PASADENA, Calif.—Paul Aguilar scored a goal for the ages to end a game for the ages.
The Mexico defender, who had been a thorn in the U.S.'s left side all evening at a sold-out Rose Bowl, latched on to a high, speculative pass from Raúl Jiménez in the 118th minute and hit a thunderous volley past Brad Guzan and inside the left post. The strike lifted Mexico to a 3-2 extra time triumph in a gripping Confederations Cup playoff that will be remembered for as long as the Americans and El Tri play the sport.
With a berth in the 2017 tournament at stake, players on both teams gave their all on a sweltering Pasadena evening. Mexico took the lead twice and the U.S. recovered and equalized twice. When substitute forward Bobby Wood—the hero of the friendly wins over the Netherlands and Germany—scored in the 108th minute, it seemed as if penalty kicks would be needed to end an epic affair. But Aguilar’s moment of brilliance highlighted the genuine difference in skill between the two sides and was a game-winner befitting the occasion.
The result ended the Americans six-game unbeaten streak over Mexico. El Tri’s previous win over the U.S. also came at the Rose Bowl (the 4-2 triumph in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup final) and it was just as gut-wrenching.
Here are three thoughts from a memorable evening in Southern California:
1. This was a dark day for American soccer
It’s up for debate whether Saturday was the worst day in U.S. soccer history. But the fact that there should be a conversation about it illustrates just how miserable it was.
The heartbreaking defeat at the Rose Bowl, combined with the Under-23 national team’s 2-0 loss to Honduras in an Olympic qualifier in Sandy, Utah, puts the program in position to miss two tournaments that U.S. Soccer believes are critical for the growth of the game. The Confederations Cup and the Olympics provide vital development and marketing opportunities. The U.S. will miss the former in Russia, losing out on an opportunity to face strong teams from outside CONCACAF in official competition while getting a sneak peak at the World Cup host. And unless the U-23s defeat Canada on Tuesday and then Colombia in a March playoff, the U.S. will miss the Olympics for a second straight time.
To face both defeats on the same day is a blow. Saturday now rivals May 31, 1985, when the U.S. lost to Costa Rica, 1-0, in a home World Cup qualifier it needed only to tie and was eliminated from the 1986 World Cup. The Americans had their best chance to qualify in more than 30 years because Mexico was the host, and that match occurred about a month after the original NASL shut down.
None of this reflects well on U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who’s in charge of the senior team and as technical director, has oversight of the entire men’s program. But it also sets the U.S. back. American pros now won’t get official games against top teams until the 2018 World Cup, at the earliest.
2. Facing high stakes, U.S. searches for its comfort zone
It’s unknown whether the U.S. ever will be able to make Klinsmann’s ambition for consistently proactive, possession soccer a reality, and there have been times over the past couple of years when it seemed the manager was more interested in chasing that ambition than putting his players in position to succeed on the day.
To Klinsmann’s credit, he set those big-picture goals aside on Saturday and let his men play from as close to comfort zone as they could manage against a dangerous opponent. As a result, the playoff was much closer than many thought it might be. The American back four of DaMarcus Beasley, Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron and Fabian Johnson played together during the World Cup and after Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández’s opener, the quartet frequently managed to force El Tri into wider, less threatening areas with compactness and communication. Mexico always was going to create chances here and there thanks to its skill and advantage in possession, but this was still one of the more competent 90-minute showings by a U.S. back four this year. That, along with Mexico’s off night in the penalty area, goalkeeper Brad Guzan’s heroics and a couple of penalty kick appeals that went unanswered by referee Joel Aguilar, kept the game close.
Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley clogged the middle and quieted Gold Cup MVP Andrés Guardado, who had been battling an ankle injury and departed in the second half. Although Bradley had to sit a bit deeper than a typical player at his position in a 4-4-2, his influence was significant and he was able to link with forward Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore on occasion. Altidore came close to scoring twice. He redirected a cross from Gyasi Zardes just over the crossbar in the 40th and forced a save from Moisés Muñoz with a 51st- minute thunderbolt. Bradley was the beneficiary of a fine Dempsey entry pass in the 32nd but rolled his shot just wide of right post.
Mexico’s narrow attack occasionally left the wide areas open to the U.S. counter, and it was there that the ageless Beasley earned the first-half free kick that led to Cameron’s equalizer. It was the defender’s second U.S. goal. More speed may have helped create additional American chances, but Klinsmann was reluctant to mess with his team’s shape until Mexico started to tire. Then, Yedlin was introduced.
A reliance on intangibles, resolute defending, counterattacks and set pieces—this is the soccer Klinsmann wanted to steer the U.S. away from playing. He’s been criticized for the fact that he’s been unable to do so after four years in charge. But for a night, against a more technical and skillful opponent that dominated the ball, it was necessary. And it nearly paid off.
3. The U.S. still can’t match Mexico’s skill
As it was in the 2011 Gold Cup final and against Belgium in the World Cup’s round-of-16, so it was on Saturday. All the effort, hustle and organization a team can muster can’t match up to pure attacking skill.
Mexico’s front three of Chicharito, Jiménez and Oribe Peralta is creative and dangerous. Even when they seemed stifled, they were a threat to change the game in an instant. Even though Guardado wasn’t as influential, he’s still a better playmaker than anyone the U.S. can field, while Aguilar and left back Miguel Layún were threatening on the overlap. This is a team that often is less than the sum of its parts, just as the U.S. can be more. But there’s little doubt the skill is there and on Saturday, it made the difference. Mexico won the possession battle, 63.4%-36.6% and outshot the U.S. by a 23-14 margin. This is the sort of soccer Klinsmann hopes the U.S. will play one day.
Mexico’s opening goal was indicative. The Americans are still a ways away from pulling off a play like that in a game of this magnitude. Peralta’s brilliant and timely dummy pulled Besler out of position, and he ran into the space behind Beasley to collect a pass from Jiménez. Chicharito timed his run perfectly, shook free of Johnson and deposited Peralta’s cross past a helpless Guzan. It was surgical, instantaneous and spectacular.
Klinsmann’s U.S. wasn’t there yet. Whether he’s given the time to get there, or whether he’s even capable, is unknown. But on Saturday, the distance he still has to take his team was clear. Mexico was the deserving winner.
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