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Bruce Arena gets U.S. tactics spot-on as Mexico frustrated in WCQ draw

MEXICO CITY -- Bruce Arena is a manager who isn't afraid to throw out a few tactical surprises.

Sometimes they've worked, like when he trotted out a 3-5-2 formation in the 2-0 win over Mexico at the 2002 World Cup. In other moments they've backfired, like when he opted for a 4-5-1 formation and saw his team overrun in a 2-1 World Cup qualifying defeat to Mexico at the Estadio Azteca in 2005.

Twelve years later, Arena and the U.S. found themselves going up against the same opponent at the same venue. On this occasion there can be no doubt that he got his tactics spot on in the 1-1 draw. He sent out what he called a 3-4-3 -- though it looked more like a 5-4-1 when the team was defending, which was most of the game -- and made seven changes to the XI that beat Trinidad & Tobago 2-0 on Thursday.

It was easy to be skeptical of the move, as it clearly made it difficult for wing-backs DeAndre Yedlin and DaMarcus Beasley to get into the attack. Without question, the U.S. saw very little of the ball: According to ESPN Stats & Information, the U.S. had just 27.3 percent of possession.

There were anxious moments, but defensively the U.S. held firm. After Michael Bradley scored one of the most spectacular U.S. goals ever when his dart from over 30 yards sailed over Mexico goalkeeper Memo Ochoa and just under the crossbar in the sixth minute Mexico's equaliser came on a counterattack when Carlos Vela got past an isolated Beasley and fired past Brad Guzan.

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It appeared as though a communication breakdown between Kellyn Acosta and Geoff Cameron, who were both drawn to Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, resulted in no one offering cover for Beasley. Otherwise the U.S. defense was solid and provided a foundation to pick up a valuable result.

The three-man backline of Omar Gonzalez, Cameron and Tim Ream was outstanding. Cameron in particular delivered some critical tackles in some dicey areas of the field. Acosta came in and provided plenty of central midfield support to Bradley. Beasley and Yedlin put in solid shifts in the wing-back positions.

The U.S. still managed to carve out a few quality changes. Bradley hit the post in the second half with another long-range effort; Christian Pulisic went on a mazy run and had a shot teed up only to miss the target. Mexico had its chances as well, Hector Herrera's free kick hit the woodwork and Javier Aquino will rue a late opportunity at the far post that he fanned on.

Overall, the U.S. stuck with the plan, and came out with a valuable point. How valuable was it? Cameron initially called the result "a massive win for us," before correcting himself, epitomizing both its importance in the standings as well as the psychological boost it will provide.

"I think today defensively we were fantastic," added Cameron, who on a team full of heroes could make a strong case to win the man of the match award. "We just allowed them to get some crosses in the box, and we had more numbers in there, and cleared them out. It's a learning experience for us as a team. We dealt with a lot of pressure. Everybody stepped up."

There invariably will be comparisons between what Arena did on Sunday and what his predecessor Jurgen Klinsmann did in November. On that chilly night in Columbus, Klinsmann started a World Cup qualifier in what he also called a 3-4-3 against this same Mexico team and watched it torn to shreds for about 25 minutes. After discussion with his players, Klinsmann reverted to a 4-4-2, but damage had already been done in what eventually became 2-1 defeat.

The circumstances in this case were different. The November match was at home, where the U.S. would be expected to carry at least some of the play. Sunday's match was at the Estadio Azteca, where Mexico typically owns the ball, and the U.S. was under no obligation to entertain.

The biggest difference of all was that Arena's team was better prepared, and that was a function of time. Klinsmann decided that two days of practice was enough to implement the system against the region's toughest opponent. Contrast that to Arena, who had two weeks and made it clear from the moment that his players arrived at the training camp what formation they would be playing against Mexico and who would be in the side. He also had an opportunity to give the formation a test run in the latter stages of a friendly against Venezuela.

"Last time we did this in Columbus, it was a 'maybe' that we were going to play 3-5-2," said Gonzalez. "We didn't know until a couple of days before the game, and then it was just thrown out there. Now we had two weeks to really prepare. One team was preparing to play against Trinidad in a 4-4-2, and another was preparing a [3-4-3] so we've been playing this now for a few weeks, and that's the reason why there was a lot better understanding tonight, and why it worked for us."

There was another reason why it worked. The U.S. usually hasn't had the depth of personnel to make it function, especially in the back. Now they do.

"We have very good center-backs and that's a key to that system," Arena said. "We worked real hard preparing the team to do it. Mexico does an unbelievable job in their spacing. They play players on both touch [lines] so they stretch you out. And they like to open you up and attack the gaps in your backline, if you're playing a back four. And we protected all those spaces."

Another aspect to Arena's preparations paid off as well. His lineup choices leaned heavily on players who had played either at the Azteca or at high altitude before, and would have an idea of what to expect. That's why players like Pachuca's Gonzalez, Acosta- - who played against Pachuca in the CONCACAF Champions League -- and Club Tijuana's Paul Arriola found themselves in the lineup.

If there is one sobering aspect to what was otherwise a terrific result, it was the question of whether this is all U.S. has to offer against a good team like Mexico.

The circumstances were unique given the quick turnaround and the altitude, which limited Arena's personnel options to a degree, and the U.S. did create some chances out of this formation, but overall the team was very defensive. Perhaps there is a middle ground to be reached, and the solution is to go 4-2-3-1 now the U.S. has a central playmaker in Pulisic.

Achieving that balance is a task for Arena to think about through the Gold Cup and into the next set of qualifiers in September. The good news, though, is that the U.S. looks like a team again, something that couldn't be said at the end of 2016.

"For me it was just a case at the end of last year where a few too many areas started to drop," Bradley said. "And I think Bruce has done a very good job of coming in and little by little working at just raising the level across the board, and a big part of that is this idea of team, of spirit, of mentality, of balls, and understanding that we have good players, we have a good team, but we're not good enough to just step on the field and think that things are going to take care of themselves.

"We've got to constantly push ourselves at the highest level in all of those ways. And I think over these two weeks and the 10 days in March, we've made good strides in that regard."

As a result, the United States' prospects of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup are looking much brighter.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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