Klinsmann likes the Azteca
That may seem an obvious conclusion to draw, given that the man has never lost at a stadium in which the US used routinely to lose, but the US coach looked very confident all day in the lead-up to the Mexico game and it seemed to transfer to his players who, looking at their starting line up, with yet another makeshift defense, had no right to be confident. Even Klinsmann admitted to Alexi Lalas on ESPN that this was between 50-80% of the first-choice side.
Yet while the US were put under pressure, particularly early on as Mexico tested DaMarcus Beasley and the relative international rookie Matt Besler (who for all his MLS defender of the year credentials was making a steep step up in making a competitive debut in the Azteca) down the US left, the defense and keeper Brad Guzan seemed to grow in confidence as the game went on.
After the US beat the Mexicans last year in a friendly at the same stadium, one of the region's great sporting hexes was lifted amid a lot of US celebration. Cooler heads, though, suggested that things would be different in a competitive fixture. Statistically, there was a lot to back that perspective up, with the US coming into the game 0-13-1 in qualifying games in Mexico. Yet if Klinsmann has achieved anything with his "always look on the bright side of life" demeanor, it is to insist that no result the US team achieve should be considered remarkable. It tallies with his ambitions for his team to be a genuine top 10 world power. How realistic that is is open to debate, but as his team came off the field on Tuesday night, it at least looked a little closer than it did one troubled week ago.
And here's one reason for Klinsmann's confidence – the metronomic reliability of his midfielder Michael Bradley, who completed 57 out of 58 passes on Tuesday night. That sort of confidence is infectious.
A little pressure comes with the territory
Herculez Gomez has been a refreshing addition to the US national team set-up, and one who is happy to speak his mind at times. Last week, when a Brian Straus article for Sporting News had quoted anonymous sources in the US set up criticizing Klinsmann and his methods, there was a relative feeding frenzy around the article in the US soccer media. A couple of Gomez's team-mates quick to condemn those who had spoken out.
But Gomez, who plays his club soccer in Mexico, knows what a true media feeding frenzy looks like (waking up in Mexico City this morning, he may have a perfect example on his doorstep, now Mexican are winless in their first three qualifiers). He called the storm in the bubble of the soccer press "cute":
I love it – I love it. It's about time. It's about damn time you guys [US media] took some interest and you guys started asking some tough questions. I think that shows us growing as a footballing nation, I really do. I think if Brian doesn't write that story and he kind of looks the other way – even if he has a hunch, I'm not saying he's right in doing it, but it's his job, so he's got to do it. He's going to burn some bridges along the way, but this country needs that exposure. This country needs football to matter. And I think that's great.
Certainly the row did a lot less to infiltrate the Sports Center landscape than the novelty of the blizzard conditions in which US played Costa Rica in Colorado on Friday – Gomez and the weather gods conspiring to give a little perspective to a story that threatened to spiral out of all proportion. And while Gomez seemed to suggest that a little loss of proportion might be no bad thing if it meant the country was passionate about the game, his take was one of the more level-headed ones in a slightly strange week.
Omar Gonzalez is coming of age
In his first outing of the Hex campaign, Omar Gonzalez combined with Geoff Cameron at the back, doing moderately well until a mistake allowed Jerry Bengtson and Boniek Garcia to win the game for Honduras. Against Costa Rica, Gonzalez was as solid as any defender could be while playing in a blizzard, alongside a new center-back partner in Clarence Goodson. But while the results of that crazy game may have been inconclusive, the trend established by Gonzalez's performance in the Azteca was definitely on the up.
Gonzalez was everywhere – keeping the defense steady as Besler, his new defensive partner (and third in as many games), found his feet, and supporting both Besler (and outside full-back Beasley) as Mexico and Javier Aquino tormented them early on. He also moved across to cover for Cameron as he tried to get forward down the right.
As the game went on, Gonzalez was continually in the right place with saving tackles and headers in the box, generally stopping Mexico attacks in their tracks before they could gain any momentum. It all aided the impression of a listless Mexico performance, despite great chances for Javier Hernández and decent looks at goal from Aquino and Giovani Dos Santos. Until injury time, these chances existed in isolation and never seemed to resemble sustained pressure. Much of that was due to the discipline of the triangle at the heart of defense, of Guzan, Gonzalez and Besler. Had you been asked in December to pick the goalkeeper and center-backs to start at the Azteca, Gonzalez might have been considered the only outside possibility, and a daring one at that. As it is, he's looking the part, and for all that the dropping of Carlos Bocanegra was making the headlines at the start of last week, nobody was talking about it in the aftermath of the Mexico game.
Gonzalez still has a lot to learn – the Honduras game showed that – but as of this moment he's presenting a nice headache for Klinsmann and a rather less pleasant one for Bruce Arena, who must know that games like this will make his young center-back a covetable and affordable asset for a European team when the next transfer window opens.
There's a route into this side for fringe players
Geoff Cameron and Graham Zusi forced their way into Klinsmann's plans at the MLS-dominated US team camp last January, but a lackluster display against Canada in the opening friendly of this year (a game that was the culmination of this year's similarly constructed team camp) didn't look like it had turned up any new gems, as the likes of Chris Wondolowski, Besler and Brad Davis seemed to tiptoe out of contention. Even Kyle Beckerman, who had a solid game, found himself off the roster when the competitive game came round.
Yet there was Beckerman making a cameo in the snow in Denver; there was Beasley, playing his first competitive internationals since the 2009 Gold Cup against Costa Rica and Mexico. Davis came on as a second-half substitute against Mexico and perhaps most surprisingly of all, there was Besler, in from the start alongside Gonzalez and helping his team to a clean sheet.
Klinsmann has played 59 players in his time in charge, and has never fielded the same line-up. At some point in the coming year that surely has to harden into a definitive starting line-up, barring injuries, but for now a combination of a lengthy injury list and in one case the absence of a key player to burnout, has meant there have been chances for fringe players. They have taken their chances with varying degrees of success. Besler and Gonzalez trained alongside each other in the winter camp this year and performed creditably in the Azteca. Beasley has continually flirted with the international wilderness, only to wander back again and even pitch in in an unfamiliar position.
Ironically, one of the beneficiaries of this approach from Klinsmann might be Landon Donovan. It may seem absurd to wonder whether the occasional US talisman can find his way back into the team after his sabbatical, but as the former team leader pitched up at the White House with the MLS Cup-winning Galaxy on Tuesday, while his national team were headed to Mexico, you could understand a version of events where Klinsmann felt compelled to overlook a player who had not made himself available for games for which his less celebrated peers showed up. As it is, you suspect Donovan will be eased back in gratefully, and that that will be entirely consistent with a Klinsmann reign, where the realpolitik of immediate selection headaches trumps any urge to send a message.
This is going to be an exceptionally tight Hexagonal
This stage of Concacaf World Cup qualifying is always tight for the top teams. The format, with three teams qualifying and a fourth going into a playoff against (as it turns out this year) New Zealand, looks deceptively easy. Nonetheless, it's often the case that the frontrunners can confirm their status fairly early on ,with the right fixtures matching them against the weakest team in the group. In this year's batch, though, it's hard to say who that weakest team might be. Jamaica are bottom of the group (and are the USA's next opponents), but they've taken a draw in the Azteca, while early frontrunners Honduras beat the USA in their opener and fought back from 2-0 down to tie with Mexico, only to go down to defeat in Panama last night. Indeed Panama are unbeaten and top the group while Costa Rica, still smarting from the perceived injustice of the game in Colorado on Friday night, inflicted a defeat on Jamaica to go ahead of the US on goal difference.
The next round will be very interesting. The US follow their trip to Jamaica on 7 June with a home game against Panama three days later, in Seattle, followed a week later by an attempt to get revenge on Honduras when they bring them back to Rio Tinto Stadium. While that sequence will go a long way towards defining the favorites to qualify, it's likely that it will still leave a tense run-in for the US.
That said, just a few short days ago the prospect of taking nothing from the games against Costa Rica and Mexico seemed very real to critics who saw the Klinsmann experiment as reeling. Instead, the USA took four points and are nicely poised, while taking nothing for granted. One win separates top from bottom, almost a third of the way into the hexagonal.