Klinsmann's early tactics fall flat, giving Mexico confidence to break Columbus curse

The shift to a 3-5-2 led to a terrible first half against Mexico, but a move back to the 4-4-2 had the U.S. headed in the right direction before Rafa Marquez's winner.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Miguel Layun's deflected shot sailed past Tim Howard in the 20th minute of Friday's World Cup qualifier between the United States and Mexico, American fans didn't know what to think. After four USA-Mexico qualifiers played in the venue now known as Mapre Stadium, and four straight 2-0 wins for the U.S., the crowd needed time to process something they had never seen.

Unfortunately for the U.S. players, they also struggled with something we hadn't seen before, a 3-5-2 formation in a match that mattered. Jurgen Klinsmann deployed his squad in the attack-minded system rather than the more traditional 4-4-2 and the result was a U.S. squad that looked nervous and unsettled. By contrast, Mexico looked confident and determined, playing much better in its own unconventional system (a 4-4-2 instead of its more familiar three-man defense) and earned an early lead in the process.

Mexico gets dream result in Columbus

The Americans fought valiantly in the second half, and pulled even on a Bobby Wood goal, but Rafa Marquez, a man who had endured so many defeats and poor performances against the U.S. through the years, delivered the killer blow to the Columbus curse that had haunted El Tri for 15 years.

Marquez's flick header in the 88th minute earned Mexico its first World Cup qualifying win on American soil since 1972 and left the U.S. in terrible shape as it heads to Costa Rica for a World Cup qualifier in a country it has never won in.

Klinsmann picked a peculiar time to trot out a new formation, but clearly the loss of standout defender Geoff Cameron to injury left him scrambling for a setup that suited his personnel. Rather than sticking with a 4-4-2, and partnering John Brooks with either Omar Gonzalez or Steve Birnbaum, he chose the drastic measure of deploying a three-man defense, with Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler playing on the flanks as wingbacks. The gambit relied heavily on the back three having impeccable spacing and movement, but it became clear early on the setup was shaky, and Mexico's tactics only made things worse for the U.S. in the first half.

Klinsmann point a bulk of the blame on the struggles in the 3-4-3 formation on his central midfielders losing the battle with their Mexican counterparts.

"The key in that system is that your center midfielders need to get into these one-against-one battles," Klinsmann said. "It's something that was not happening in the first 25-30 minutes. No Michael Bradley or no Jermaine getting into these battles and their players could roam and that gives you difficulties. That gave them chances."

Several Mexican players admitted after the match that they were surprised by the U.S. formation, which led to Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio making a tactical adjustment very early in the match to better attack the three-man defense.

"Tactically, They do some interesting things, and they space themselves out in a really good way," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said of Mexico. "So you have to have clear ideas about how you’re going to deal with that and how you’re going to close them down, because if you don’t, then it’s easy to get pulled around, and it’s easy to have guys who step out of one space trying to close something down, and that’s exactly the space they’re going to end up playing through."

Mexico deserves its share of credit for causing Klinsmann's experiment to fail. El Tri coach Juan Carlos Osorio deployed a 4-3-3 system that did well to put pressure on the U.S. midfield and spread out the American defense, putting them into uncomfortable positions on multiple occasions. Jesus Corona nearly opened the scoring with a right-footed drive, only to have Tim Howard tip it onto the post.

Howard wasn't as lucky on the game's opening goal, when Layun ran onto a loose ball 30 yards from goal and sent a speculative shot toward the far post that deflected off an American defender before beating Howard.

That goal energized an already high-flying Mexico team, and took the air out of a stadium that had been buzzing at the start of the match. The U.S. fans may have felt nervous watching their team struggle so uncharacteristically at a stadium they had enjoyed so much success in.

The second half looked more like past USA-Mexico qualifiers at this stadium, with the Americans showing more inspiration and taking control of the match. Jozy Altidore's excellent turn, run and pass to free Wood for his equalizer revived the Mapfre Stadium crowd, and the U.S. enjoyed the better of the play for a stretch after that, but a second goal never came.

Mexico could have been content to leave with a draw, but Marquez exorcised the demons of so many past defeats with one perfectly-placed header in the 89th minute to give Mexico a well-deserved victory and hand the Americans defeat in the opening match of the Hex for the second straight World Cup qualifying cycle.

Now the Americans must find a way to regroup in time to face a tough Costa Rica side in San Jose, a city that has been brutal to the U.S. through the years. One thing is clear, Klinsmann can't afford to experiment anymore. He tried it on Friday, and it failed miserably. Another such failure on Tuesday could put Klinsmann's job in serious jeopardy for the first time in his five-year stint in charge.