The USA's 2-0 victory over Mexico and Gabriel Torres's late equalizer for Panama against Honduras half an hour later, meant that the USA and Costa Rica confirmed their World Cup places for Brazil.
Costa Rica looked to be still a mathematical fluctuation or two away from qualifying with Honduras leading Panama deep into injury time, but that Torres goal had a knock on effect of putting Costa Rica safely through, while the two Honduras had already scored, plus the two Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan got for the USA in their win, meant that their win and the Honduras/Panama tie put the US over the top.
Klinsmann's methods rewarded
In the Gold Cup one of the subplots of the USA's win was Jurgen Klinsmann's knack for timely substitutions — the introductions of Brek Shea and Eddie Johnson brought vital goals for the team — in Johnson's case less than 30 seconds after he came on, with his first touch.
And against Mexico, Johnson was involved in another such switch. This time he was the departing player, leaving the game with a goal, an enhanced reputation, and a knock to the head for his troubles. In came Mix Diskerud — the attack-minded midfielder, who'd probably been, on balance, too much of a risk to put in alongside Jermaine Jones in the holding role Kyle Beckerman ended up occupying effectively. Instead Diskerud got his chance late on, with the US camped dangerously on the edge of their own box, at which time he did what comes naturally and got forward. Some neat touches with the ball on the right of the box and he was firing in a perfect low cross for Donovan to touch home the insurance goal, and indeed the goal that brought up another iconic Dos a Cero scoreline.
Klinsmann's dramatic switches are not limited to in-game though. Faced with three suspended players and the still injured Bradley to replace against Mexico, he could have chosen to simply plug those holes with as near like for like as he could muster. But Klinsmann didn't stop there. That cruelly exposed right flank from the Costa Rica game was overhauled too. Out went Zusi and Orozco, in came Alejandro Bedoya (for his first World Cup qualifier) and Fabian Johnson. And when Johnson went out injured at half time, in came Michael Parkhurst. As Donovan can testify, there are no favorites under Klinsmann, but as he can also testify there are no grudges either. And we're barely talking about the German-American contingent at this point, certainly not as the favored bloc or clique they were perhaps seen as at the start of the year. The lesson from Klinsmann's selection policy so far it seems, is that he will always give players chances, but having done so he expects them to take them.
Mexico were not just waiting to find their form
For 20 minutes or so against the USA, Mexico looked recognisable as the team whose forward movement, technical ability with the ball at their feet, and vision to split and get in behind defenses, has long been the tormenter of the USA's rather more earnest "Run fast, work hard" ethic. Dos Santos and Hernandez were getting in behind, Guardado was cutting inside, and Gimenez was sending through balls in that probed at the makeshift US central defensive pairing of Gonzalez and Goodson right where it was most dangerous — in and around their feet, and in the area between them and the goalkeeper.
It looked like a successful gameplan, but Mexico didn't score in that dominant period, and almost from the first US counter attack you could see them second-guessing. The game became scrappy and by the second half, the early nervous passing and giveaways from the USA had become instead a hallmark of the Mexican team, particularly as the early second half Eddie Johnson goal played into the fatalistic narrative that has enveloped Mexico during this campaign. And even when the US invited them on by dropping deeper, Mexico couldn't take advantage. Everybody went hiding, another goal killed the game, and Luis Fernando Tena looked sick on the sidelines — probably knowing that his slim chances of turning his interim coaching position into a full-time job had left the building, only three days after his former boss "Chepo" Jose Manuel de la Torre had finally been fired.
The de la Torre era had become a disaster. It was admirable in some ways for the Mexican Federation to have "gambled on continuity", as their President Justino Compean put it (he also added "and failed"), but really it was a big surprise when a Chepo who had clearly lost even the second string team was allowed to continue after an underwhelming Confederations Cup and Gold Cup, not to mention the succession of dull, fearful, goalless draws played out at the Azteca in World Cup qualification. He was allowed to continue though and the 2-1 loss to Honduras on Friday was the cost. Chepo had alienated the country's best goalkeeper, made baffling midfield selections, and showed himself utterly inflexible to respond to tactical changes made by other teams, as if he believed that Mexico would prevail by virtue of being Mexico. As it stands they'll be left explaining such an entitlement theory to New Zealand, assuming they now finish fourth in the group and earn the right to face them in the qualifying play off. With Panama visiting in their next game and sensing a lifeline of their own - there might be no guarantee of even that.
Costa Rica have thawed the snow
Costa Rica took a giant step towards qualifying with their defeat of the USA on Friday night, but the victory represented so much more than that.
The infamous snow game may have represented the turning point in Jurgen Klinsmann's reign — the feelgood win representing a turnaround after the opening Honduran loss and a widely publicised article that called into question the unity of the team and Klinsmann's leadership — but the circumstances of the game continuing in the ridiculous conditions it ended in, clearly angered the Costa Rican team. Depending on where you stood the anger was either wholly justified or suspiciously correlated to the outcome of a game Costa Rica looked to still fancy their chances in when the subject of abandoning it was first mooted. Either way the stage was set for a grudge return.
The US duly received a hostile welcome in Costa Rica — from stepping off the plane they were subjected to a host of minor and less than minor insults and obstructions to their preparation, and once Bradley left before a ball had been kicked, the result seemed inevitable. In the event, the 3-1 victory on Costa Rica soil hopefully drew a line under the affair — and was a suitably cathartic moment for Costa Rica. They nearly slipped up on Tuesday night when conceding a late goal to Jamaica, and the result means that despite Friday's score the US have leapfrogged them into first place in the group, but results elsewhere have seen them qualify anyway. It means that two teams at next year's World Cup will be able to mutually recall on a curio of a game en route to a successful qualification, rather than one team being left to regret what they lost in the snow.
Bradley will be vital in Brazil
This may seem a truism, but for once it was one that gained weight without Bradley playing a minute of the weekend's games. Without Michael Bradley the US can at times look like a body without a nervous system. In Costa Rica that body was particularly inert for the opening 20 minutes as Costa Rica cut swathes down the right side of the field, overwhelming the hapless Zusi/Orozco combination and forcing the space for two goals. Not that that seemed to prompt much reaction from the makeshift defensive midfield pairing of Jones and Cameron, who didn't appear to get the message informing them that there was danger on the right they might want to attend to.
On his game, in the same situation, Bradley is the sort of player who would have stepped across a few times to plug the gap and over the course of a few minutes and touches gradually turned the average direction of balls coming out of that area the other way, before starting to get his head up and actively initiating moves from that section of the field. He's that sort of player. The kind of player where you find yourself saying "The USA are just coming into this a little more in the last few minutes" and you realize that the sequence started with a couple of not particularly remarkable but timely Bradley tackles and is now continuing with a hitherto under pressure full back bombing forward confidently for a return pass.
When Bradley's not there that tends not to happen — and not just in the panicky opening half in Costa Rica. For all that Mexico were disproportionately demoralized by Eddie Johnson's goal early in the second half in Columbus, they were kept in the game by the US sitting deeper and deeper for much of the second half. In the wake of a euphoric victory it might seem negative to dwell on that, but in the World Cup, the USA won't be meeting teams at a historic level of crisis who go missing at 1-0 down. They'll need the likes of Bradley to ensure they don't invite teams back into the game that way, or if they do, it's always with the threat of the perfectly-timed counterpunch.
We can give MLS its due
It's been fascinating to watch the evolution of the US team under Klinsmann, including his developing accommodation of players from MLS. Part of the reason we're not talking about the German-American tendency as much despite its still prominent role is the fact that such a conversation would now be countered by mention of the default center back pairing of MLS defenders Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, the international rebirth and sustained faith shown in Seattle's Eddie Johnson and recently his team mate Brad Evans, and of course the presences of Landon Donovan and the now Seattle-based Clint Dempsey. Klinsmann was irritated by the timing of the Dempsey move rather than the move itself. For a second successive season the player missed a full pre-season due to a transfer, but the coach was more concerned about preparations than the perceived drop in standards. And both Gonzalez and Donovan have recently signed up for new designated player contracts with the Galaxy, seemingly assured that this won't be an impediment to their being considered for next year's World Cup squad.
And while the Altidores and Bradleys and younger players such as Brek Shea and soon, Juan Agudelo (remember him) are still headed to Europe as a proving ground, the idea that players in MLS will always be second choice for the national side has begun to steadily erode.
And you see the influence elsewhere in Concacaf. In the Honduras game alone, there was Colorado's Gabriel Torres partnered by Dallas's Blas Parez, scoring twice for Panama to keep their hopes alive heading to the crucial game against Mexico next month. There was former Houston playoff hero Carlos Costly opening the scoring for Honduras, and former Sporting KC midfielder Roger Espinoza setting up the winner for Wilson Palacios, who may play for Stoke City, but for the purposes of this argument does so with what will soon be three ex-MLS players (Cameron, Shea, Agudelo).
It's not that the league is suddenly a world-beating one, but we're slowly beginning to see the knock on effects of a league in its late teen years that has begun to take structural steps towards long term development. Within that framework is the possibility to retain and develop domestic players, and offer competitive options for a better quality of player within the broader geographical region. It's not a huge deal, yet, but it's a genuine development.
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
Original headline: USA and Costa Rica qualify for the 2014 World Cup as Mexico flounders
Most Popular Stories
- Visa, MasterCard Team Up to Focus on Payment Security
- 5 Notable Hispanic Technology Executives
- Top Hispanic Tech Companies Push for the Top
- Samsung Launches Milk Music
- Three Americans on Missing Malaysia Airlines Plane: State Department
- China Urges Malaysia Flight Emergency Response
- Russia, Crimea Discuss Referendum
- For Obama, a Last Stab at Improving Ties with Capitol Hill
- Taco Bell Rings Up Breakfast Menu
- California Establishes Center for Coffee Study