Commentary: Has Klinsmann already outsmarted Mexico?
Prognostication tends to be an unruly art when it comes to soccer matches, but the fortunes of the US men’s national team on Mexican soil present a very notable exception. With a dismal mark of 0-23-1 in Mexico, the Yanks are exceedingly, enduringly unsuccessful south of the Rio Grande.
Jurgen Klinsmann wants to end this miserable streak when the USMNT enters Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca for an international friendly on Wednesday (8 pm ET, ESPN2, live chat on MLSsoccer.com). At least, that’s what he said on Sunday evening, during the latest installment of the in-depth media conference calls which are becoming a welcome trademark of his year-old tenure.
“At the end of the day, I want to win games, so I want to win on Wednesday night against Mexico,” said the mild-mannered German as he explained the rationale behind his chatter-inducing roster selections.
That would seem to be stating the obvious. However, in his next breath he noted the need to inject new blood and expand the team’s selection pool ahead of a busy year-plus of World Cup qualifying. So it’s understandable if Klinsmann’s personnel choices for a ferociously difficult “friendly” against the team’s No. 1 rivals have given many US fans reason to question whether he really does care that much about the final result.
He has selected a stunningly green group of defenders with only 21 caps to their collective credit, which adds up to one-fifth the number owned just by team captain Carlos Bocanegra, this week’s most prominent backline absence. In fact, one of his most junior understudies, Geoff Cameron, is the de facto veteran of this bunch and his partner in central defense will likely be a transplanted midfielder, Maurice Edu.
The midfield and attack are slightly closer to what conventional wisdom would call a US “A-team,” but an uncanny mix of poor timing, injuries and adventurous selection has given this squad a decidedly experimental air. Ten of those present can count their national team appearances on one hand, or have none at all.
To some observers, this is the practical equivalent of waving a white flag. Even some of the best-ever US squads have gotten clobbered at this venue and on Sunday Klinsmann sounded as prepared for a blowout loss as someone in his position can possibly be.
“Maybe we have a setback like against Brazil in June,” he said, referring to the team’s 4-1 friendly defeat to the five-time world champions at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
Given the US' long, painful chronicle in Mexico, such a seemingly cavalier mentality seems dangerously naïve to many. Klinsmann presents a sunny, positive and relentlessly outgoing face to the world, and the wisdom of taking that attitude into the cutthroat CONCACAF circus has been questioned.
But could his approach to Wednesday's match actually be a savvy bit of mental jiujitsu by the former German international? This FIFA friendly date always arrives at an awkward time for European players, and you could make the case that it doesn’t really offer national teams enough camp time to adequately prepare for difficult opposition.
Perhaps the young-ish roster and unfamiliar defense is Klinsmann’s way of thumbing his nose at El Tri’s vaunted home-field advantage and the gloominess it engenders among US fans. In other words, maybe he’s not dialing up the pressure on his team, but releasing it.
It’s important to recognize this game for what it is: a friendly. Fans and pundits care about the result, and demand commitment and quality, but the nature of the display is more important than the result it earns, or doesn’t. The team’s performance is always worth observing, because it tells more than the scoreboard, even in white-hot rivalries like US-Mexico.
Stateside supporters haven’t always made this distinction, especially when it comes to this particular opponent and the supercharged socio-cultural trappings it carries with it. But Klinsmann has decided that a sold-out Azteca can be just as useful a laboratory for the USMNT as a January camp at the Home Depot Center or an exhibition match in a telegenic European capital.
That might not ease the pain if the US endures the rough loss that everyone expects, but it could mark Wednesday as an important tool in Klinsmann’s long-term planning for 2014 and beyond.