U.S. Soccer Looks to Bridge The Gap
For the second time this year, the United States men’s soccer team scored a historic victory on foreign soil–this time defeating Mexico, 1-0, in a friendly for its first win south of the border and ending 75-year of frustration on Wednesday night.
After a slow start under new head coach Jurgen Klinsmann – the former German national team star player and coach who has lived in California for more than a decade– the Americans have achieved two breakthrough victories to reestablish their presence in game. In February, for the first-time ever the U.S. shutout the 8th ranked Italy in a friendly at Genoa, 1-0.
“It’s huge for, I think, all American fans, it’s huge for the team, and it’s historic,” Klinsmann told ESPN. “This is an amazing experience for all the players. We told them before the game, ‘This moment is for you; go and grab it.’ We are all aware that it was a lot, a lot of work.”
Team USA was considerable underdogs heading into Wednesday’s contest at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. Riding high from their upset over Brazil at the 2012 London Games, to claim the nation’s first Olympic gold-medal in soccer, El Tri squad dominated for most of the night at one of soccer’s most intimidating venues. The U.S. had been 0-23-1 against Mexico in 75 years of games at Mexico, including 0-19-1 in the thin air at altitude in the country’s capital– where they had been outscored 81-14. Mexico outshot the U.S. 15-6 and had a 10-0 advantage in corner kicks, but the resilient Americans, who used a half-strength roster and a makeshift central defense, withstood El Tri’s onslaught and countered with an offensive strike of their own.
The decisive moment came in the 80th minute as three American substitutes combined to score. Brek Shea, who struggled this year for F.C. Dallas in MLS, initiated the attack with a move down the left wing. He wound up crossing the ball into a congested area in the front of the Mexican goal. Although defenders surrounded him, striker Terrence Boyd sent a nifty back heel toward defender Michael Orozco Fiscal, who slotted the ball past Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa for the decisive goal. Mexico continued to attack in the final 10 minutes, pushing forward with waves of players. Javier Hernández, known as “Chicharito,” broke through the Americans defense and twice had a clear path to the goal, but he was denied of both opportunities by U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, whose final saves secured, the Americans improbable win.
“The goal was for U.S. fans and the whole U.S. We made history,” said Orozco Fiscal, the 26-year-old defender from Orange, California, whose parents were born in Mexico. “I think that more than breaking the streak, we gained a lot of confidence ahead of qualifying.”
The victory was even more impressive given that Jorz Altidore, Michael Bradley, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Clint Dempsey and Clarence Goodson were left off the roster because of club obligations or minor injuries. Mexico fielded a team featuring most of its top players. Klinsmann deployed a 4-4-2 formation that featured a very inexperienced defensive front.
Mexico’s Olympic victory was hailed by many Mexicans as the greatest ever for the national team, serving as another reminder of the gap in quality between Mexico and the United States at the younger level; as the U.S. failed to qualify for the men’s Olympic tournament while it’s southern neighbor overcame an injury to its best player to stun one of the soccer’s world powers in the gold medal match.
But Wednesday’s victory proved that the gap is beginning to close between the North American rivals. Klinsmann has been on a mission to develop depth from the moment he took the reins of the national team just more than a year ago. His stated goal, repeated time and again, has been to create competition at every position by fostering an environment in which players are constantly trying to one-up each other, raising the level of the entire program and increasing versatility in the process. With two upsets over soccer powerhouses, it seems his plan is coming together.
Image: US Soccer