Five things to learn from the U.S.-Mexico clash
With the latest installment of the USA-Mexico rivalry now a memory, and the next meeting between the CONCACAF powers not likely to take place until next year, we can start to think about what we really learned from Wednesday night's 2-2 tie.
The match offered plenty for U.S. coach Bob Bradley to consider as he continues shaping his squad heading toward World Cup qualifying this summer, and what can get lost in the wake of the Mexico match is that it was still just a friendly. Yes, the rivalry is the most important for either team, but if you spend too much time dwelling on the result then you will miss the chance to understand what we really learned from Wednesday night's match.
Here are five things you should have taken away from USA-Mexico:
1. The Onyewu-Bocanegra center back tandem is just fine.
It may seem odd to credit two center backs after a game in which two goals were allowed, but Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra deserve their due for a solid effort against a dangerous Mexican attack. Onyewu and Bocanegra have received their fair share of criticism, but Bradley has stuck with this duo since taking over and they showed why on Wednesday.
Aside from Onyewu's goal, he and Bocanegra did well to cover up for the horrendous play of fullbacks Drew Moor and Ramiro Corrales. Bocanegra's showing was particularly impressive considering he hasn't been playing for Fulham recently.
2. Altidore is ready for primetime
He is only 18 but Jozy Altidore has officially entered the national team fast lane after his goal on Wednesday. A physically imposing force, Altidore was a handful for Mexican captain Rafael Marquez all night and he made an impact despite a dearth of quality service. He does need to work on providing more defensive pressure from the forward position, and his touch could be a bit softer, but Altidore is already good enough to terrorize any defense in CONCACAF.
What remains to be seen is whether Altidore and Dempsey are an effective forward tandem. Bradley might want to consider dropping Dempsey into a central midfield role, with Altidore partnering with someone like Eddie Johnson or Brian Ching. What does seem clear is that Altidore is ready to be a starting national team forward.
3. Mexico's team was more match-fit
This isn't something to have learned but rather something that must be considered. You can say this is from the Hugo Sanchez school of excuse making but the fact remains that only four U.S. team starters on Wednesday night are currently in season and starting for their clubs (Tim Howard, Oguchi Onyewu, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey). Conversely, all of Mexico's starters are in-season and starting for their respective clubs.
This should explain, at least on some level, why Mexico dominated play early and late on Wednesday. The Mexicans set a blistering pace early on that only a few Americans could keep up with. This is a problem considering the teams could meet around this same time next year, but not as much of an issue once World Cup qualifying begins in June.
What can the United States do to combat this? Having more players be in Europe and starting regularly would help. Benny Feilhaber and Heath Pearce are two players who come to mind as players who could have made a big difference on Wednesday if they were playing for their clubs more (or at all actually).
4. American fullback options are thin after the top four
U.S. fans can take comfort in knowing that Ramiro Corrales and Drew Moor are third to fourth options at fullback (at best) for the national team, but that didn't make them any less painful to watch on Wednesday. Moor was beaten badly on both Mexico goals, but was still the better of the two fullbacks (he gets credit for his pin-point cross on Altidore's goal.) Thankfully for U.S. fans, veteran Steve Cherundolo is still the first option at right back, with Frankie Hejduk and Jonathan Spector also better options than Moor.
Corrales didn't make a mistake that led to a goal but his 90 minutes was terrible in every sense of the word. He was too slow, too timid and too inexperienced on the international level to deal with Mexico's attackers, leaving Mexico head coach Hugo Sanchez to direct his attack directly at Corrales in the first half. Just how out of form or out of shape is Heath Pearce that Bob Bradley looked at Corrales in training and decided that he should get the call? If Pearce has really regressed that much (and basically being cast out at Hansa Rostock hasn't helped) then the U.S. options at left back really are thin, even with a healthy Jonathan Bornstein.
5. The team's central midfielders need to grow up quickly
The midfield quartet of Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu and Benny Feilhaber is loaded with promise but Wednesday night's match served to remind us that none of them is ready just yet to provide the stabilizing presence that a player like Pavel Pardo provides for Mexico and Claudio Reyna used to provide the United States.
Bradley didn't make the impact expected of a player who has scored nine goals in nine matches for Heerenveen, but he deserves credit for helping weather the early storm from Mexico by covering so much ground and helping support a U.S. left side that played terribly. Clark showed some good signs but also looked like a player in just his second competitive match in three months.
Whether it is Bradley, Clark, Feilhaber or Edu, the Americans need a player or players who understand the concept of keeping possession, of holding up the ball to organize the attack, rather than rushing passes like they're playing Hot Potato rather than soccer.
With World Cup qualifying still four months away, and a series of tough international friendlies slated for the weeks before qualifying begins, Bob Bradley will have plenty of time to address some of the key issues raised on Wednesday. In the meantime, here is a look at what the U.S. team's best starting lineup is, when all players are healthy:
GK -- Tim Howard, D -- Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Jonathan Bornstein, Steve Cherundolo, M -- DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber, Landon Donovan, F -- Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore.
Beasley's recovering from major knee surgery leaves his availability in doubt this summer, which is a cause for concern considering how thoroughly ineffective Bobby Convey was against Mexico. Finding effective alternatives on the left wing and at left back will be a priority for U.S. coach Bob Bradley in the coming months. The rest of the issues raised by Wednesday's performance are ones that should be addressed with more matches and hopefully tougher matches this summer as a relatively young national team continues to mature.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.