A monthly column about the State of U.S. Soccer that takes a hard look at everything from the performance of the U.S. National Teams to pro soccer in the good ‘ole U-S-of-A . If you’re looking for a viewpoint that you won’t see in a generic, nuts-and-bolts U.S. Soccer press release, you’ve come to the right place.
With the U.S. Men’s National Team set to face Mexico in two weeks for the first soccer match at Houston’s Reliant Stadium and the first match between the two sides since the USA’s 2-0 win in Korea, the Armchair Midfielder can’t help but look back and smile in remembering that oh-so-wonderful day.
It was 10 months ago, but it seems like just yesterday. The U.S. Men’s National Team had somehow found its way out of a difficult opening round at the 2002 World Cup. Their Round of 16 opponent? Only the team’s most revered rival, its arch nemesis, its not-so-friendly neighbor. The match-up on June 17, 2002 in Jeonju, Korea would be the most important match in the 70 years of competition between the next-door nations.
While both teams seemed pleased about their second round opponent in public and in the press due to familiarity alone, questions were abound about how the next meeting in a long, long history of border battles would shake out. Mexican players were wondering if they could break their recent stretch of bad luck in the series (read: four losses in the last five meetings) and return to the days when they dominated the U.S. On the other hand, U.S. players wondered if they could defeat Mexico when it counts, rather than just the recent string of friendlies and World Cup qualifiers.
Finally, the big day came. After going with the traditional 4-4-2 for the team’s first three matches, Bruce instead threw out a 3-5-2 at Mexico coach Javier Aguirre, partly in response to the injury to Jeff Agoos and yellow card suspension of Frankie Hejduk coming out of the 3-1 loss to Poland in Game 3. To compensate for the rarity of playing with only three in the back (Berhalter, Pope and Sanneh), Arena loaded the central midfield with three of the team’s best performers of the tournament. Pablo Mastroeni, who rose to the challenge in the 3-2 stunner over Portugal but didn’t appear in the two games that followed, was added to clog the Mexican attack, while John O’Brien moved into the role of linking defense and offense and Landon Donovan stayed at his productive playmaking role. A beat-up DaMarcus Beasley meant a start for Eddie Lewis on the left flank, while captain and typical field general Claudio Reyna took a turn roaming the right flank in place of an injured Earnie Stewart. Running alongside McBride would be Josh Wolff, who entered the match with two goals in three career matches against Mexico. The result of all this rotating and reconfiguring? A team built to shut down a potent attack and counter-attack to glory.
The Big Bang:
After feeling each other out and playing cautiously over the first three or four minutes, Mexico had a chance that was a little close for comfort, as a ball was served into the box that forward Jared Borgetti headed on goal. Friedel made the point-blank save and the rebound was kicked out, but it was clear from the beginning that Mexico was going to be the aggressor. Not a minute later, Mexico had another great opportunity, with Braulio Luna getting sprung on the right wing, but his cross went right into the chest of Berhalter and out for a corner kick.
With Mexico controlling possession in the early going, the U.S. appeared to be flustered, and it showed when O’Brien slid through a tackle and cleated Jared Borgetti on the left calf about 35 yards from the goal. It was a haphazard tackle that could’ve easily drawn a costly card and quickly brought Bruce Arena storming off the bench to roar “John! Cool it!!” Luckily, JO’B avoided any punishment, but it wasn’t looking good for the Americans.
But then in a flash, it was USA 1-Mexico 0, as the U.S. struck gold on its first foray into the opposing side of the field. The play started when McBride held off a Mexican defender and picked up a foul 40 yards from goal, where he played a quick restart to Reyna, who was already streaking down the right flank. With Mexico midfielder Ramon Morales already beat, the U.S. captain made a mad dash to the endline before dropping a square pass to Josh Wolff, who had drawn two defenders at the edge of the six-yard box. Wolff deftly dropped the ball back to McBride, who was lurking in the middle of the box, where he drew back his right leg and crushed his shot through three lunging defenders and a sliding ‘keeper. After setting the tone over the game’s first seven minutes, Mexico was now down 1-0 in just a matter of seconds.
The Next 20:
Having given up a critical goal in just the 8th minute of what was to be a long, intense fight, Mexico was suddenly a bit more cautious. The U.S. defense seized the opportunity and started shutting down the middle of the field – more specifically the 10 yards outside the penalty box. But while the U.S. was frustrating the Mexican attack, they weren’t generating much offense of their own. For the time being, the U.S. was content just to absorb their advances. Everyone took a deep breath in the 14th minute when Blanco found himself with space about 25 yards out and launched a rocket at Friedel, but the man with the enormous wingspan dove to his right and pushed it away.
Then came an odd, but telling chess move, as Aguirre chose to insert dangerous but inconsistent Luis Hernandez for Morales in the 28th minute. There was no injury. There was no cramping. This was about tactics, and Aguirre’s original plan obviously wasn’t working. But instead of giving it an entire half to materialize, he panicked and made a questionable decision that hurt the team throughout the remainder of the match. It was no coincidence that Hernandez’s arrival in the game signaled a turning point for the U.S. in both momentum and possession. While the cameras couldn’t show it, Bruce had to be smiling on the inside when the bleach-blonde striker headed to the fourth official’s table. He had won the first 30 minutes.
The U.S. almost gave it all away on a series of blunders in the 35th minute, beginning when Eddie Pope put a poor clearance right at the feet of Blanco, who quickly flared a ball out to Borgetti on his left. Borgetti’s shot was blocked by Sanneh, and the deflection was sent spinning high and floated in on goal. With a Mexican player jockeying with him for position as the ball dropped, Friedel stretched to punch the ball out with both fists, but again the ball fell perfectly to Blanco. Perhaps surprised by his good fortune, Blanco took a poor touch with his left foot and could only direct a weak shot at the U.S. keeper, who wiped it across the goal mouth and then covered the post as Hernandez pounced on the rebound and slammed a shot into the outside netting.
Mexico’s first true sign of frustration came on Friedel’s ensuing goal kick, when Manuel Vidrio went Bruce Lee on Eddie Lewis with a flying kick to the ribs as they both went airborne to win the ball. Much to the disagreement of a frantic, finger-waving Aguirre, Vidrio was shown yellow in the 37th minute. The U.S. created its second dangerous scoring chance of the first half on the resulting free kick, as Berhalter found McBride at the top of the box, where he headed across to Donovan. Donovan flicked his header into the path of Wolff, who beat the offside trap only to crank his left-footed shot off the left knee of Mexican goalkeeper Oscar Perez.
The U.S. escaped danger again when Blanco bent a short cross to an unmarked Borgetti, who snapped a header wide of the goal just a split-second before a lunging Friedel delivered what looked like a deadly right cross to the side of the forward’s head. Alas, Borgetti and Hernandez were both ruled offside and replays showed that Friedel’s punch was nothing but a “love tap.”
Minutes later, the first half came to an abrupt end, with both teams having exchanged hard fouls, stern gazes and a pair of cautions. While the halftime stats showed that Mexico had owned a whopping 70% of the possession, the scoreboard told a much different story.
When the second half began, Aguirre had made his second of three substitutions, replacing the hot-headed Vidrio with Sigifredo Mercado. But that was the only change between the 45th minute and the 46th, as the tone of the match picked right back up where it left off, with Mexico already showing further frustration in the opening seconds. After Mastroeni committed a foul and promptly grabbed the ball up as is customary of any defender wanting to give his team extra time to get set, Hernandez leaped at him and wrestled the ball away like it was the last 10 seconds of the last minute of stoppage time. Sure Mastroeni was rung up for his coy act of keep-away, but it was very clear then and there that the Americans were getting under the skin of the possibly over-confident Mexicans.
Friedel almost got caught off his line in the 52nd minute in what was a rare moment of anxiety from the red-hot ‘keeper. Luna sent a perfect free kick from the right side that the 6’4” giant was barely able to backtrack and push away from goal, tipping it off the top of the cross bar and out for a corner. Mexico continued to put pressure on the U.S., who struggled to survive a barrage of four corner kicks in a span of three minutes.
Then came the now infamous “Hand of O’Brien,” of which a bitter Aguirre and Mexican fans are undoubtedly still whining about. While they might have had a legitimate claim, it was obvious that O’Brien fisting of the ball as he jumped to battle Blanco in the penalty box was unintentional, and the referee made the right call.
In the 59th minute, the U.S. got a burst of energy as Earnie Stewart entered the field in place of a winded Wolffie, but the Mexican attack was still coming in waves in the form of dangerous free kicks after fouls from about 25 yards out. It looked like only a matter of minutes before they were going to break through the cracking U.S. defense. Then of course, the bottom dropped out.
In a scene almost identical to the first-half strike, the U.S. used a quick and precise counter-attack to bring the Mexicans to their knees. And just like the game winner, it came on their first look at the goal in the entire half. After getting a ball from Reyna on the U.S. half of the field, O’Brien started the chain of events by spraying a bouncing ball out to Eddie Lewis on the left flank. Lewis beat his man to the ball, took a touch toward the endline and served a perfect cross to the back post, where Donovan had slid behind Gerardo Torrado. Barely having to leave his feet, the 20-year-old almost effortlessly headed it past Mexican ‘keeper Oscar Perez to give the U.S. an all-important insurance goal in the 65th minute. When the 20-year-old wunderkind tore his jersey off in jubilation, he might as well have been tearing the heart out of an entire nation.
Killing the clock:
Now facing a difficult 2-0 deficit with just 25 minutes left in regulation, the Mexican players were reeling, which manifested in a series of momentary lapses of reason. After suffering a hard foul from Mastroeni, Blanco became so enraged that he was practically foaming at the mouth as he got in Pablo’s face and unleashed a torrent of obscenities. At the other end of the field, a dazed Perez misplayed a harmless back pass so poorly that it almost ended up in his own goal, instead rolling out for a corner kick.
Although they had a fair number of chances to pull a goal back in the final quarter of the match, the last 20 minutes clearly belonged to the Americans, whose confidence was catapulted somewhere toward Japan with the game-clinching goal. By the time Aguirre made his third and final substitution, bringing on the ancient Alberto Garcia Aspe for Torrado in the 78th minute, the game was over. Just to be sure, Bruce quickly countered with equal experience, replacing McBride with Cobi Jones, who had proved effective in killing clock in the 3-2 stunner over Portugal and was being called on to do so again.
Predictably, Cobi’s presence on the field and his effective time-consuming tactics in the offensive third set the Mexicans off, who at this point were clearly a beaten team bent on taking out their anger on the people that they were convinced had stole their spot in the quarterfinals. Whether stemming from the day’s turn of events or a general dislike of the U.S. veteran who has been a thorn in their side for the last 10 years, Jones became an immediate target for their misplaced aggression. Less than 30 seconds after trotting onto the field, he was laid out and then intentionally walked over in a show of disrespect by Luna. Moments later came Aspe’s hard-charging, two-footed tackle as Jones received the ball at the touchline, which drew an immediate caution. Next in line for vicious fouls were Donovan and O’Brien, who took them like men and sprung back to their feet. But it became both sad and ridiculous when normally calm and collected captain Rafael Marquez decided to commit a hat trick of fouls as Jones rose to win a header, rocking him with a foot to the lower back, an elbow to the ribs and a nasty head-butt in alarming succession. Another tangle between Blanco and Mastroeni, in which the perplexed playmaker was driven to cock his arm back and actually holding back a punch while Pablo remained on the ground, was a microcosm of the final 15 minutes.
But none of that mattered when the final whistle was blown. What mattered was that the U.S. got the best of its biggest rival in the biggest game in the teams’ 70-year history on the biggest stage in the world.
Table of Contents
1) Armchair Midfielder (Looking Back at June 17, 2002)
2) In Threes (w/ WNT goalkeeper Siri Mullinix)
3) Music by Mastroeni (w/ MNT midfielder Pablo Mastroeni)
4) Queries and Anecdotes (w/ WNT forward Tiffeny Milbrett)
5) Mark That Calendar (MNT vs. Mexico – May 8)
6) Superstar!!! (w/ U-23 MNT forward Edson Buddle)
7) FAN Point/Counterpoint (Who will win 2003 WUSA MVP?)
8) "You Don't Know Jack (Marshall)" (USA-Mexico Trivia)
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