PUEBLA, Mexico – Six MLS players marched onto the field at Estadio Cuauhtemoc to take part in a formative experience capable of shaping the rest of their careers.
For most of them, the CONCACAF U-20 Championship represented the biggest match of their professional careers to date. For the rest, it still represented a significant occasion. At this stage of their development, there is no such thing as a routine appearance in a match between Mexico and the United States.
The magnitude of the event stood in stark contrast to their professional lives. Five of them – all but Los Angeles forward Jose Villarreal – will struggle to obtain regular playing time this season with their club teams. Their countries, however, leaned on them to go out and win a final.
All of them faced significant pressure to perform. And they went out and rose to the occasion placed before them in Mexico's 3-1 victory after extra time.
Colorado defenders Shane O'Neill and Dillon Serna (a midfielder by ability and trade) formed the right side of the American defense. O'Neill continued his quietly effective tournament by providing cover for his peers before procuring a rather inexplicable dismissal deep in the additional period. Serna – shunted into this spot by U.S. coach Tab Ramos for want of better options – held his own in unfamiliar surroundings.
Sporting Kansas City's Mikey Lopez and Columbus' Wil Trapp formed two-thirds of the American central midfield trio. Their earnest toil allowed the irrepressible Benji Joya to influence the match and retained the necessary shape against an adversary capable of distorting it. Lopez flew into tackles and imposed his will on his opponents. Trapp – a Best XI selection for his performances during this tournament – patrolled the midfield with seemingly limitless work rate and snuffed out Mexican attacks time and again.
Villarreal gritted his way through an ankle injury and a venomous first-half challenge by Mexico captain Antonio Briseño to reveal why Bruce Arena rates him so highly. His incessant endeavor and latent desire to surge behind the Mexican rearguard provided the hosts with a test they had not seen in the tournament to date. Although Villarreal did not score, he threatened frequently and underscored the reasons why he also made the tournament Best XI.
FC Dallas goalkeeper Richard Sánchez repelled those forays whenever possible. He dove out quickly to avert a potential opportunity for Mario Rodriguez and flummoxed the German-based forward again by somehow clawing away his downward header in the second half. He showed the necessary command of his area and took charge of his defense well. His status as the goalkeeper of the tournament reinforced his apparently limitless potential.
Every one of these players offers hope for the future. They may not break into the first team this season, but they provide necessary and valuable squad depth in a league where the modest salary budget (even with the additional money available supplement it) often deprives teams of strength in numbers. They also provide tangible proof that the league – in its own unique way – can produce players capable of competing and thriving at the youth international level.
As the discussion swirls around Graham Zusi's budding MVP campaign, Mike Magee's hat trick, Diego Valeri's stunning piece of skill and Vancouver's sublime team goal (and all of those points deserve their due consideration), the focus may shift away from the importance of the events in Mexico. It shouldn't. A slice of the future of this league came through a difficult situation with flying colors and reinforced its promise in the process. For a league attempting to foster growth by cultivating talented players, this final supplied a meaningful experience capable of reaping dividends for some time to come.
Five Points – Week 1
1. A classic study in the difference between good teams and other outfits: Philadelphia bossed the entire first half against a Sporting Kansas City side that floundered in its attempts to generate any sort of rhythm. The home side found an opener through returning hero Sébastien Le Toux, but it also squandered a pair of chances to consolidate that advantage and put the match out of reach. Sporting punished the Union's profligacy by snatching a goal shortly before halftime. All of a sudden, the more talented team established level terms with the far superior team in the first half. No prizes for guessing how the second half unfolded as Sporting eventually secured a 3-1 victory.
2. Organization proves crucial as Montreal upsets Seattle: Credit new Impact boss Marco Schällibaum for understanding the primary task ahead of him. He assessed his squad and sent his players out in a conservative 4-1-4-1 formation to procure a result at CenturyLink Field. The tactics worked like a charm. Seattle failed to produce the necessary incisiveness or supply the necessary service from the wide areas. Montreal could have scored on a couple of occasions (and Seattle lamented the goal frame twice in the second half), but a worthy goal from Davy Arnaud (courtesy of a sublime feed from Felipe) ultimately yielded Montreal's third road win since joining the league last year.
3. Little plays set the stage for dramatic flourishes: Columbus midfielder Augustin Viana will not receive an assist for his contribution to Federico Higuaín's opener in the 3-0 victory over Chivas USA on Saturday night. But the stunning goal – a rasping strike off the far post that left beleaguered Dan Kennedy stunned – simply would not have happened without his determined run to win the ball near the left touchline and keep the Crew's attacking sequence alive. More of the same in central midfield will serve the Crew well as it bids to return to the playoffs after missing out in 2012.
4. Ambivalence and upheaval lead to disastrous start for Chivas USA: Only a few scattered fans made their way to the Home Depot Center to watch their club lose. Team officials announced an attendance of just over 7,000 (the lowest home opener in league history) and observers in the building cackled at its optimistic slant on the scores of empty seats. The lack of familiar faces probably didn't help: new Chivas USA boss José Luis Sánchez Solá handed seven players their MLS debuts. That figure sets a league record for the number of fresh faces introduced in one match by a team not playing its first MLS game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
5. Give it up for the goalscorers: Moments of brilliance pockmarked games across the slate. Arnaud and Higuaín picked up plaudits earlier in this space, but they weren't the only ones to register noteworthy strikes. Magee scored a fine goal as part of his hat trick. Valeri supplied a stunning bit of skill to score Portland's first goal in the wild 3-3 draw with New York at JELD-WEN Field. And Vancouver tore Toronto FC apart with a series of tidy passes before Gershon Koffie collected the winner at B.C. Place. Not a bad haul for the first weekend.