Fearless Arena, USMNT overcame all risks vs. Mexico

The ship is steadied.

That’s the upshot of Bruce Arena’s second international break with the United States men’s national team, where the Yanks dominated Trinidad and Tobago before drawing Mexico on Sunday in Azteca.

The latter is a far more impressive result, with Arena’s game planning getting due credit and Michael Bradley’s early goal making sure it had every reason to flourish in the thin air of Mexico City.

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Arena’s 3-5-2 took some significant risks, and it’s a credit to the coach and players that even the ones that backfired didn’t hamper the team in pursuit of a result.

The moves that didn’t work are even debatable. DaMarcus Beasley received little help when Carlos Vela toasted him with a counter attack goal, and the left back was limited anyway by an early injury (Whether Arena should’ve bit the bullet and used an early sub with Jorge Villafana is another discussion).

Putting 21-year-old Kellyn Acosta next to Michael Bradley was another risk that mostly worked, though the moments that made that adverb necessary were big ones. Acosta was cooked by Javier Hernandez with a nutmeg and then stayed with the hobbled striker as Vela worked his way to scoring position. That’s two errors on a big play, and it’s almost certain a more experience player takes a card for a tactical foul on Hernandez at midfield. But the Yanks escaped, and now the promising Acosta has an invaluable evening under his belt. Risk rewarded in that sense.

Then there’s Brad Guzan — and I’ve beaten this drum before — who was just fine but not Tim Howard. I realize Guzan has Azteca success, but for me there’s a gulf between the two MLS keepers.

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As an aside, it bothers me that preferring Howard — probably the most accomplished of an amazing history of American goalkeepers — could be perceived as a shot at Guzan, who is a fine goalkeeper. But give me Howard every darn time.

It’s more difficult to expound upon the positives because “man those center backs did their job” is often the least sexy route for a writer. But there’s an easy argument that Tim Ream and Omar Gonzalez are better for a three-man unit than in a center back duo. And even if it seems an easy trust for Arena to use Cameron as “the man”, it was taking a chance in a big spot.

He also resisted the urge to rest Michael Bradley, who hasn’t been bad but has also not been himself for some time with the USMNT set-up. It wasn’t just the long-distance goal that proved this move astute, rather the calm of the regular metronome in the center of the park.

And as much as I argued for the exclusion of Darlington Nagbe from the XI for this contest, it took guts for Arena not to start the electric Portland Timbers attacker. It’s often going to be a problem to use both Nagbe and Christian Pulisic against teams that can do work in the center of the park, especially while we wait for Pulisic’s continuing evolution. Both are risk/reward players and on a night that saw the Americans anything but successful in keeping the ball — blame an otherworldly night from the magnificent Hector Herrera.

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Consider this: Mexico had 67 percent possession and 84 percent pass success. That’s not a horrible night by any means, and the Yanks still managed a point.  I mean, look at the below screen grab from CONCACAF.com. Almost every Mexican player to play significant minutes attempted more passes than the American leader: Pulisic.

Yet it doesn’t feel like a lucky result, and that perception is a feather in Arena’s cap. On a night where Hector Herrera cranked one off the pipe, the Yanks scored an amazing but fortunate goal, and several big name players were kept from the lineup, the U.S. got a result that feels just.

The boys have bought in, most naysayers shut up, and hope springs eternal even with the knowledge that the Yanks will likely be in CONCACAF’s fourth place following Tuesday’s qualifiers in Costa Rica and Panama.