PHILADELPHIA -- If there's one thing I like better than going to a soccer match with nice people, it's going to a match with nice, intelligent people. Luckily, I experienced that in abundance on Wednesday night as the U.S. men's national team faced great regional rival Mexico in a friendly at Lincoln Financial Field. The game ended 1-1 in front of 30,138 fans.
I like to have people who can serve as an editor and a foil at a game with me so I can bounce off some ideas and discuss what we're seeing unfold in front of us. My twin sons Alex and Ben, now 14, are my usual companions at these events, but we were privileged to also have the company of Linwood residents Dave and Sam Bishop on Wednesday night.
Dave and I serve as coaches of our sons' U-14 club team out of Mainland United, and we were highly interested in running the rule over new U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann at the Linc. And on a night where the colorful nature of a crowd that probably was 70-30 in support of Mexico won the day, we just couldn't have seen any more divergent play.
Mexico bossed the first half, much to the delight of the partisan crowd decked out either in El Tri's traditional green jerseys or the cool, hip black kits of the past couple of years. Klinsmann opened his first game in charge of the "Nats" in a 4-5-1 formation, with the pedestrian Edson Buddle as the lone striker. The whole half was played in the U.S. end as a result.
My son Ben compared Buddle and his lack of movement to Emile Heskey of England. It was good analysis, and the biggest beef Dave Bishop and I had with the formation was its lack of attacking verve. Granted, Clint Dempsey was not named in Klinsmann's initial squad, but marooning Landon Donovan on the right wing seemed unnecessary and plain wrong.
Despite all their possession and passing, Mexico's goal in the 17th minute was a bit of a fluke. Basically, Oribe Peralta stuck his foot out on a cross from the right side and stabbed the ball past U.S. keeper Tim Howard from an odd angle. U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley was all over Peralta on the mark, but the Mexican player just reacted brilliantly.
In my blog post about Klinsmann's roster for this match, I made a lot about the Latino players who found themselves recalled to the squad. Three of those "young guns" got the start Wednesday night, and I think two of them acquitted themselves very well. Central defender Michael Orozco Fiscal and left-sided midfielder Jose Francisco "El Gringo" Torres were fine.
But left-sided defender Edgar Castillo, who plays his club ball for Club America in Mexico, was roasted by Mexico all night long. Castillo is slight in frame and even lighter in the tackle, and he was dispossessed way too often. The one thing I will say in his defense is that he planted himself tight to the left touchline in an offensive posture, but no one got him the ball.
To his credit, Klinsmann changed things up in the second half. He didn't do it with the mass substitutions we often see in these kind of friendlies. Rather, he shifted the U.S. into what looked like a 4-3-3, with Donovan moving from the right side of midfield to central striker. Subs Brek Shea out on the left and Juan Agudelo on the right formed the three-pronged attack.
All of a sudden, the U.S. had some heft in the middle of the field and retained possession for 40- or 60-second intervals that had been unthinkable in the first half. One factor in this was the play of Real Salt Lake's Kyle Beckerman. With his rasta-man hair and skater's demeanor, we often forget how skillful and physical this kid can be.
Klinsmann got his just desserts for switching to an attacking style when midfielder Robbie Rogers managed to avoid tangling up his own feet to tap home a great cross from Brek Shea in the 73rd minute. After that if there was one team that was going to win the game, it was the U.S. But Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa made some super saves to preserve the tie.
One thing I did notice after the U.S. went down 1-0 was the positive sideline demeanor of Klinsmann, who was known as "Grinsi Klinsi" for his rah-rah style as Germany's manager. While that overt positivity might be pooh-poohed in European circles, it seems to motivate the American player. This is a riveting work in progress, and one we'll definitely be watching.