EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - How fitting that in a late Sunday afternoon, drenched in sweat from the hot and humid sun glaring down on them, looking at the sky in wonder, hearing the echo of a chant with a long history of torment. "Si Se Puede (Yes, We Can), a sea of green enveloping them, as the looked at the scoreboard watching from the sidelines as a team that was suppose to be a wreck was holding the trophy that shouldn't belong to them. Yet, this wasn't the typical scene that the U.S. National team has come to expect when visiting El Tri at the Colossus of St. Ursula. No, this was on a Summer afternoon in the home of the New York Giants, right in the back yard of the 'Big Apple', before a crowd of almost 80,000. How fitting that in a stadium named Giant's Stadium, we saw the re-awakening of the Concacaf's sleeping giant.
Most had discarded Mexico as completely awash, with 4 different coaches in 2 years, their administration was laughable; their results had been disappointing, and no one gave Mexico any shot of respectability. Central American teams that had for years received beatings at the hand of Mexico were now emboldened to challenge and even declare that Mexico was a shadow of the powerhouse that had long held the crown of Concacaf champions.
Such was the lowest point when Mexico could only muster a 0-0 with Guatemala, coming from a dismal display against El Salvador, while their coutnerparts to the North were facing teams like Spain, Brazil and Italy. It was a tale of two cities, America on to better things, while Mexico was groveling with the slums of the continent.
When Mexico announced it's call sheet for the Gold Cup, the pundits declared that Aguirre was wasting an opportunity to bring his starters together. "Why doesn't Aguirre use this opportunity to help his starters develop chemistry together?", Ciro Procuna declared. With players like Sabah, Barrera, Juarez, Valenzuela, Pinto among others, who had limited caps and were regarded as lower level talent in comparison to their European counterparts (i.e. Osorio, Salcido, Moreno, Marquez, Guardado.)
However, the long critique of Mexico previous to the Gold Cup, was that the players had no heart, no motivation, no strategy. One could fault the strategy on the coach, but the heart and motivation? That is something that comes from the players, from within. Soccer is 10% physical, 90% mental. When you have a group of players that have poor chemistry, coupled with little motivation, the results can be fatal. So when Aguirre announced a line-up of little known players, one wondered what was Aguirre doing?
Watching the development of the team during this Gold Cup, the answer is very simple. He wanted to bring players that had heart, he wanted to first build a team identity, team unity, from a core group that could carry that towards the later stages of the qualification process, long after the whistle of the Godl Cup final. Watching players like Giovanni Dos Santos, who have a world of talent, but without a proper nurture or development can revert their progress and hinder their talent.
Aguirre knew this, and carefully brought this team to this tournament, with no expectations, no must-win scenarios, and carefully moved pieces around watching what worked best and how to best utilize a player. He did that with players like Juarez, Barrera, Vela, and Valenzuela.
He placed his confidence on Torrado, even after his dismal performances previous to the Gold Cup. He knew that he needed a true leader on the team, Marquez is a great player, as a starting chap for the Barca, there is no doubt he is amongst the best in the world. But he's no leader. Time and time again, the world has seen his meltdowns on the big stage, always managing to conveniently get ejected from games at their most crucial moments.
He borrowed the strategy from the US. Ironically, an objective look at the U.S. participation in the Confederations Cup reveals something, the U.S got as far as they did, because of their strong mental make-up, they are talented but they are a perfect example of how far a team can go when their mental make up is stronger than their opponents.
Against Spain, it was obvious to anyone that Spain will beat the U.S. 9 out of 10 times. They are a more talented team, time after time, Spain came at the US goal but the Americans held strong, they knew that all they had to do was wait for Spain to have a moment of weakness and pounce. And that's what they did.
This has usually worked for team USA. However, on this Sunday afternoon, as the Americans pulled back, waiting for Mexico to make a mental mistake and capitalize on it, one thing happened that showed exactly what people who had been following the Tri-color during this tournament knew, Mexico had developed a discipline that focused on making less mistakes and with the dazzling talent of Giovanni, they had a player that could create plays and disrupt the lines.
This was Bradley's biggest mistake, he didn't realize that playing Mexico the way he's always played them, wasn't going to work out, because this wasn't the same old Mexican team that couldn't break the lines. He relied on the counter attack, waiting for a mental breakdown, and it only happened once and Bradley's team failed to capitalize.
Most have commented that the game was pretty close in the first half and some argue that U.S. had the upper hand, the reality is that Mexico was not controlling the ball and allowing the Americans to clog the lanes and wait for the counter attack, in fact the Americans had a larger possession time during the first half. Mexico was baiting the forwards to come out more, challenging the defenders to spread the field, the reason that the scoring didn't start sooner was because Medina was unable to capitalize on a number of scoring chances that Giovanni had set up for him, so in the second half, when Vela came in, the offense took on a whole new look.
Giovanni dos Santos is 20, Carlos Vela is 20, yet these two are young prospects that are on high profile teams in the English Premiere League and have the potential to be superstars. What Mexico has lacked since the days of Hugo Sanchez is a superstar, Cuahtemoc Blanco is beloved by Mexicans but he's no superstar, neither were Jared Borgetti, Luis Garcia, Luis Hernandez, Zague, Carlos Hermosillo.
Mexico hasn't had a superstar forward since Hugo, and I don't think they've ever had a world-class duo (Giovanni and Vela). This is a very promising sign for Mexico, and a bright future for them. This awakening, in Giant's stadium wasn't so much about the immediate future of Mexico's soccer prospects. They will probably tie with the US at Azteca Stadium, and will likely squeak by onto the 2010 World Cup.
The real challenge for the Americans is that while they have certainly developed a strong squad that is far superior than most of the Concacaf's talent, Mexico will certainly not be the push over most of the pundits and even the bloggers at bigsoccer thought. If you want to think, it will be at your peril.
With the talent of Giovanni, (20), Ochoa (23), Vela (20), Guardado (22), Moreno (22), Jonathan Dos Santos (19) Mexico has a crop of talent that has the potential to be world champions, definitely not in 2010, nor 2014, but if Mexico follows the US structure they could very well be a potent team by 2018.
The immediate danger for the US team is not whether they will be inspired or not, it's a given that players like Donovan, will want revenge. The problem is that Mexico has found it's confidence again, and that's a part of the game that can't be practiced. Had Mexico lost, they would have left with doubt, if their subs couldn't beat the American subs, how could they even think things would be different with the starting 11? Momentum is the 6th player in Basketball, the extra down in Football, it's the intangible that can be the deciding factor.
For August 12th, it's going to be a bigger game on a bigger stage, and while the US is feeling the sting for this game, even their fans agree they have little to lose, however, Mexico's back is against the wall. They need this game. Factor those things in, and US may be in for a long afternoon on August 12th.