Two great rivalries in world soccer were on display for ESPN viewers in America yesterday. Spain versus France kicked off in Paris at 4 pm EST on ESPN2, and the United States took in Mexico in the Estadio Azteca at 10:30 on ESPN. Both battles featured bordering countries fighting to book their places in the 2014 World Cup. It’s always a treat to watch your two favorite national teams play in the same day, and I sat back and enjoyed the football feast.
Spain came into Paris needing all three points to return to the top of Group I, as it looks to avoid a one-off playoff against another European side in order to qualify for Brazil. World and European Champions Xavi and Xabi Alonso returned to action for La Roja after missing the Finland game with injury knocks, and were vital to Spain’s domination of the midfield.
Xavi did not have his best game in a red uniform, blasting over an open net in the 5th minute and generally lacking sharpness, but the diminutive Barcelona man still combined well with the rest of Spain’s attack. Alonso, on the other hand, had a monumental performance, with his metronome-like passing finding the boot of nearly every target. Andres Iniesta once again showed why he is the best attacking midfielder in the world, popping up almost everywhere on the pitch. Along with Sergio Busquets, who won the ball back with a number of good challenges, Spain’s midfield was too much for France’s young but promising bunch.
Perhaps Spain’s best two performances came from those who do not typically start at their position for la seleccion. Nacho Monreal filled in for the injured Jordi Alba and was instrumental in both defense and attack. Monreal played the ball in for Xavi to blast over early on, but his cross to Pedro in the 58th minute was converted for a goal, albeit very sloppily. The recent Arsenal signing also made a huge stop in the second half, when a France corner went over the head of Gerard Pique and fell at the feet of Raphael Varane, who could have sent it home if not for Monreal’s foot. And then of course there was Victor Valdes, starting for injured captain Iker Casillas, who made some huge saves to deny a result for France. Spain boss Vicente Del Bosque has to be pleased with the play of his reserves in such an important game. Spain took all three points back down south and now controls its own destiny in Group I.
The USA – Mexico game was covered on ESPN with a full hour pregame show leading up to kick-off, but I couldn’t help switching over to the Spanish language coverage on Univision for parts of the game. It was interesting to note the contrasts between the two telecasts. The crowd volume was much, much louder on Univision, and there were many more camera shots of the areas behind the goals, which were packed with fans. The ESPN cameras focused more on the empty seats near the touch lines, and the commentators were clearly heard over the crowd. I’m not sure if these differences were intentional, but the Univision broadcast certainly made the atmosphere appear much louder, more hostile, and more intense.
Mexico is the technically superior side, and obviously had a big home field advantage, but the Americans were determined to overcome these facts and get a result. Michael Bradley is developing into a world class midfielder with AS Roma and the national team. He did a great job receiving the ball from the back four and distributing out wide and up the pitch, and also made some good runs forward. I really liked what I saw from Graham Zusi, who was often looking for the ball, took nice touches, and tracked back to make some important defensive plays. Unfortunately he was pushed out wide to the right and did not see as much of the ball as I felt he should. Up front, Herculez Gomez, Jozy Altidore, and sub Eddie Johnson were largely ineffective as the US managed just one shot at the Mexican goal.
The main bright spots for the stars and stripes were the center back pairing and goalkeeper. Omar Gonzalez answered many critics who’ve claimed he is not ready for big time international football, intercepting countless passes and doing a very solid job of sticking with speedy forwards Javier Chicharito Hernandez and Giovani Dos Santos. Matt Besler, on only his second cap for the US, also performed admirably. He picked up a yellow card early on but was relatively mistake free for the rest of the match. Brad Guzan was huge, keeping his second straight clean sheet filling in for the injured Tim Howard. He has been in great form all season with Aston Villa, and these last two performances may create some controversy over Team USA’s #1. Personally, I feel Guzan deserves to keep starting at least until he allows a goal in qualifying.
The defending was exceptional for the US, but I must touch on the two no-calls that could’ve been penalties for Mexico. In the first half, Bradley looked to have pushed over Chicharito in the box, but the forward wasn’t exactly involved in the play and the referee waved off the linesman’s flag to signal play on. Fifteen minutes from full time, Maurice Edu knocked over Javier Aquino in the box, with the replays showing it was clearly a foul, but the ref did not make the call there either. Oddly enough, the Univision crew screamed for a penalty when Chicharito went down but at first did not feel the Edu tackle was worthy of a spot kick. After a few replays, the ESPN commentators conceded that it should have been a penalty, but USA fans won’t dwell on the call for too long, and a hard earned point was won in the Azteca.
It’s obviously a gigantic stretch to compare Spain to the USA, but there are some things to be learned from La Roja’s style, and Jurgen Klinsmann may have a few players who can emulate the best team in the world. Spain controls the game with its trivote of Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, and Xavi, passing even the world’s elite such as France to death. The US definitely did not control the game last night, but Michael Bradley showed signs that he can be a Xabi Alonso-esque distributor with the way he collected the ball from his defenders to start attacks and showed up in the final third. Edu did his best in the ballwinning Busquets role, and Graham Zusi is no Xavi but he did appear composed on the ball and very intelligent in his movements, two distinct traits possessed by the Catalan maestro. With Dempsey playing the Iniesta role running between the lines, it is possible to envision the US playing a (very very very) poor man’s version of Spain’s game. They may not be able to run the show against a France, Italy, or even Mexico, but Team USA has the talent to dictate the game against most CONCACAF foes.
Eventually, though, the ball will need to start finding the back of the net more often for the Americans. Playing in a blizzard and the Azteca won’t be the norm going forward, but the lack of ideas in the final third is disappointing nonetheless. The absence of Landon Donovan still hangs over the team’s collective head, but he should be back with the LA Galaxy soon and could yet feature in upcoming qualifiers. Brek Shea made a late cameo last night, and if he finds his form with new team Stoke City, he could provide a different dimension for the US. Klinsmann will now look ahead to friendlies against Belgium and his home country of Germany before the qualifying begins again in June. Things have changed drastically in the span of a week for the man charged with turning around US Soccer, and the national team now finds itself in a great position in what appears to be a highly competitive hexagonal.