By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 16, 2012) US Soccer Players – The United States won a game that many had already written off well before kickoff on Wednesday night at Azteca Stadium. Instead, a group of USA players decided why not now and why not us. The result was a reassessment of what was supposed to be taken for granted about a USA team on the road in Mexico City. Here are five things to take from a memorable night for National Team soccer.
A Howard Reminder
When you have former US National Team goalkeeper and now television analyst Kasey Keller playing down his own historic game against Brazil while playing up what Howard did on Wednesday, you've seen something special. This is nothing new for Howard, even in front of an unfamiliar defense. No goalkeeper in the world should be expected to always be there, but more often than not Howard manages to get into position. No team in the world should always expect their keeper to bail them out, but a generation of US defenders put the same faith in Howard that they used to have in Keller and Brad Friedel. As with seemingly everything in American soccer, questions occasionally rise about the depth of the USA goalkeeping corp. That's expected, but with Howard on his game the US can play to the same advantage as the world's elite teams. They have a goalkeeper that can make himself the difference through exceptional and consistent play.
USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann's roster choices spoke to a realization that he can't have everybody he wants for games that don't count. With the European season starting, he recognized that some senior National Team players needed to stay in Europe. That's good coaching, making sure he isn't creating a disadvantage for members of his squad. That was the first box ticked against Mexico, and Klinsmann managed to mark off most of the others. There's no downplaying the difficulty in getting a group together on Sunday and putting together a strong 90 minutes a few days later. No extended camps and without the benefit of club familiarity for the players that made it onto the field.
When To Respond
Too much can be made of a counter-attacking style when what that really amounts to is a team handing over the run of play to the opposition and hoping for the best. This was rarely the United States against Mexico. Instead, the US absorbed when necessary and learned early on that they would be able to shift the attack. The proof of concept was in the shots on goal, three for each team. Mexico tried to get the ball on frame more often, but at times that spoke to frustration as much as it did an offense in sync. Mexico's shot selection suffered even when they were creating space. Simply put, the USA did as much with their chances, taking away the Azteca advantage.
That Azteca Advantage
Make no mistake, it's still there. The next step is a World Cup Qualifying win at Azteca, and everyone in the US setup knows it. We've seen a library of interviews and videos featuring American players describing what it's like to play at Azteca, and last night's win is the beginning of changing that. It's still the toughest venue in CONCACAF, creating an environment where a home team always in contention is that much better. Part of what the USA accomplished is putting pressure on everyone else. Just like Costa Rica's win over a decade ago, now all the other teams don't have that immediate Azteca excuse. Even in a friendly setting, it's a reminder that hoping for a draw at Azteca is that Azteca advantage.
Managing the clock has become a cliché of high-level professional soccer. Teams will eat yellow cards for time wasting, risk having the game turn on a delaying tactic, and get the basics of clock management wrong. That didn't happen against Mexico. Instead, the US used good passes and the space of the field to keep opportunities at a minimum in stoppage time. There was no standing on the ball, lengthy delays in putting it back into play, or questionable decision-making late in the game. Of all the things to take from a special night at Azteca, this might be the biggest. Remember, we're still talking about a team without that veteran group of players available on the night, yet they still acted like a mature team.
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