The lineup that the US came out with against Mexico on Friday night was about as expected as Donald Trump winning the presidency. It was a scary thought in the back of our minds, but nobody but the biggest skeptics expected it to actually happen.
Hopefully the next four years are better than the first 20 minutes of USA vs. Mexico.
Jurgen Klinsmann unveiled a team sheet of eleven players an hour before game time that just had to be — but we hoped it wasn’t — a 3-5-2. It was vaguely possible that we were all overreacting and the formation was a 4-4-2 with Matt Besler at left back, but at the same time, it wasn’t. We’re talking about Jurgen here.
He — like Mexican manager Juan Carlos Osorio, also a known tinkerer — refused to reveal what the formation would be, and we were left guessing. Some said 4-4-2, others said 3-5-2, and a few went with 3-4-3. Nobody really had any idea, though, until the US came onto the field and disappointed everyone.
It was indeed a 3-5-2. This country hadn’t brought out a true three-at-the-back formation since a friendly against Chile in 2015, and the last time they did it in a competitive game was likely the 2002 World Cup, when Bruce Arena was coach and Landon Donovan was 20.
Matt Besler, John Brooks, and Omar Gonzalez played in central defense, while Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler were wing-backs. Christian Pulisic was a No. 10 for the first time on the international stage, and Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones played together in deeper midfield.
I’m still struggling to figure out why exactly Jurgen did this to us. Was it because he was trying to be smart? Was he trying be really defensive and bunker the crap out of Mexico? Did he see a fan’s suggestion on Reddit and decide to make it a reality? I honestly have no clue.
But he did it, and it was as terrible as it was always going to be.
Nobody could really tell what the US were trying to do. Were they going to sit really deep? Were they going to play route 1? Keep possession somehow? We didn’t know because not a single player on the field looked like they had any clue what was going on. Everybody just kind of ran around in the general vicinity of their position.
This is not a criticism of the players, though. It’s a criticism of the coach, who’s job is literally to tell the players what to do on the field. They reminded me a little of Owen Coyle’s tenure as coach of the Houston Dynamo. That’s a really bad thing.
Let me take you through everything that went wrong this formation, because there were so many things that I need bullet points to explain it all:
- Two of the three center backs (Gonzalez and Besler) are not good 1v1 defenders. Mexico have a ton of good 1v1 attackers. The 3-5-2 forces the center backs — especially the outside ones, which were Gonzalez and Besler — to defend in space a lot. See an issue here?
- Timmy Chandler may have been playing well in the Bundesliga, but he has never looked all that great in a US shirt, and to throw him in to a huge qualifier against quality opposition as a starter in a position he never plays was not a good idea. He played horribly in the first 25 minutes.
- Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones would have been a perfectly viable midfield pairing in a 4-4-2 — although I would have liked to see Sacha Kljestan instead of Jones — but in a 3-5-2, neither of them knew what they were doing. Gaps were everywhere, Bradley was getting overrun, and Jones was often nowhere to be found except when he was kicking balls at Mexican players. The midfield was the biggest disaster area of the entire formation.
- Christian Pulisic, I’m sure, can be a great No. 10. He has the skill-set to be. But in the 3-5-2, he was not good, and it was mostly not his fault. He didn’t know where he was supposed to receive the ball, and when he did, he had two strikers in front of him who were playing in the same spaces. Maybe you should have trained him there a little bit more, Jurgen. He’s 18 and playing on the wing for his club team and for the national team. Coach him!
It got so bad after 25 minutes — Miguel Layun had given Mexico a 1-0 lead by this point — that Bradley reportedly ran over to Klinsmann and told him that they needed a change. His request was granted, and the formation was switched to 4-4-2.
Things were better once this change finally happened. Pretty much everybody got to play the position they should be playing (except for Besler, who was at left back) and the game settled down about as much as a US-Mexico game in Columbus will ever settle down.
But the soccer gods did give Klinsmann one final punishment for his tactical misadventures. Tim Howard went down with a non-contact injury near the 40th-minute and had to be subbed off for Brad Guzan, who hadn’t played for club or country since September 2nd in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
At the half, it was 1-0 Mexico and the American Outlaws went and got a ton of beer, because despite the formation change, it was a dismal outlook for a US team that had actually been playing sort of well before this game.
Bobby Wood — who was the only American player who actually was good in the first half — did Bobby Wood things early in the second half, fighting his way through the Mexican backline and finding the back of the net. It was Jozy Altidore’s hold-up play that put him through, as well, so we were all a bit more confident that it could at least be Dos A Uno.
It was not meant to be, though. The next 35 or so minutes were spent arguing with the referee, getting yellow cards, and sometimes causing goal-mouth scrambles. It remained 1-1 until the 89th-minute, when the final symptom of Jurgen being the manager hit.
Mexico got a corner — their first of the game — and they scored on it, with 37-year old center back Rafa Marquez getting a head on a near-post delivery and sending it into the far corner. The US’s marking system was absolutely horrendous and something that should never be seen on a professional level.
Two field players were in the six-yard box when the corner was taken: Altidore, who appeared to be defending the near post, and (I think) Gonzalez, who was marking a Mexican player. No player was on the back-post. That is a problem.
The delivery was an in-swinger to the near-post, where Marquez got away from his man (Brooks, according to Jurgen after the game) and beat Altidore to the ball. Nobody was on the back-post to defend the shot, and the US lost the game.
You should not allow set piece goals in the final minutes of a tie game in a match as important as this one. That is on the manager. A lot of this loss is on the manager.