USA vs MEXICO
World Cup: 2002
* The US finally did in a 2012 friendly.
** This system is perfect for a player who is fast, a ball-winner, and a goalscorer: a.k.a. Landon Donovan.
*** Mastroeni is a type of player who overachieves because of his intelligence and his effort, so he’s not the guy you want following you around. He’s the Shane Battier of US soccer.
**** To be fair, Friedel was yellow-carded right before this. However, he was booked for wasting time, nothing physical.
The best America has ever done in the modern World Cup is make the quarterfinals. That was in Korea/Japan. That was the 2002 team. It was half MLS guys, half second-tier European league players.
The team was Brian McBride up front. Kasey Keller or Brad Friedel in goal. Pablo Mastroeni and Eddie Pope prowling in defense. There were two 20 year-old stars, DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan. At coach, Bruce Arena. Having already conquered US college soccer, then the MLS, he was now in charge of the country’s team. He was Mothergoose, and these guys followed him across the Pacific.
In the ’98 World Cup, the US had finished 32nd out of 32 teams. We scored one goal. In ’02 , we opened in Daegu and had to face the star-studded Portuguese. That’s Luis Figo, 2001 FIFA World Player of the Year, and the rest of the Portuguese Golden Generation.
The US didn’t care.
We stunned the world. We won 3-2.
We did enough in our other two games to get through to the next round.
Last place in ’98, guaranteed top 16 in ’02.
Into the Knockout Stage.
Where you have one bad game and you’re gone.
90 minutes, another 30 if you have to.
Penalty kicks if you’re deadlocked and unlucky.
The US drew Mexico. Now, we don’t have to fly across the world just to play Mexico. That’s a border war. We know where to find them. And frankly, it matters little if the US/Mexico game is going to be on the world stage like this one, or if it’s just some backyard friendly. These teams don’t really play — they have a 90 minute skirmish.
If you need context for US/Mexico, here are the broad strokes: nobody beats Mexico in Mexico City*, Landon Donovan pissed on Mexican bushes, and going into this Round of 16 clash, in their last eight matches, the US had won four, Mexico had won four. These teams don’t draw.
The American strategy from the game’s beginning seemed to be to allow Mexico possession of the ball. The Americans were sitting back, not pressuring until the Mexicans entered their half. They’d made a tight defensive knot around their goal, and they were absorbing wave after wave of Mexican attacks.
This strategy is called “parking the bus”. The idea is you concede the fact that your team is unable to possess the ball for any extended length of time, and that doing so will likely end in you turning the ball over, leaving yourself vulnerable to an attack. So you disregard possession. You don’t really want the ball. If you get it, you’ll look to attack, look to counter, and if you can’t do that, you’ll just hook it out of bounds. You’ll knock it forward. Give it right back. That’s fine. Possession is great, but it doesn’t win games. Sloppy passes that give your opponent an attack on goal, when you aren’t ready, will lose you games. This isn’t football. You don’t get to trot your defense out during a TV commercial. It’s instant. You can get caught out of position very quickly.
A team that’s parking its bus in front of their goal relies on winning the ball back at a time when their opponent has committed players forward. If they find this situation, they counter attack, moving the ball as directly up the field as possible. They need efficiency in front of the goal. They’re not going to get many chances, so to win they have to capitalize on whatever they get **.
For the opposition — the possessing team — this system is exponentially frustrating. The possessing team feels superior. They usually have more shots on goal. They are allowed to knock the ball around freely, which grows their confidence. They feel like they’re taking the game to their opponents, that they’re dictating play, and that they deserve to score. They feel entitled to be ahead. When they have five chances on goal, miss all of them, and the countering team has one and scores, the possessing team feels cheated. Not cheated by any corporeal force, but by the gods themselves. Because the difference between scoring a goal and not is so minuscule — it’s a finger on the ball to knock the shot wide, it’s a few hairs on a cross to flick it off course — it’s easy to attribute the difference between a goal and nothing to something beyond human.
If the countering team can hang on, can even eek a few goals out and go ahead, by the end of the game the possessing team is ready to fight. They’re done with trying to score goals. They’ve turned to violence. They’re going to physically beat the team that they think the gods’ favor.
Before the game, President George W. Bush called the US team. The speaker phone on, the whole team sat around listening. A blank stare on most of the players’ faces, the blankness of concentration, of hearing one’s fate.
Bush told them his god was blessing them.
The 8th minute, USA 0, Mexico 0: Josh Wolff earns a free kick near the halfway line. The US has been defending for nearly the whole eight minutes, so the free-kick could be the chance the US needs to gather their thoughts, regroup, rest — no, Brian McBride takes the kick quickly.
He leads Claudio Reyna into open space in the Mexican half. Reyna — usually the attacking center midfield, the #10 — is playing right full-back due to injuries and personnel choices for Arena’s counter attack strategy. Reyna beats the first defender by cleverly poking the ball around the Mexican and into space.
The US is on full attack.
The Mexicans struggle to recover.
Reyna uses his shoulder to bully off a defender. He’s nearly to the endline, where he does all he can to knock a pass back into the Mexican six-yard box, where the numbers are Americans five, Mexicans six, plus their goalkeeper.
Draw the picture at this point. You have Reyna working for a cross, Wolff running to the goal’s near-post, Donovan ahead, running to the far. There are two Americans drifting behind. One is McBride, he’s lurking a few yards ball-side of the penalty spot, and the other is Eddie Lewis, who is a few yards behind Donovan.
This is what’s practiced since you’re a child. Players who love this sport, love this moment. This is the funnest part of the game. Ball is in front of the goal, one team plays to knock it in, the other team has to keep it out.
There’s panic in that.
There’s precision and fun.
Even when the offensive team is at a numerical disadvantage, if they play it right — given how much space there is, how accurate these players are with their shot — it’s as fish in a barrel as you get.
Reyna’s pass goes near-post, to Wolff, who knocks it back to McBride at the penalty spot. One touch, he slams it into the far-corner.
The Mexicans, who had to have been pleased with the opening eight minutes, now have to suck on that.
The 10th minute, USA 1, Mexico 0: The US wins the ball off the Mexicans. Within five passes, they give it right back.
The Mexicans mount another attack, knocking the ball from side to side, probing forward, until Landon Donovan comes barreling in, top-speed, and crunches through a tackle. He sprints to nearly his own corner-flag to retrieve the ball.
Donovan is playing center-midfield; the box-to-box form of the position, where he is given the job to score goals and break up attacks.
He collects the ball near the corner-flag, then he knocks it up the field and out of bounds. The US doesn’t even connect on one pass in that possession.
They want the Mexicans to have the ball. They want them to stroke it around the park, to feel like they are in control, like they are winning space, and can commit players forward. The US is playing negatively in order to create a positive.
This counter attacking system is a peaceful cousin to the Scorched Earth Policy — the strategy retreating armies sometimes employ. The Scorched Earth Policy dictates that as you retreat, you take or destroy all of the loot, anything of value that sits along the warpath. You do this in order to keep the goods from falling into your opponent’s hands. You give the opposition territory though, suck them in that way, wait for the opportunity to be right, then you attack.
In soccer, while there is obviously no loot to take or destroy, there is territory to give away, there are feelings of confidence that can be toyed with, and there is a way to pull your opponent out of position then run in behind them.
The 17th minute, USA 1, Mexico 0: After working the ball up from the goalkeeper, Mexico’s playmaker, Cuauthemoc Blanco, dribbles the ball around midfield, looking to work the play up a small sliver along the touchline, space he sees and thinks is unguarded.
It’s a trap.
The Mexican is to dribble into this perceived open space then US players will collapse on him. The defenders block him from going forward, the striker cuts away the pass back, the midfielders squeeze from the middle.
In this case, McBride cuts off Blanco’s back-pass, Reyna and a US center-back cover the area down the line. Pablo Mastroeni is the man on the ball. He pins Blanco against the sideline.
The US players outnumber the Mexicans, and if the US can win the ball here, they’ll be running at the Mexican back line with plenty of space.
Mastroeni won’t let Blanco get more than a moment’s glance at what’s happening on the field behind him. He’s rubbing Blanco’s nose into the touchline. His constant pressure makes Blanco keep his head down, but it also makes him look to pass. This is a dangerous combination. Think about it. You’re looking to kick the ball into an ever changing area that you’re only able to take glances at.
Blanco thinks he sees a teammate making a run into open space. He passes. The Americans are all over it. McBride deflects the pass. The ball goes straight to Donovan. Another break is on.
Donovan is made for this situation. Ball at his feet, space to run in. He dribbles over the halfway line, into Mexican territory. He’s surging forward without being challenged.
The Mexican defense is retreating. They’re getting numbers back.
Rafael Marquez, Mexico’s 23 year-old sweeper and captain, watches Donovan come at him, watches his touches. He waits for one to be too hard, for the ball to leave his reach.
Donovan is happy to make Marquez think he’s lost control of the ball. He’s faster than anyone else on the field. He’s happy to get in a race to the ball.
As he approaches Marquez, he lets the ball get away from him, just enough to make Marquez engage. It’s a burst of speed then Donovan is back on the ball.
It’s a cruel and primitive way of beating an opponent. It’s setting a trap. It can come off as lucky. But when you’re faster than your opponent, you’ll always have a way to beat him.
Marquez shoots in for the tackle.
Donovan slips the ball by him.
Marquez is beat and has to foul.
The US has a free-kick.
It’s a chance to rest, a chance to sniff around the goal, to see if they can turn a penny into gold.
They don’t. Scoring a goal, even when you have an advantage like a free-kick, is still a monumental task. Many moving parts have to shoot right.
But that’s how a counter attacking team lives. They try to create turnovers in areas of the field where they have an advantage. They win the ball with sudden heavy pressure, and then quickly give it to a player like Donovan to break with it, to go win them the game.
The remainder of the first half and the start of the second is all the same. Mexico lays siege, the US defense doesn’t allow them in.
The 65th minute, USA 1, Mexico 0: The possession statistics at this point are around Mexico: 70%, the US: 30%. For an American fan, it becomes hard to watch. For the first 20 minutes of the second half, the US team has been taking blow after blow.
If you want to stick with the bus analogy, it’s like the bus they’ve parked in front of the goal has been getting pelted by rocks, drilled into, and hammered. It’s being taken apart, and the Mexicans are almost through. They are creating solid chances to score, and we’re turning them back with last-second, hooking-in, tackles from guys like Mastroeni, Eddie Pope, and Tony Sanneh. These guys are big, athletic, and bruising. They have Friedel behind them, and he’s getting his fist on crosses, knocking shots away, but we have 25 more minutes of this. That’s a long time to get your ass kicked.
In the 65th minute, Mexico starts another attack. Marquez distributes the ball forward. It gets worked to the halfway line, to the right full-back. They’ve been having their way with us through midfield all day. So they’re confident, they’re bold.
Luis Hernandez, El Matador, they call him, checks to the ball. He finds that Pope has run with him, is right on his back, and that Donovan is closing in on him, fast, at his 10 o’clock. El Matador hops out of the way. He does a dummy, and the ball passes all three players, untouched. It’s a tricky move, a little cowardly in this situation, and not well-advised.
The ball goes to Tony Sanneh.
Most Mexicans are committed forward for another attack.
Sanneh is quick to give the ball to a better passer, Reyna.
Reyna to John O’Brien.
The Mexicans are sprinting back, but, like in any sport, the ball moves faster than the player.
O’Brien plays a long pass down the left side to a streaking Eddie Lewis.
And we’re in.
In one long touch, Lewis has the ball to nearly the Mexican endline. He’s to it before the defender and he drives it across the face of the goal.
Who’s the fastest man on the US team?
Who’s leading the contingent that has the job of running straight for the goal?
The cross is a little long.
Donovan widens his run. A goalscorer’s instinct.
He gets under it.
The US won possession of the ball at 64:33.
The ball was in the back of the net at 64:46.
There’s strategy at work here. There’s purpose behind laying back and letting yourself get beat.
You knock your opponent out of rhythm and you screw with their head. This pulls them out of position, makes them vulnerable for an attack.
It’s Ali leaning on the ropes in Zaire, letting Foreman swing at him. Then coming alive to pound him when he’s tired and out of sorts. It’s trying to beat your opponent in a non-traditional way.
Your opponent isn’t used to constantly being on the offensive. That is not the usual rhythm of the game. The usual rhythm is a near equal heaping of defending and attacking. Your opponent grows frustrated because they’re beating you down, and they love what they’re doing to you, it’s easy, but you just won’t break.
Mexico’s domination has lead to zero goals. The US now has two.
The 67th minute, USA 2, Mexico 0: Looking to draw a penalty kick, El Matador dives in the box. He falls, “like a door off its hinges,” the commentator says. A great description. He’s yellow-carded.
The 70th minute, USA 2, Mexico 0: After a few minutes of hard tackles and another American chance to score, the Mexicans are on the attack again, possessing the ball around the American penalty area.
Blanco has the ball and Mastroeni is pestering the hell out of him, as he’s been doing the whole game. He’s in his shorts, grabbing his hand, nipping at the ball, forcing him backwards. Finally, Blanco sees little else to do: he feels contact, he goes down. Mastroeni falls on top of him.
Blanco is right up, crouching over Mastroeni, shouting something, both arms raised. Mastroeni says something, and Blanco hits Mastroeni with his knees.
There’s frustration there.
There’s panic. Down 2-0, 20 minutes to go. Blanco’s World Cup is ending.
The 79th minute, USA 2, Mexico 0: McBride is substituted for Cobi Jones. Cobi, who is still the leader in appearances for the US National Team, is brought in to kill the game off. His job is to run down balls, take them to the corners, hold them, waste time, get fouled, get hacked down. It’s a rough job. You’re going to piss people off, people who already are angry, who already don’t like you. But it’s a fun job for the right personality. There’s honor in it. You’re only going to play for about 10 minutes, but in that time you’re going to do 90 minutes worth of work.
The 81st minute, USA 2, Mexico 0: Cobi dodges one sliding tackle, but can’t jump over the splintering second. Alberto Garcia Aspe, having been in the game for only three minutes, is yellow-carded for the takedown.
The 84th minute, USA 2, Mexico 0: Donovan uses a burst of speed to get to a 50/50 ball first. Salvadora Carmona is too slow. He won’t get the ball, so he gets the man. He’s yellow-carded ****.
The 88th minute, USA 2, Mexico 0: For nine minutes, Cobi has been holding the ball for the Americans, getting hacked at, and finally, in the 88th, they get him. He goes up for a header, and Marquez, in a display that for a sporting match is despicable violence, first leads with his cleats, which rake against Cobi’s back, then he head-butts Cobi, forehead to temple.
Cobi stays down.
Marquez tries to weasel out of what he’s done. He taps his head, as if to tell the referee that the contact was incidental.
Nobody buys it.
If you’re going to assault someone, at least own it.
Don’t be a child.
An enduring image of the game is Cobi sprawled out on the ground, Marquez touching his head, kind of smiling, the referee holding up a red card, and Landon Donovan in the background giving Marquez some 20 year-old, Californian dude sass.
Cobi gets up and finishes the game. He won’t give Marquez the pleasure of having claimed a scalp. And that’s how you completely defeat a team. It’s not just beating them on the scoreboard. It’s robbing them of their spirit. A total win is not earned with a body count. It’s earned by allowing your opponent to play 90 plus minutes and allowing them to earn nothing.
The Mexicans win 66% possession.
What does that get them?
A ticket back home.