In a lot ways, I’ve been waiting for this moment. This opportunity to articulate my thoughts after the impossible – a USMNT win at Estadio Azteca. Some days, it felt as if this day would be decades in the making, as strong, in-form American sides were unable to overcome the challenge. The history has great weight in one’s perceptions of present and future, and 0-23-1 was an elephant on the collective back of US Soccer.
In an instant, though, that elephant now suddenly feels like a heavy backpack – still there, but suddenly vastly more manageable moving forward. Mentally, walls have been obliterated after decades of fortification. The air of invincibility is no more: the impossible has been done.
Azteca is conquered.
To say that yesterday’s win was unexpected really undersells it. Here was an undermanned US side missing some of its biggest names, relying on a cast of inexperienced (and in most cases, young) internationals, playing in arguably the most inhospitable environment in all of world football. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they were up against an in-form Mexico side on the rise, still riding the momentum of their Gold Cup triumph and various youth level successes. El Tri put out 8 of the 11 that started in June World Cup qualifiers. The US – just 6.
Expectations were rightly tempered, justifiably low. Let’s just get out of here with some knowledge and a little more confidence ahead of the matches that really matter, I (along with many others) thought.
But maybe that’s how it was always going to happen, blind-siding us against the odds. Maybe inexperience was not a flaw but rather a strength: maybe young Terrence Boyd and the like went into this match with confidence and high spirits because, hey, they didn’t know any better. Unlike Tim Howard, DaMarcus Beasley, and Landon Donovan, the other 20 guys in camp had never experienced the emotional and physical strains of a USA-Mexico tilt at Azteca. So what poor memories did they have to draw upon the build up? None. Instead, they saw this is as a grand opportunity to do something huge. Naivete suddenly parlayed itself into optimistic determination.
And so, with a cast of characters that few would have predicted when posed the question a year ago of who would be on the field for the first US win at Azteca (and just their second clean sheet), the Yanks did the unthinkable, snatching a win from Mexico in the lions’ den with grit, execution, luck, heroics, and the unexpected.
It wasn’t Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, and Landon Donovan engineering the historic game-winner. Instead, it was Brek Shea (22, 12 caps), Terrence Boyd (21, 5 caps), and Michael Orozco Fiscal (26, 5 caps) of all people that orchestrated a bit of magic under the looming, verdant grandstands of Estadio Azteca.
Pardon me while I re-read that last sentence in utter disbelief.
And, truly, that’s what last night remains: something that is still hard to believe, and was even harder to believe as it improbably panned out. In 2009, everything was coming together for history to be made: Mexico was reeling, the Yanks were riding high, and new talent added teeth and life to an American team that looked more than capable of pushing aside decades of futility. 2005 was somewhat similar in how attainable a win seemed. But perhaps the lack of expectations, again, is what made the win possible, what allowed the players to go into Azteca fearlessly and emerge victorious.
Any successful game relies on two components: coaching, and on-field execution. Try as we might to boil results down to the guy with the clipboard, coaches can really only do so much as they leave the actual kicking and running to the eleven players they put out on the field. Players, meanwhile, can only physically do so much to win within the confines of whatever game plan and preparation they’ve been provided. Both are needed to pull off an unlikely win, and the US got both in spades last night, plus a dash of luck to push them over the top.
Jurgen Klinsmann, in a word, was magnificent. The audacity to schedule this match in the first place despite the risk involved should be commended, and the infectious positivity and belief that a win could come out of it were pivotal to setting the appropriate mood for this match internally. It came across as perhaps overly ambitious and even misguided at times, but in hindsight the continuity surely helped instill some honest buy-in from those in camp.
Tactically, he was solid. His starting XI was not perfect – which I’ll touch on below – but it made the most of what was at hand (i.e. not very much defensively), relying on pre-match preparation to put an unlikely center back duo in position to fill their roles admirably. From the preparation to tactics to substitutions, Klinsmann performed admirably in what may not have been his best coaching performance, but certainly his most memorable.
On the field, though, was the real story. Execution and fortune. Geoff Cameron and Maurice Edu, despite their inexperience at center back at the international level, rose to the occasion and delivered strong performances out of the back. With Carlos Bocanegra still in club limbo and some minor health issues with other center backs, Edu and Cameron may very well have played themselves into starting roles against Jamaica next month. Cameron’s lungeing, glancing header to deny Chicharito a sure goal at 0-0 was outshone by Orozco Fiscal’s goal and Howard’s heroics, but it was no less important and just a small piece of what was a stellar outing from the new Stoke signing.
The hero, though, was fittingly Tim Howard, one of the few Azteca vets in the squad and someone who rued mistakes from that fateful 2009 qualifier. His pair of saves in the final 10 minutes were nothing short of incredible and now are in the pantheon of great USMNT moments alongside The Shot Heard Round the World and Landon Donovan’s Algeria goal. We expected that it would take a superhuman effort to come out of Azteca with a win – Tim Howard delivered it in world-class fashion as we all watched with our jaws on the floor and hearts racing.
In front of Howard, the defense turned in a surprisingly stout, steady performance despite conceding a great deal of possession. Klinsmann brought in Edgar Castillo because of his experience in Mexico and the Azteca, and he looked like a genius for it, with Castillo turning in his best cap to date while helping hold down the left side. Opposite him, Fabian Johnson also saw his stock go up, as he and Danny Williams locked down the right (with Klinsmann sacrificing wing offense in favor of defense, as Williams does not add much going forward out wide).
Brek Shea and Terrence Boyd changed the game almost immediately after coming on, creating the game-winner and adding life and improvisation to the attack, again making Jurgen Klinsmann look pretty smart. Kyle Beckerman, meanwhile, was quietly outstanding in the middle of the park, tidily distributing and defending in a key role. Immense is an appropriate description. Jermaine Jones, meanwhile, was up and down, but solid and rather composed for much of the match in a heated environment.
Sure, some guys fell flat – Jose Torres was invisible (and will be pushed down the pecking order after another minimally impactful showing), and DaMarcus Beasley had several hiccups that may make attaining 100 caps more difficult than he’d hope – but that didn’t matter. The win was ugly, no doubt, but what matters is that it was, in fact, a win. And that’s a lesson that will be carried through both to qualifiers next month and next year – especially if and when the Yanks return to Azteca.
Perfection is not necessary. But get close to it with some luck (and make no mistake, the US had plenty of that, as some golden opportunities were squandered by El Tri), and you’ve got yourself a recipe for three points. At the end of the day, World Cup qualifying is not a beauty contest – you have to get to the dance first before you can worry about what you look like.
How important is this result? We’ll only truly know in the months and years to come, as this team moves on and future teams are inspired. Could it be a sea change in the rivalry, propelling the US to more level footing in the next year or two? Perhaps; time will tell. But there’s no denying that it is important and that it will build confidence and faith in the system as the Yanks move on to Jamaica.
The post-game celebrations from players past and present, near and far, as well as fans and media said it all, exuding a new-found confidence and belief that nothing in CONCACAF is impossible, not even a WCQ win at Azteca. Whether or not that is true doesn’t matter – the mindset change is truly massive and a huge coup for Klinsmann and company out of an August friendly. It was very evident that everyone in the US camp understood the gravity of the situation when the final whistle blew, from Landon Donovan and his nearly 150 caps to Michael Orozco Fiscal and his 1 international goal to Jurgen Klinsmann and his first Azteca trip. There’s no overstating the value of that moving forward.
The question is, then: why would Mexico even offer the US this chance, leaving the door open for this kind of result? The easy answer is money: a US friendly sells tickets, and friendlies are moneymakers. But it wouldn’t be hard to imagine El Tri looking at this as an opportune to break the US’ back after months battering. One final stomp on the throat to cripple the Yanks ahead of key games while gaining some intel on personnel and tactics.
Needless to say, if that was the plan, it backfired massively. As unbelievable as that may have seemed just 24 hours ago.
I said it on Twitter, but I’ll repeat it here: There must have been nothing more thrilling and simultaneously terrifying than being an American at Azteca last night. But those lucky few that were there to witness it in person were treated to something that was 75 years in the making.
I won’t call it once in a lifetime, though, because the US will likely be back for more next year.
And it’s that – the attitude change now permeating American soccer – that is the real win.