PASADENA, Calif.—Jurgen Klinsmann stepped off the dais in the large, dark press conference room on the Rose Bowl’s ground floor and was met at the door by his boss, Sunil Gulati. The U.S. Soccer Federation president hired Klinsmann in 2011 to overhaul the men’s national team program and, following Saturday night’s 3-2 overtime loss to Mexico, Gulati may remain one of the dwindling number of people who think the World Cup-winning striker can pull it off.
Gulati gave Klinsmann a sympathetic and reassuring pat on the back. His team had fought through the stifling Rose Bowl heat and two deficits to take Mexico to within a couple minutes of a shootout in Saturday’s gripping Confederations Cup playoff. The U.S. had displayed all the grit, hustle and resilience that have been its trademarks for so long. On many occasions, those qualities have made the difference against a Mexican team that can lack certain intangibles or somehow manages to field a squad that’s less than the sum of its parts. Klinsmann was 3-0-3 against El Tri as U.S. manager.
But on Saturday, those American attributes weren’t enough. Mexico was better. El Tri dictated the play, put the U.S. under pressure throughout the match and won deservedly thanks in part to two stunning goals that symbolized that difference in attacking quality between the two sides.
“We didn’t really have a hold of the game. We defended for long stretches,” forward Jozy Altidore said. “We just weren’t able to keep hold of the ball. They were able to dictate the game and just had us chasing, playing very deep … It’s difficult to play a team like that, playing that way for 120 minutes.”
Klinsmann has said since he was appointed that he wants his team to be the one that puts an opponent on its heels. That hasn’t been happening. Sometimes, like at the 2014 World Cup, the U.S. can chase a game but still find a way to get a good result. That’s been the national team’s hallmark. But other times, like at this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup or on Saturday, the Americans fell short. Some may believe it’s because of Klinsmann. Others, like Gulati, will argue that an inability to routinely win the possession battle and create more chances against a quality opponent—or the lack of consistent, game-breaking technical skill—is a problem endemic to American soccer. It’s the very reason Klinsmann was hired.
Klinsmann got the lineup right on Saturday and his team came ever so close. The effort was immense and the organization better than it’s been in recent outings. But as Altidore hinted, playing on your heels for most of 120 minutes is a sign that the other team is a bit more comfortable with the ball. And when the other team is more comfortable, it scores goals like Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández’s opener and Paul Aguilar’s late game-winner.
“We knew that they were coming … so we said, ‘Let’s be as compact as possible there.’ But what we didn’t do well in the second half was simply to keep the ball,” Klinsmann said. “We ran a lot after we won a lot of balls and then, boom, we couldn’t combine and we couldn’t calm the game down enough … We should have done better.”
He said that Saturday, but could’ve said it after a host of other U.S. games. The Americans have hung in with some very tough teams during recent friendlies and found ways to get good results. But in official competition, whether it’s against Belgium and Ghana or Haiti and Honduras, it’s had trouble combining and creating.
In big games, where margins are so frequently thin, having a bit more of the ball or fielding a player with the skill to make a brilliant play—especially when fatigued—can make the difference. Mexico has those players. The front three of Chicharito, Oribe Peralta and Raúl Jiménez gave the U.S. fits on Saturday. Playmaker Andrés Guardado had difficulty taking hold of the game, but as Michael Bradley explained, the Mexicans’ pressure gave others the ability to join the attack and create problems. Aguilar, who scored the winner, is El Tri’s right back.
“We ended up getting pinned back a little bit,” the U.S. captain said. “Peralta, Jiménez and Chicharito were all mobile and played in a central area, and that forced our four defenders inside pretty narrow and it meant that our outside midfielders spent a lot of time in the back line covering wide areas. And it meant that we had no presence in the midfield in wide areas. Over the course of the game, that means they’re able to pin us back.”
He said there were moments where the U.S. was able to relieve some of that pressure and create, and he was right. A surge up the left from DaMarcus Beasley resulted in the Bradley free kick that led to Geoff Cameron’s early equalizer. Bradley had his own good look at goal in the 32nd minute and Jozy Altidore came close a few minutes later. But U.S. forays were too few and far between.
“We can talk about all this stuff but this is football. This is what goes on,” Bradley said. “You play 118 minutes and it’s 2-2 and in the end, Aguilar scores a great goal–a great goal off a broken set piece! When you talk about the margins, this is it.”
Aguilar’s goal was a stunning full volley that followed a high, overhead ball from Jiménez. It was a gorgeous piece of skill—one that Mexico managed and the U.S. didn’t. And the combination play that led to El Tri’s 10th-minute opener—the smart dummy run from Peralta, the delicate, perfectly-weighted heel pass from Jiménez, the alert run from Chicharito and then the finish—it’s the sort of stuff the U.S. may execute on the training ground but which we don’t see often in games. When it’s in sync, Mexico thrives on that sort of fluid, quick attacking movement. The U.S. under Klinsmann has promised the same but doesn’t often deliver.
“I think our players can score those goals like the third one on a God-given day,” Klinsmann said. “Clint Dempsey can do something like that or even Jozy. But they scored that one. I don’t think there’s a difference [between the teams’ skill level] in any way. But they scored it.”
They did, and it was the difference. This game and a priceless ticket to the 2017 Confederations Cup was decided by the kind of soccer skill that the U.S. hasn’t managed to display often under Klinsmann. The U.S. has largely been either a reactive team hoping to weather the storm, counter, and finish a high percentage of its scoring chances, or one that allows a less-talented opponent to stay around because of an inability to exert and maintain dominance. If not for those famous intangibles, the team's results might be worse.
“It was a great final,” Bradley said. “It had a little bit of everything—some drama, some great goals. Give credit to them. In the 118th minute they score a great goal and that’s it in the end. That’s the difference. Obviously we can talk about how things went over the course of the game but like I said, in a final like that, it’s never going to go perfectly. I still thought that we were able to deal with things for the most part in a pretty solid way and again, it’s disappointing that we got to that point in the game and the difference is a great goal.”
It’s worth noting that the U.S. pulled level in the 108th minute on a pretty nice goal. Bradley fed reserve midfield DeAndre Yedlin on the left, and the fleet 22-year-old confidently took the space in front of him before sending a pass through the El Tri back four into the path of 22-year-old striker Bobby Wood. It was a smart run toward the post, and the Honolulu native dispatched a shot with his first touch past goalkeeper Moisés Muñoz.
Yedlin lit up the World Cup with his daring on the flank and has started to earn minutes at Sunderland. Wood scored the game-winners in the June friendlies in the Netherlands and Germany and may be ready to break through permanently with the U.S. Are they the next Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey? Can they be better? Will the U.S. produce and field players who can put world-class opponents on their heels beyond those isolated moments? Can Klinsmann make it happen?
Gulati seems to believe so. And leaving the Rose Bowl late Saturday night, goalkeeper Brad Guzan said he and his teammates must continue to believe as well.
“We have to. We can’t look back,” he said. “You can’t change the past. You can’t dwell on results that haven’t gone your way. You have to find a way to move forward. It’s our job as players, along with the staff, along with everyone involved with this, to keep pushing each other and keep fighting when we represent our country. That’s what it’s about.”