Me: “Great game guys, we really enjoyed watching you. Great performance”
Bob: “Thanks, we appreciate your support. Thank you.”
Michael: “Thank you”
Johnny: A nod acknowledging that, though it was cool to run into him, he did not take part in last night’s match so we weren’t really talking to him
On my way home to Atlanta this afternoon I ran into US manager Bob Bradley, his son and last night’s man of the match Michael Bradley, Sacha Kljestan and Johnny Bornstein. That is how our conversation went. I noticed Bob and Michael walk into the food court, or food cul-de-sac as my brother Jared called it, as we were finishing our lunch. We weren’t sure if we wanted to bother them but as I was printing my boarding ticket Jared called me to let me know Sacha was ordering bacon, cheese and ranch covered “Gourmet” Fries and about to join the Bradleys so we decided to walk over say hi and let them know we enjoyed watching them last night. They were very gracious and receptive. It was a cool way to cap a quick soccer vacation.
Last night the US won the first game of the final round of World Cup qualifying against arch-rival Mexico 2-0 in front of a pro-US crowd that was undeterred by rain, hail and wind gusts approaching 60mph. The weather was relatively calm during the match and the pitch held up wonderfully so the soccer was decent. The first thing I notice every match I watch in-person is the speed: everything is done at pace. From the first whistle the players are flying around the field without apparent regard to their well-being or their opponent’s…which is not to say quality was lacking. Though the order of the day was safety first, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Kljestan were able to inject some style into the encounter. Bradley scored both US goals but even without the goals he would have been man of the match. He was everywhere: anytime the ball was approaching central midfielders Pavel Pardo or Leandro Augusto, Bradley was on a dead-sprint toward them, closing down the space and forcing them to play faster than they wanted. If any US player was caught forward Bradley was the man who covered. When Mexico captain Rafael Marquez went Ralph Macchio on Tim Howard and karate kicked him in the side of his leg, it was the 21-year-old Bradley who was first on the scene to let Rafa know that it was not ok. Then there were the goals. The first was a product of Bradley’s nose for the goal, his ability to be in the right place at the right time. Donovan headed a long Beasley corner back across the mouth of the goal. Oguchi Onyewu put a powerful header on frame, which Mexican goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez was only able to parry into the path of Bradley who powered it into the roof of the net with a side volley. Pandemonium ensued in the supporter’s section behind the penetrated goal where we were standing. A goal just a few minutes from half-time is a dagger to the conceding team. The second goal came in injury time at the end of the match. Late substitute Jozy Altidore played a nice ball forward to Donovan and then was hammered by Mexican defender Carlos Salcido. Donovan stepped on the ball, played square to Bradley and then got hammered by Salcido. Bradley took one touch to set up a shot and then crushed a knuckler under Sanchez to seal the win. On a message board after the game a Mexican fan wrote: “the point is that asswaldo sucks balls and should die of diarrhea”. A bit dramatic but funny nonetheless.
If there was an award for vice man of the match it would go to Frankie Hejduk. The dude is a machine. He set the tone for the US. Hejduk flies into tackles with reckless abandon. Mexico did not accomplish anything on his side of the field all night. The team and fans have a beautifully symbiotic relationship with Frankie, each getting more energized with each passing moment. When Steve Cherundolo returns to health I would love to see Hejduk move over to the left side of defense and replace Heath Pearce. Pearce was the only player who did not seem 100% dialed in last night. Late in the second half captain Carlos Bocanegra laid into Pearce for getting caught forward and not hustling back as Mexico pushed forward. Also, several times there were misunderstandings between Pearce and his teammates, particularly Beasley, in terms of where to pass or where to move to receive a pass. His lack of playing time for his club team in Germany is affecting his sharpness.
Conversely I was very impressed with Bocanegra and Onyewu. They never left an opening for Mexico. Their tackles were sure and fair and their concentration was unwavering. There were moments when Onyewu could have played more composed but it is hard to argue with a clean sheet. Obviously Howard was a big part of that as well. His save in the third minute was the most important and perhaps difficult. After some sloppy defending, Giovanni Dos Santos had a clear shot from 10 yards that Howard kept out with his chest. The organized defense is a credit to him and to the consistency of the Bocanegra-Onyewu partnership.
Higher up the field the hard work of the US midfielders also made life more difficult for Mexico. Dempsey, Beasley and Kljestan won the second balls and were committed to tracking any Mexican runners. Dempsey was excellent all night. I don’t remember him losing the ball once. He drew several fouls and forced a difficult save from Sanchez in the first half. His time playing on the right for Fulham has made him a valuable right-sided player for the US, which allows Donovan to play closer to goal. Kljestan had an up and down night. His giveaway in the second half that sprung a Mexican counter could’ve been devastating. He lost possession a bit too easily because he was not playing as quickly as the game required. On the positive side he spread the ball around well and kept the Mexicans on their heels with incisive, creative playing and movement. Beasley had a very good first half, but he started fading early in the second half and should have been substituted. He may be lacking match fitness due to a lack of playing time at Rangers. In the first half he caused trouble inside, outside, left and right. His speed is so impressive and clearly worried the Mexicans. Their first tactic against Beasley and Donovan seems to be to foul.
Donovan drew a lot of attention from the Mexicans. Every time he was near the ball at least two Mexicans went to defend him. The attention the Mexicans paid to Donovan allowed other players like Beasley and Dempsey to be more involved. Donovan’s speed is also incredible and his touches were on. Surprisingly he did not link up with Ching as well as he has in the past. More often than not Ching would receive the ball and lay it off to a midfielder. Much of the play went through Ching: he is a battler. He took quite a bit of abuse though the Guatemalan referee did not always notice; Ching drew the foul 20 yards from goal that Donovan nearly converted. I’m not convinced that playing with the point-forward is the best option for an increasingly more fluid and creative team, but you can’t argue with results.
Bob Bradley waited until the 83rd minute to make a change. Ricardo Clark came on for Kljestan and then Altidore came on for Ching. Like Kljestan, Clark was not prepared for the pace of the game and he lost the ball on multiple occasions due to being indecisive. Altidore was instrumental in the second goal but had too little time to do much else. He was the first to the supporter’s section at the final whistle. Altidore, Donovan, Hejduk and a few others threw their jerseys to the supporters. Hejduk looked like he could play another 90 minutes. He was going nuts cheering with the crowd and enjoying the moment. To be a part of another 2-0 victory over Mexico was an awesome experience. Being with my brothers and dad at their first cap made it especially enjoyable. Next up for the Americans are matches March 28 in El Salvador and April 1 in Nashville against Trinidad & Tobago. See you in Nashville.