Some games just mean more. Whether it is the time or place or opponent, some games just end up holding a place in the mind of a team or player that puts it above others. For the US, those games are any time they play our archrivals, Mexico, and considering the date of this particular occasion, the stakes for this match were even higher. September 11th holds a special meaning for every American; it is a dark reminder of one of the most tragic days in our history. The US knew this full well and even visited the 9/11 Memorial in New York in preparation for the match. Who is to say how much any of this impacted the players, but coming off of a dull, 2-0 loss against Brazil, they needed something to give them a spark, and, unfortunately, the pre-game tactics of USMNT Head Coach, Dave Sarachan, were not going to get that job done.
The US came into this match even more shorthanded than the previous. John Brooks, one of the best performers of the Brazil match, and Paul Arriola, one of the worst, both returned to their respective sides, Brooks to Wolfsburg in Germany, Arriola to DC United. These sort of personnel changes, combined with the lackluster result against Brazil, would seem to indicate a need to change the tactics of the side, but no. Sarachan rolled out the same 4-1-4-1 formation that struggled to put pressure on the Brazilian defense with only cosmetic alterations, and as the first half rolled along, the side played to type. The possession was fine, not great, and they could not build any forward motion that held its conviction. Anchored by goalkeeper Zach Steffen, who snuffed out Mexico’s few opportunities including saves in the 15’ and 37’, the central defense held firm against Mexico’s attack and continued to outshine the other areas of the squad. Going forward, there will be a real debate about the best center back pairing for the US. Right now, Brooks and Miazga have their places nailed down, but Carter-Vickers is young and could start to pressure them, if they are not careful. The only real difference between the tactics of this and the Brazil match was the concerted effort made by the US to try to feed Gyasi Zardes, who replaced the phantasmic Bobby Wood in the starting XI, over the top. None of these balls were successful or even close to it, so both sides continued to be stymied at a scoreless draw. Then, as the half drew near, Weston McKinnie, a standout from this camp, picked up a knock, and was relieved by Julian Green, leaving the match scoreless at the halftime whistle.
Coming out for the second half, the US showed their first signs of life. Sarachan had shifted formations from the 4-1-4-1 to a more traditional 4-4-2, moving Green up from McKinnie’s midfield roll into a forward spot and brining up Wil Trapp to fill the void in midfield. The possession in this new formation was much better, more prolonged, and the legitimate attacking chances started to materialize. Then, the US hit Mexico with a 1-2-3 punch over the course of 15 minutes.
First, Sarachan brought on Antonee Robinson in the 56’ for Eric Lichaj at left back. Lichaj had struggled all evening with his possession, positioning, and temper, nearly picking up a yellow card for dissent in the first half for arguing a throw-in call, so the substitution was justified. Robinson’s influence was felt immediately. He brought pressure up the left side of the pitch and brought US possession with him. It was a good rebound for Robinson who was caught out of position against Brazil several times and had a less than stellar performance overall. Then, in the 67’, just after a shouting match inside the US 18 between Matt Miazga and Mexico’s Diego Lainez, which featured Miazga mocking the striker’s 5’5’’ frame, Mexican midfielder, Angel Zaldivar made an exceedingly dangerous, two-footed slide into the feet and legs of Trapp. His attempt was no where near the ball and caught Trapp with full studs on the shin. With the referee standing less than 10 yards away, Zaldivar received a much earned straight red card. When play resumed, the US continued their good form and in the 71’, after good build-up on the left side of the pitch, Robinson laid off a grounded cross to just above the penalty spot. Zardes had already made his run, pulling the Mexican defense forward, which created a pocket of space that was filled in by the trailing Tyler Adams, who placed a strike past the Mexican keeper. The rest of the half was positive, but uneventful. Neither side had many good opportunities, but the US had the majority of possession, which is expected as they were a man up. In the end, the score line remained 1-0, US.
The result is obviously good. Anytime you win, it is hard to be displeased, but the first half was definitely a blemish. Overall, there were some bright performances and fewer disappointments than against Brazil, most notably the improved play of Robinson and the poor play of the man he replaced, Eric Lichaj, but looking at this two game series as a unit, there were some definite standouts:
• The central defense looks stout, as I already mentioned (even if I was never too keen on Miazga before the series), and Zach Steffen looks like he is solidifying his place atop the goalkeeper depth chart.
• Yedlin is already showing great improvement after his move to and increased role with Newcastle United, and should be a perpetual starter on the back line.
• Adams, even if you ignore his goal, appears to be a solid choice for a holding midfielder role, and his pairing with McKinnie, who also came out of this series looking quite good, in the middle of the pitch should be a partnership to watch moving forward. They need to get to know each other’s tendencies a little more, but that will come with time.
• Pulisic was present, even in his absence. His skill set seems to perfectly align with the most glaring gap in this camp’s side. His attacking talent, in mindset, possession, and distribution (especially on set pieces), was very much needed.
Moving forward to the next set of matches in October and getting a 10,000 foot view of the side, there are some areas of concern and consideration:
• While the US has a good crop of defenders to use when completing the defense that would already include Miazga, Brooks, Carter-Vickers, and/or Yedlin, their inexperience in these two matches was apparent and there were times their effort to get back after a run up the pitch was questionable. If any of those four solid defenders go down with an injury, the US would have a hard time replacing them.
• If the US moves Pulisic more central, in a sort of 4-4-1-1 sort of system, the performances at the wing position did not instill confidence that they would be able to perform well. Weah is developing at PSG, so he should get better, but over the two matches, they had the second hardest time as a group. Arriola was bad against Brazil, Acosta was decent after came in against Brazil and against Mexico, but not a standout, and Green was active, but not productive.
• The group that causes the most concern is the forwards. Zardes has had a great year with the Columbus Crew, but that did not translate into a good performance against Mexico. Bobby Wood has never impressed with anything other than his positioning. He can get to the right place, but struggles with finishing. It would have been nice to have seen Novakovich at some point during these matches, considering his good start of the season in the Eredivisie, but Sarachan decided against it. Josh Sargent is a good prospect, but he was too busy tearing it up with Werder Bremen’s U23 side, 5 goals in 7 matches, to report for this camp. He may end up being a great and natural fit up top, but the US has not seen enough from him with the senior squad to say that for certain. There are some older forwards that could have a role moving forward, like Jozy Altidore, but they would all be getting a little long in the tooth by the time the next World Cup arrived.
All in all, the squad came out with a good, not great result, but the path forward remains quite undecided. Sarachan is still the interim head coach, and the decision about his replacement is said to be coming before the end of the year, but nothing more specific than that. There is scuttlebutt that Gregg Berhalter is likely to be named as the coach once the MLS season ends, but those are just rumors. Whoever they hire will be adopting a team full of talent and potential, but in need of direction, identity, and coaching. In the end, the future for the US is bright, especially considering how dark the past year and half has been, but it is quite uncertain.