty minutes were the best we've played against Mexico in over two years (the WCQ in Columbus.) Klinsmann's subs were better than any I can ever remember Bradley making. And the football itself was on fine display for everyone to see. A draw is a fantastic result, regardless of Mexico being understrength and being just as experimental as we were with five subs of their own.

A few other random notes:

-Was a bit disappointed in only 30,000 people there, particularly in a city like Philadelphia that is (a) arguably the most die hard sports city in the country and (b) catching soccer fever with the much-improved Union contending in MLS. Compare last night at the Linc to the Rose Bowl attendance at the Gold Cup final (93,000) and it just goes to show you how much better supported Mexico is in our own country and how we won't get packed houses unless there are throngs of Mexicans nearby the hosting stadium (alright, maybe in Seattle where we need to have a game sooner rather than later.) I know nobody had any idea this would be Klinsmann's first game but it's USA/Mexico - anyone who's remotely a U.S. soccer fan should be viewing this and attending if possible.

-Michael Bradley was a major disappointment. Theoretically he should have been better in his attacking midfield position but instead he did little and was clueless on the Mexican goal. A noted Mexican killer, hopefully his struggle was an adjustment to the new formation and/or an outlier.

-Why did Edson Buddle even start in the first place? In fact, one could ask why he was even in the team in the first place? I get that Klinsmann's trying to figure out what kind of hand he's been dealt and I'm a Galaxy/Buddle supporter, but what kind of future does he have with the national team in any case? He's 30 and only made the World Cup team because of a ridiculous run of form at the start of last year's MLS season and a general dearth at striker behind Jozy that no longer exists. He's done little since last summer (fine, you could say the same about our team) but why not include Robbie Findley, who's four years younger and certainly has more potential? Surely he'll get a look down the line but if Rogers keeps playing like he did yesterday, Findley will no doubt get squeezed when Jozy comes back. And it has to be stated just how horrific he was in the World Cup where Buddle was considerably better, but I feel my point still remains. The Buddle experiment is a thing of the past at this juncture.

-There's no excuse for making Pablo Barrera look as good as he did on the wing. This is a guy who couldn't even get in to the side of a relegated West Ham consistently and he was all over us for much of his 70 minutes of field time. The defense simply has to get better.

-Man, how class is Ian Darke? He's unafraid to call it like he sees it, which includes calling out people when deserved - a hallmark of a British announcer, but also a breath of fresh air in the American media, who chooses its favorites (such as a number four last seen in Minneapolis) carefully. He rightfully knocked both Buddle and Jones when they came off, noted Giovanni dos Santos' notorious reputation for the night life in London holding him back at Spurs and delivered a sarcastic barb at, "an intellectual who thinks it's a good idea to be on the pitch" all in the span of about ten minutes. It's interesting to wonder if he would have ascended to the heights of "voice of the USMNT as well as the Premier League on ESPN" if not for him happening to be on the call for the final three highly dramatic U.S. games in the 2010 World Cup (including his now-famous "AND DONOVAN HAS SCORED" call for the Algeria game) but I'm happy he did.

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