PASADENA, Calif. — It almost looked like it might be a storybook finish for the U.S. national team. After battling back from two deficits to hang tough with an impressive-looking Mexican side, the Americans ran out of comebacks when Paul Aguilar's perfectly-struck rocket gave Mexico the deserved victory.
That goal not only set off a celebration in a Rose Bowl packed with El Tri fans, it also ended Jurgen Klinsmann's unbeaten run against Mexico. He was 5-0-5 against El Tri as a player or coach, and when Bobby Wood hit a stunning equalizer in stoppage time, it looked like the German coach might pull another rabbit out of his hat.
Ultimately though, the Americans were a tired bunch that showed their age for long stretches. The U.S. did fight hard, and did show impressive heart to hang in with a Mexican side that looked like the better team for much of the night, but you never really got the sense the U.S. was in control of the match, unlike the 2011 Gold Cup final, when the Americans ran out to an impressive 2-0 lead by truly outplaying El Tri.
Ricardo 'Tuca' Ferretti deserves considerable praise for his decisions, both in choosing his lineup and his substitutions. He deployed three strikers in a 4-3-3, and used aging star Rafa Marquez in defensive midfield for much of the first half, and those moves all paid off. Mexico's three forwards caused problems for the U.S. gameplan as they kept the American back line occupied and forced the midfield to provide extra support, which left the U.S. playing a very defensive match.Klinsmann and some of his players pointed to the fact the score was 2-2 in the 118th minute as evidence that Saturday's CONCACAF Cup was a close match, but while the score certainly was close, Mexico was the better team on the night by a wide margin even before Paul Aguilar's dream winner.
Here are some key takeaways from the U.S. loss to Mexico
A Mexican journalist recited a rumored Mexican starting lineup to Jurgen Klinsmann on Friday and asked what he thought of it, but before Klinsmann would discuss it he said he wasn't so sure if the lineup would actually be what Ferretti was going to use.
Well, Ferretti's lineup was in fact the same one leaked a day earlier, and Mexico did deploy three forwards to try and smother the U.S. defense. The movement and combination play of Oribe Peralta, Raul Jimenez and Javier Hernandez helped the Mexican side keep pressure on the American back four, and forced the U.S. wingers to spend a lot of time tracking back to deal with Mexico's overlapping fullbacks. The result was an extremely defensive display that drew comparisons to the loss against Belgium.
U.S. captain Michael Bradley pointed to Mexico's three-forward setup being a big key to the matchup looking so one-sided.
"We can talk about how tactically the way they played, it gave us a little bit of trouble," Bradley said. "We ended up getting pinned back a little bit. Peralta, Jimenez and Chicharito were mobile, played in central areas, and that forced our four defenders inside pretty narrow and it meant that our outside midfielders spent a lot of time in the back line covering wide areas and it meant that we had no presence in the midfield in wide areas.
"Over the course of the game, that means that they can pin us back," Bradley said. "When we won balls and when we were able to recover balls in certain areas, our ability to play out and to give ourselves a little bit of pause wasn't always perfect. We can talk about those things, but in the end, in the 118th minute, it was 2-2. We can talk about all of those things, but all of that stuff goes out the window. In the end, the difference is that they scored an amazing goal, and we didn't."
Bradley's comments make it sound very much as though Klinsmann was out coached on Saturday, even if his starting lineup was pretty straightforward and his substitutions did make a positive impact.
Klinsmann faced the predictable questions about his future after Saturday's loss and he remained resolute in the face of growing calls for him to be fired.
"As I said before everybody can express his opinion and not everybody likes you," Klinsmann said. "That is totally fine. I'm not here to be liked. I'm trying to do a good job. I'm privileged to have that role and represent the U.S. soccer program. It;s a privilege for me. To do my best to my capabilities and to leave the judgement out there for you guys or for people who want to express themselves."
When asked directly to offer some examples of progress the U.S. program is making for U.S. fans who may not see progress being made after Saturday's loss, Klinsmann provided a bizarre answer, bringing up officiating at the Gold Cup before talking about the successes of his first four years in charge of the U.S.
"I don't want to make any excuses here for what happened at the Gold Cup, but I said it right away at the Gold Cup that the Gold Cup was heavily influenced by referee decisions," Klinsmann said. "That is why we had this game tonight. Now, we didn't win this game tonight because they scored the last goal two minutes before the end of the game.
"Obviously it was a bummer to see the Olympic team not win today as well," Klinsmann said. "So, you can have your own impression that you look back at the last four years what we did. What we went through. The positive moments. 2012, great year, 2013 great year, 2014 get out of group of death and now we have a tough one this summer. That is part of it and I leave it up to you guys. You can get to your conclusions, no problem."
So yes, Klinsmann is still holding on to the belief that it was referee's decisions, and not the U.S. team's own poor play, that led to its disappointing fourth place finish at the Gold Cup. Even if there's truth to the notion that Mexico wouldn't have even reached Saturday's CONCACAF Cup if not for some atrocious officiating, Saturday wasn't really the night to try and bring that back up.
Saturday's match felt like the end of an era, with an aging U.S. team featuring several players who could be at the end of their national team careers. After initially saying last week that the CONCACAF Cup could be the final national team appearance for veterans like Jermaine Jones, DaMarcus Beasley and Kyle Beckerman, Klinsmann sounded like he was not closing the door on his oldest players.
"I mean when you mention these three (Beasley, Jones, Beckerman), outstanding," Klinsmann said. "Now is not the time to talk about individual players on where they are right now with this program. But you just give them a huge compliment. There is no reason right now to cut the chord with any of these guys. It's not necessary. Our responsibility also at the same time is to give fresh blood more of an opportunity. To give fresh players like DeAndre Yedlin and Gyasi (Zardes) and others ones as well an opportunity to break in and give it an open fight for a spot. I think the team gave everything they had tonight on the field."
The reality is Klinsmann had to lean on an older lineup because he's short on young players who are really ready to take on key roles. DeAndre Yedlin and Bobby Wood came off the bench to provide an important spark, while Zardes didn't offer much of an impact as a starter.
Can Klinsmann really keep holding on to his older players? Realistically, he shouldn't. It's time to start giving younger players opportunities, even if they might not be ready for prime time. World Cup qualifying begins in November, and Klinsmann could be tempted to keep his oldest players around to help the U.S. get off to a winning start to qualifying, but it's time to start trying out new faces, even if older players like Jones, Beckerman and Beasley are still his best options.
One problem is that Klinsmann's seemingly endless job security feels a bit thin these days. Could he feel the pressure of continuing to play players heading toward their mid-30s because he's used up whatever job security he enjoyed prior to the run of disappointing results in recent months?
The most impressive thing about Saturday night for American soccer was not the play of the U.S. team, but the showing of its fans. Four years ago, Mexican fans dominated the scene at the Rose Bowl, with a ration that looked close to 90 percent Mexican fans. On Saturday, El Tri supporters were still the majority, but the U.S. contingent was significantly stronger, and it showed clearly at different times during the match.
The ratio of American fans to Mexican fans was probably closer to 70-30 Mexico, but U.S. supporters were vocal and matched their El Tri counterparts at various points in the evening. The most impressive moment came when Bobby Wood scored his extra time equalizer.
"They made a difference tonight," Matt Besler said of the U.S. fans. "There were times in the game when we needed them, and they gave us a lift. When Bobby scored that goal in extra time to tie it up, it's just a feeling that you can't describe. It was one of the best feelings I've had as a player."
There will be plenty of question marks about whether the U.S. national team has made any real progress in the past four years, but one thing was clear on Saturday. Support for the U.S. is growing at a truly impressive rate.