COLUMBUS, Ohio -- When history repeats itself, it's usually because the participants have forgotten the past. But when it comes to World Cup qualifiers between the United States Mexico, the script is well-known to the participants, at least when the game is on American soil: The U.S. walks off the field with a 2-0 victory, while Mexico leaves muttering to themselves. And on Wednesday, just like in 2001 and 2005, the U.S. earned a richly satisfying 2-0 win, courtesy of Michael Bradley's two goals.
Of course, there were some other similarities to past encounters. Once again, the U.S. conjured up a solid team performance that was greater than the sum of the individual parts. Mexico, yet again, contrived to squander some gilt-edged chances that they would score on if the sequence were repeated 99 more times.
But if there was one glaring difference between Wednesday's game and past matches at Crew Stadium, it was the defensive approach adopted by the Americans. Rather than content themselves with soaking up pressure in their own half, the U.S. harassed and harried Mexico in their own end, and that proved to be a springboard for their success. Once they won the ball in midfield, the U.S. effectively connected their passes and controlled the tempo.
The Americans' tactic no doubt was aided in the first half by the gale force winds at their back. This resulted in Mexico's resorting to long balls that were easily gobbled up by the U.S. defense, allowing the hosts to keep the ball in "El Tri's" half. But regardless of which way the wind was blowing, the Yanks made sure they got in the face of Mexico.
"That was our mindset," manager Bob Bradley said about his team's midfield pressure. "Tonight, we needed to impose our game on them, and in particular make it very hard for Pavel Pardo. I think he's a key player on their team, the guy in the midfield who gets other people involved.
We needed to work hard, be aggressive and make it hard for him so we would have that edge."
The midfield's defensive effort was led by Michael Bradley, who played like a rabid, snarling Doberman on defense, and was opportunistic in attack, knocking home a rebound from Oguchi Onyewu's header in the 43rd minute, then sealing matters with a 30-yard dart two minutes into second-half stoppage time.
"People forget that [Michael] Bradley does a lot of hard work and gets in lanes and that kind of stuff," said U.S. forward Landon Donovan. "But he's dangerous going forward. He's a good, smart player, and obviously on set pieces we're always going to be dangerous. He's got a good nose for the goal."
Bradley had plenty of help, however. Sacha Kljestan, in a sign of how his game continues to mature, was Bradley's partner in crime in the harassment department, and both DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey did their bit by chasing back. These contributions proved critical as the normally solid central defensive pairing of Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra had some worrying moments, a fact noted by the U.S. captain.
"Me and [Onyewu] were not connected all the time tonight," Bocanegra said. "The defense can always improve, but I think the midfield won the game for us tonight."
It should be noted that the U.S. also received their usual quota of luck, especially during an otherworldly sequence in the 64th minute. After Pardo's free kick found Giovani Dos Santos at the far post, Dos Santos not only hit his initial effort across the face of goal but then contrived to knock the return feed wide of goal while perched about a foot from the goal line. The sequence was then finished off with Tim Howard claiming a high ball as Mexico's Rafael Marquez crashed into him with a studs-up challenge. Marquez was shown a straight red card for his troubles, providing him with a nice bookend to the ejection he received against the U.S. at the 2002 World Cup.
Oddly, the U.S. appeared to lose their tenacious edge after the sending off, and even playing with 10 men, Mexico created some solid chances. Bocanegra cleared a dangerous header away from goal, and Mexico's Carlos Ochoa had fired just wide eight minutes earlier.
As is his custom, this fact was noted by the elder Bradley, who no doubt will remind his players about the danger of taking their foot off the pedal.
"When we had the lead and were up a man, there's a tendency by some guys to think that the game is over," Bradley said. "It's just at that moment that they start doing the things they like to do and cheat on the game a little bit, as opposed to
having the killer instinct. Here's goal No. 2, here's goal No. 3, thank you, done."
As with previous encounters, passions ran high after the match, with U.S. defender Frankie Hejduk receiving a slap to the face from an unnamed Mexican official. Hejduk was unscarred and unfazed after the match, calling the altercation "a love tap."
But although the U.S. basked in the afterglow of their win, a new challenge looms on the horizon, namely winning a game for the first time in Mexico's Estadio Azteca.
"We look forward to that challenge," Bradley said of winning in Mexico. "That's on our list of things to do."
Player ratings: (1-10)
Tim Howard, 7 -- Did well to deny Dos Santos early, although he was a bit too casual with a backpass. Was otherwise solid. A yellow card he earned in the match means he's suspended for the next game, at El Salvador.
Heath Pearce, 5 -- Withstood some early tests from Dos Santos and got forward to good effect, but he faded a bit in the second half.
Carlos Bocanegra, 5 -- Not quite up to his usual standard, but was on hand with some vital tackles when it mattered, including a clearance of a header that threatened the U.S. goal in the 79th minute.
Oguchi Onyewu, 5 -- An inconsistent performance, with some shaky clearances but then some key tackles. That said, it was his header that led to the go-ahead goal.
Frankie Hejduk, 6 -- Was solid in defense and was a threat going forward.
DaMarcus Beasley, 6 -- You'd barely know he's been riding the bench for his club. Was constantly involved in the attack and showed more willingness to take guys on. Also provided his usual tenacity on the defensive end.
|U.S. men's schedule
|U.S. vs. El Salvador
San Salvador, El Salvador
Michael Bradley, 9 -- An immense performance. Was everywhere in midfield, continually broke up plays and scored a typically scrappy goal to put the U.S. up. His bomb from 30 yards sealed matters, although it was a shot that should have been a routine save for the Mexican keeper.
Sacha Kljestan, 5 -- Looked a little nervous early on, but improved as the game progressed, especially on the defensive end.
Clint Dempsey, 6 -- Should have done better with a clear first-half chance that was saved, but did plenty to get involved in the attack. His willingness to track back helped the U.S. midfield carry the day.
Landon Donovan, 6 -- Was more lethal with his head than his feet, as he twice set up teammates with headers back across goal. His decision-making with the ball at his feet could have been better, but he did set up Bradley for the clincher.
Brian Ching, 6 -- Provided a good physical presence up top, winning free kicks and connecting with his teammates.
Jozy Altidore, 4 -- The U.S. lost something when he entered the game, as he didn't keep the ball as well as he should have. His involvement in the buildup to the second goal had an element of luck about it, as the ball was tackled away right to Donovan.
Ricardo Clark, 4 -- The game appeared to be too fast for the Houston midfielder, as he often dawdled on the ball too long.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at email@example.com.
|U.S. vs. Mexico
|Last five home World Cup qualifiers
Feb. 11, 2009 -- W, 2-0, Columbus, Ohio
Sept. 3, 2005 -- W, 2-0, Columbus, Ohio
Feb. 28, 2001 -- W, 2-0, Columbus, Ohio
April 20, 1997 -- T, 2-2, Foxborough, Mass.
Nov. 23, 1980 -- W, 2-1, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.