View From The Mezzanine: Nothing to See Here, Move Along

As I predicted, Mexico defeated the US Sunday at Azteca, quite thoroughly in fact, despite the misleading 2-1 score.

In reality, this match was over after 33 minutes and a two-goal Mexican lead, though in the early stages, it didn’t seem too great a task for the US to get a result.

After all, prior to the match, Bruce Arena had made some, shall we say, spirited comments on his team’s state of mind and their ability to finally win in Azteca. Many US players echoed his sentiments and were full of piss and vinegar heading into this match. But, like almost every other time they play at Azteca, it just wasn’t to be.

Uncharacteristic Defending : The US defense gave up two bad goals 90 seconds apart and it was game over. Sure, the US came out of the tunnel at halftime and turned it up a notch, getting a fantastic strike from midfielder Eddie Lewis, who just narrowly missed a goal moments earlier in a rare US counterattack. As it turns out, though, those were the only two quality chances for the US in the match.

Strategy Skeptics : A lot of fans were skeptical of Arena’s strategy not to attack Mexico earlier in the match, especially when the US created quality chances to start the second half. This is the beauty of hindsight. All message board fans possess this quality. Not surprisingly, though, the conditions in Mexico City took their toll, and the US mustered little after Lewis’ goal, with Mexico unfortunate not to extend the lead on several occasions. The left side of the US became a superhighway for Mexican players, with cross after cross flying into the box. Kasey Keller had to make a handful of fantastic saves just to keep the score credible.

This result does not look so good a few hours after the fact, and it won’t, in any way, stop the critics who panic after every infrequent US loss (or a less-than-convincing win). It’s been over a year since the US lost 1-0 in the Netherlands, and, nearly four years since the US last lost to a CONCACAF rival. Even with that, the web pundits still know better than Arena what to do and how to do it.

Bottom Line : It’s damn hard to win at Azteca. Exactly one CONCACAF rival has won a match there–a Costa Rican team that, at the time, was firing on all cylinders, while Mexico’s over the hill veterans (Ramon Ramirez and Luis Hernandez among them) played terrible soccer. Let’s hope this loss will re-focus Arena and his squad, and make them more humble–though no less confident–the next time they go to Azteca. While Arena is not above criticism for his tactics and personnel decisions, this match just didn’t work out as he hoped. It happens at times in World Cup qualifying. It’s one thing if the near fiasco in Panama had been repeated, but it wasn’t. The US lost to the better team Sunday. Time to move on.

Scouting Report–Guatemala : So now the attention turns to Wednesday night’s showdown in Birmingham, Alabama against Guatemala, no doubt confident after a 5-1 home pounding of Trinidad & Tobago Saturday night. We all know Carlos Ruiz and how dangerous he is. He is the heart and soul of a very tough Guatemala side. Arena and Co., though, will rebound well and take care of business. It won’t be easy, especially with DaMarcus Beasley’s suspension. Additionally, a surprisingly leaky US defense (three goals allowed in two Hex qualifiers) will have to watch for the rough and tumble Ruiz, as well as Pando Ramirez and Guatemala’s version of Conor Casey, Dwight Pezzarossi (a handful physically). The US defense will have to show improvement, and the midfield must display better cohesion; both were disappointing Sunday. With a number of US players gassed after the match, particularly captain Claudio Reyna, look for a few changes to the lineup.

Worst/Best-Case Scenario : The worst that can happen is a US loss to Guatemala and staying in fourth place. That’s unlikely, however. A US win will likely put them in a second place tie with Costa Rica (at T&T: book it, win for the Ticos), with Mexico (at Panama: most likely a TriColores win) staying atop the group. It all depends on goal differential as the US and Costa Rica both sit tied for third place heading into Wednesday’s matches and are tied on goal differential as well. One caveat, though: two road matches for the US, none yet for Costa Rica. Big advantage here to the US.

All in all, it was an expected result except to Arena and his players. Perhaps now, being humbled a bit, we can get back to doing our business on the field.

And no, that was not a reference to Landon Donovan.

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