After over an hour of sloppy play, few chances and minimal excitement, U.S. center back Matt Miazga and 18-year-old Mexico whiz-kid Diego Lainez gave a lackluster match an iconic moment. Miazga took exception to the young attacker's jersey-pulling in the 65th minute and Lainez, all 5-foot-6 of him, went chest-to-chest with the 6-foot-4 defender.
Miazga, to put it plainly, wasn’t having it.
The exchange ignited the match, transforming a sleepy affair into a no-holds barred slugfest reminiscent of some of the top U.S.-Mexico encounters from the last couple of decades. Tensions rose immediately after Miazga and Lainez came together, culminating just a couple of minutes later when Mexico striker Angel Zaldivar received a straight red for a studs-up tackle into Wil Trapp’s ankle.
The US capitalized on their man advantage shortly thereafter, with New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams slotting home an Antonee Robinson cross in the 71st to give the US a 1-0 victory. More memorable than the result, however, was a new generation of American and Mexican players continuing Concacaf’s most important rivalry.
“We talked a little smack. It’s part of the game. It’s mental warfare,” Miazga said of his confrontation with Lainez. “They got a red card right after it. It took a toll and we won the game.”
A heated match like Tuesday’s is a good chance for a team to grow, and the young USMNT side will take some confidence out of the win. Miazga, Adams and head coach Dave Sarachan all felt like the Americans showed solid character, battled bravely and defended well against a similarly experimental Mexico team, and they all said they'll carry some solid takeaways into next month’s friendlies against Colombia and Peru.
“The thing that we try to keep talking to this group about right now is what’s the identity of this team, when fans watch the team what do they come away with,” said Sarachan. “We nitpick on the technical side, but we saw a team tonight that played aggressively, competed hard, won most of their duels and I think that’s been a constant over the time I’ve had the group and over these past two games.”
So the postgame vibes were positive. But they shouldn’t paper over the fact that there a still a ton of questions for the U.S. to answer – perhaps even more than there were heading into Friday’s loss to Brazil.
Entering this camp, the general consensus was that the U.S. were in at least a decent place with their first-choice goalkeeper, right back, center backs and holding midfielders. Goalkeeper Zack Steffen, right back DeAndre Yedlin and the center back pairing of Miazga and John Brooks did nothing to dispel that notion. The grades on the rest of the roster, however, ranged from incomplete to pretty damn bleak.
The center midfielders fall into the incomplete category. Adams showed well on Tuesday and Trapp and Weston McKennie performed better than most of the rest of their teammates during camp, but the USMNT missed an opportunity in these matches to play two of their potential building blocks in their best positions.
Adams and McKennie are both best as holding midfielders, and they’ll likely play the spot once Christian Pulisic, who missed this camp due to injury, returns to the fold. That trio of young stars will likely be critical to the U.S. over the next two World Cup cycles, and they need all the reps together that they can get.
Pulisic’s absence prevented all three of them from playing together this time around, but Sarachan could’ve easily paired Adams and McKennie at holding mid in both matches. Instead, he ran out of a 4-1-4-1 formation in both games, starting Trapp at the No. 6 and lining up Adams and McKennie in somewhat unnatural spots ahead of him.
The setup didn’t work out. The U.S. struggled mightily in the three halves that they used the formation until McKennie came out of Tuesday’s match due to a minor injury late in the first half. They largely failed to create chances, hold possession or string together solid sequences on the ball. It never looked like there was much of a thought process, and, for much of Tuesday night, the US were relegated to launching hopeful long balls to striker Gyasi Zardes.
Things got marginally better after McKennie was forced off and a third attacker was brought on in the form of Julian Green, but the USMNT’s play before Mexico’s red card still left plenty to be desired.
A lot of that came down to the rest of the roster looking largely anonymous. We saw flashes on Tuesday from winger Tim Weah and Robinson recovered from a rough night against Brazil with an assist off the bench at left back, but no one really stepped up and made a starting spot their own. That that was the case despite the U.S.’s glaring holes in the attack was disappointing.
The good news is that the USMNT got a win and gained valuable experience against a hated foe in a heated environment. The rivalry with Mexico might be back, but, as we saw on Friday and again on Tuesday, this US team still has plenty of questions to answer before they can realistically think about hitting the level that past American squads achieved in their most memorable matches against El Tri.