The US Under-23 men’s national team competed respectably and were already through to the semifinals, but they’ll have to accept being second-best to their border rivals, at least for now.
Wednesday’s 1-0 loss to Mexico at Estadio Jalisco leaves El Tri as Group A winners and the United States in second place at the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament. Now both sides will await the results of Thursday’s Group B action to learn the identity of their opponents in Sunday’s enormous semifinal doubleheader, which will determine which two teams get to represent the region in Japan this summer.
Here’s three topics to consider.
Not a humbling, but a lesson
The circumstances offer US fans lots of explanations for this loss on El Tri soil: The young Yanks are at preseason fitness levels compared to Mexico’s midseason form, which also forces coach Jason Kreis to rotate his squad carefully, which disrupts rhythm. And both sides already being through ensured the match lacked the full fury of this rivalry.
The US kept pace, but Mexico were better, period. They were more organized and purposeful, they were cleaner on the ball and set the terms of engagement with their fierce pressing, high line and greater comfort in possession. Former LA Galaxy loanee Uriel Antuna was clearly the game’s brightest performer, with no one in US colors able to match his level of quality, and that all adds up to both individual and collective superiority.
“Tonight we saw really bright spots, I think we also saw spots where you're like, wow, these guys are still rusty, still making mistakes that you don't typically see them make in passes and movements and those sorts of things,” said Kreis postgame.
But this is the best possible time for his group to be handed this experience. Many coaches use the phrase, “either you win or you learn,” and such should be the case for the US U-23s here. Mexico exposed their shortcomings and the technical staff now have three days to put those lessons to work on the plan for Sunday, where they will face either Canada or Honduras.
Face the press
Yes, the US hung in there gamely and it took an ill-timed turnover in the buildup by Sebastian Soto to hand Antuna the opening he assertively exploited for the game’s only goal. But it was a just reward for the pressure El Tri exerted throughout the night, which forced the US to labor just to get out of their own half on nearly every possession sequence.
Mexico’s soccer culture of skill, cheekiness and tenacity has proven a good fit for full national team manager Tata Martino’s aggressive tactical principles and Wednesday provided a reminder of how much the USMNT struggled to deal with El Tri in their first meeting of Gregg Berhalter’s tenure. To their credit, U-23 center backs Henry Kessler and Mauricio Pineda were brave, if not always perfect, with their passing out of the back under pressure.
“I was pleased, really pleased that we were brave enough to build out of the back,” said Kreis. “I think that we had quite a bit of success with it – of course there was an error here and there.”
It was the midfielders and to a lesser extent the forwards who were repeatedly unable to continue advancing possession once that duo initiated sequences. Soto’s error was the most costly but Sebastian Saucedo, Johnny Cardoso and Andres Perea also looked uncomfortable under pressure, both technically and mentally. Deep-lying tempo-setter Jackson Yueill started this one on the bench to rest his legs a bit and his calming influence was missed.
By now Kreis should have a clear idea of who his first-choice central midfielders are; they’ll need to be much less error-prone if victory is to be gained in the semifinal.
Where are the goals?
Midfielder Hassani Dotson, who rolled his ankle and may be a doubt for Sunday, is the US’ leading scorer so far with two goals. While Jesus Ferreira bagged the winner vs. Costa Rica, no one along the front line has really been consistently menacing in front of goal. This is surely a leading cause of jitters heading into the semis, where someone is going to have to step up.
Wednesday was a chance for Soto to assert his credentials for a bigger role, and unfortunately it wasn’t his night by a long stretch. Djordje Mihailovic has run hot and cold at this event (and to be fair, he got absolutely no love from Jamaican referee Daneon Parchment’s leniency in the face of Mexico’s repeated fouls). Saucedo has worked hard but given the ball away too cheaply, too often. Jonathan Lewis has been quick and skillful, but inconsistent with delivery of the final ball.
They may only need one to get it done on Sunday, but another toothless night like against Mexico, and the Olympic dream will be in real danger.