Warshaw: Bruce Arena finds the balance as US stymie Mexico at Azteca

MEXICO CITY – Eight months ago, former US national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann rolled out a 3-5-2/5-3-2 formation in a World Cup qualifier against Mexico. The team lost – and got badly outplayed – in their longstanding fortress at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, and Klinsmann got crushed from every angle of the American soccersphere.

When word broke before Sunday’s rematch at Estadio Azteca that current head coach Bruce Arena would opt for a similar lineup with three central defenders, American soccer held its collective breath. Hadn’t the team learned their lesson? Is Arena really willing to put his reputation on the line with this?

Arena, though, had no doubts in his mind.

“I think probably sometime in January or February I decided to do that,” Arena said of his tactical decision after the 1-1 draw. “We tossed it around in the office with our coaches. They were probably not real supportive of the idea, since maybe they don’t have a lot of experience in that formation.”

I’d love to have been in the office to watch Bruce tell his staff, and have his assistants Dave Sarachan, Pat Noonan and Ken Arena look at him with wide eyes and jaws dropped. Arena, however, clearly did the math and felt confident with it.

“Mexico does an unbelievable job in their spacing,” Arena said in the post-match press conference. “They play players on both touchlines, so they open you up. They attack the gaps if you’re playing a four-man backline. We protected all those spaces.”

Arena said the USMNT started working on it in the first day of training camp two weeks ago; the players were drilled on both four-man and three-/five-man backlines.

Once Arena had the formation in his mind for Sunday, the question became who would play in it. He made it clear he had to make adjustments after the short turnaround from Thursday’s win over Trinidad & Tobago in Colorado.

Once again, he seems to have made the right choices.

He selected a mix of young and old. He kept veterans Michael Bradley and Geoff Cameron on the field, added Tim Ream and Omar Gonzalez, and tossed a man that’s been playing for the US since Justin Bieber was in diapers, DaMarcus Beasley, in at left back. In the attack, conversely, he opted for naivete. Twenty-one-year-old Kellyn Acosta was tasked with working the engine room, and youngsters Bobby Wood, Paul Arriola and Christian Pulisic led the attack.

As Arena said after the game, “what they lack in experience, they have legs.” It showed early. They looked confident right away, pressing Mexico in midfield and surging forward on the counter. With the positives, however, came risks.

It wasn’t clear how they would do as the game went on. Could they focus for 90 minutes? Could they deal with the crowd and emotions? Mexico controlled much of the ball for the second half. The slightest mistake could have led to a goal, but the young bucks held strong.

The feat wasn’t lost on Arriola.

“Obviously we didn’t have the ball a lot, but tactically, being able to stay mentally concentrated the whole time was huge for all the young guys,” the Club Tijuana winger said. “I see a lot of us – Kellyn, myself, Christian, obviously – I don’t think we’re, I don’t think we should be talking about us being the future anymore. I think we should step up, and this was a great game for us to demonstrate.”

Arena credits much of the resolve to strong team chemistry.

“Spirit on the national team, this is critical,” he said. “The players have responded very well.”

Arena took a risk with both his formation and a lineup. But you wouldn’t know it from hearing him talk. Or from looking at the scoreboard.