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U-23 Match report: USA 2-0 Mexico

Photo: AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

For nearly 45 minutes, the United States under-23 national team forgot who they were.

US soccer has been making up for a shortage of on-the-ball talent by developing tough, athletic, and hard-working players for a long, long time. The defining moment of the 2010 World Cup was Landon Donovan’s lung-bursting downfield run to score the winner over Algeria. The replay shows three US players in front of Donovan, all at a full sprint themselves. After three matches and over 270 minutes of soccer, it took four Americans sprinting downfield in extra time to send the United States into the knock-out rounds.

Only two years on, the future of US soccer is a different sort of player. The endless running of Donovan remains, but fearlessness and composure on a group level shine through the US under-23 National team.

Playing their game

On Wednesday night, in front of a sparse Dallas crowd, only hours after Clint Dempsey, the definition of a damn-the-torpedos player, ¬†lifted the senior team to a shocking away win over Italy, the under-23 men’s national team played a heady, stylish game that left a talented Mexican side overawed, unsure and stuck in counterattacking mode. For the Americans the opponent mattered little: They had their own game to play.

In Caleb Porter’s 4-3-3, the wingers are kings. They roam the field and let the three central midfielders plug the gaps left behind. Though the US dominated the ball from the outset, it wasn’t until Joe Gyau and Freddy Adu took control of the game that Mexico was truly pinned back. Early on, Gyau showcased his speed chasing crossfield balls into the left corner. The few times he found a pass to his feet, the US was already in power play mode, working the ball around the crowded Mexican box. So as scary as Gyau must have appeared to the Mexicans, it was Freddy Adu on the right who was the more dangerous man.

Adu dangerous early

In the 7th minute, Adu curled into space at the top of the box left vacated by Juan Agudelo’s movement. Collecting a Joe Corona pass, Adu deftly turned to his left and fired high and wide of the left post. A poor effort to be sure, but the movement to create the chance was a warning shot over the bow.

Throughout the first half, Agudelo checked back well to form triangles with Mix Diskerud, Corona and Alfredo Morales in the middle. The clear blemish on Diskerud’s otherwise fine performance was a penchant for smacking long balls downfield after Agudelo’s runs opened space for Adu and Gyau. The US had no need to push: With comfortable touches and flexible shape they could easily move the ball through the timid Mexican defense.

In the 17th, Adu fell into the long ball trap and attempted a long early cross to Gyau. The Mexican defense was intent on keeping the flying American winger in front of them and dealt with Adu’s ball – and Morales’ ten minutes later – with relative ease.

Mexico struggles to respond

Mexico’s only threat came from a fine, 22nd-minute volley that Bill Hamid easily pushed aside. Ike Opara’s weakly headed clearance led to the opportunity, and it was a play indicative of Opara’s night. The future of the US back line, Opara was strong defensively and positioned well but his decision-making was a touch slow and his clearances clumsy. This contrasts with Opara’s partner, Perry Kitchen, who read the game like he wrote it himself and, as a result, resembled a shutdown cornerback in the NFL: Mexico wouldn’t even throw his way.

The world at Joe Gyau’s feet

In the 30th minute, the game finally clicked for the American midfield and they began finding Joe Gyau’s feet early and often. Fun fact about young Gyau: He’s nearly as fast with the ball as he is without it, and he can change directions at full speed. Beating his man to the endline, Gyau sent a curling ball across goal. It was too far ahead of Agudelo and Adu’s return cross from the right was cleared.

Three minutes later, Gyau was at it again. Hamid’s fantastic outlet sent the winger into the Mexican half, where he promptly skinned three defenders and laid a low ball into Agudelo’s path. The American striker was taken out in one of those plays that is, for better or for worse, simply never called a penalty, and the US settled for a corner.

Agudelo breaks it open, Adu Diskerud doubles

But Agudelo was not settling. His near post run connected with Diskerud’s corner kick and the headed finish snuck inside the near post to give the Americans a deserved lead. During the preceding fifteen minutes, Mexico looked to be slowly finding their footing in the match. Agudelo pulled the rug out from under them.

A minute later Diskerud would get on the scoresheet himself, though the goal surely belongs to Freddy Adu. After showing he could cross with his right foot, Adu was given more space as he approached the Mexican box. A quick stepover and a cut to the left opened a two yard gap, and Adu fired a low shot just inside the near post. A very slight deflection off Diskerud wiped Adu’s name off the scoreline, but the goal was all Freddy. The Union midfielder read how the defense was adjusting to respect his ability to go wide and took the chance to have a go with his dominant foot. The Americans took a deserved two goal lead into halftime.

First half dominance

An interesting halftime question for the US side: Where were Kofi Sarkodie and Zarek Valentin? Both players know how to bomb forward but were content to stay at home in the opening 45 minutes. Luckily the US attack didn’t need them. With Sarkodie and Valentin sitting in, the middle of the pitch was the only place Mexico could hope to find gaps. Brilliant positional play from Kitchen and hard work from the midfield trio prevented anything dangerous from developing.

Sarkodie steps forward, Bunbury steps in

The second half was cruise control for the Americans. Sean Johnson replaced Hamid in goal and found his ownership of the box tested more than his shot-stopping abilities. Adu stayed higher up the pitch and allowed Sarkodie room to run. The fullback was long on speed but short on the final ball, too often going full-bore when a more controlled approach would suffice. Sarkodie’s adventurous spirit left Opara more work to do in the back, and the big man showed fine balance when pulled out in one-on-one situations.

In the 62nd minute Teal Bunbury replaced Agudelo. To say that Bunbury badly wanted to score would be an understatement; to say Bunbury knew his team had a two goal lead and decided to shoot whenever he got the ball would be quite accurate.

With Bunbury up top and Dilly Duka coming on for Gyau in the 77th, the United States lost some of their offensive mojo. Impressively, the team’s defensive work rate and shape remained largely in tact, and it was only the lack of a proper outlet for the American counterattack that allowed Mexico to increase pressure late in the match. By the time Amobi Okugo arrived in the 90th minute to shut things down for good, Mexico was settling for crosses that Ike Opara cleared without a second thought.

Summing up

On a brilliant day for American soccer – wins for the USMNT and the USWNT – the men’s under-23 team played unburdened by self-knowledge. They did not play an American game, they played their own game. And they did it without regard for their talented opponent.

Dunga was hired to manage Brazil in the 2012 World Cup because the team was thought to need more toughness. In reality, few managers can change how their players approach the game of soccer. Ten Italian coaches working together probably couldn’t teach Freddy Adu to play good defense. The balancing act for a manager is making your players aware of their responsibilities without sacrificing the fearlessness and exuberance on the ball that earned them the right to wear their nation’s shirt in the first place. If Wednesday night is any indication, Caleb Porter is striking the right balance, and the most talented cohort of players the United States has ever produced is responding.

4 Comments

  1. McMohansky says:

    Awesome recap. It’s an exciting time to be a soccer fan in Philly. Let’s hope Nowak plays Adu similarly.

  2. The only thing I would add is that there was 5 minute stretch in the second half where Freddy owned the game. Mexico could not get the ball off of his feet.

    I hope he plays that way for the Union

  3. Last night, that was night the same Freddy that came to the Union last season. He looked so confident on the ball, took players on at will and got his teammates involved. Not to mention he scored a great goal. Hopefully this is a look at things to come.

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