Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Dos a Cero IV: Fortress Fun

If the game didn't deserve a winner, the event did.

The United States played like a teenager at the fair with a girl -- nervous, but there to win. Mexico was the father of too many, suckered into dragging his family through carnies he won't be bothered to address.

Just more than 20 minutes in, Tim Howard' veins were bulging as he shouted at a two-man wall he clearly felt failed him. Mexico owned the ball for the opening 20-plus minutes. Still, the game belonged to no one.

For all 90 minutes, U.S. attacks were fewer, but more thoughtful and finished -- twice, to ensure the now seemingly inevitable 2-0 USA scoreline that sends America back to the World Cup.

It's why Howard smiled with a scarf-turned-bandana on his head and a beard spilling off his face an hour and a half later. He made four saves -- all caught. Not that it would've mattered if he'd bobbled them.

Mexico's attackers never crashed Howard's goal.

But with the game all-but won in the 78th minute, two of the greatest players in American soccer history flung themselves at the ground and the Mexican goal. 

The first was Clint Dempsey, out of form and fitness. He knicked the ball. The second was Landon Donovan, who dived past Hiram Alanis, sending the ball into the roof of the net with the top of his outstretched right foot. 

Never mind that the cross was served by Mix Diskerud who, with his back to goal, had flicked a routine ball into the air before spinning to the end line for the game-sealing feed with the kind of flair and precision that's supposed to separate Mexico from the U.S.

Instead, look how Mexico responded. Or didn't.

The fightback from El Tri was as soft after the second goal as it was after the first. Mexico only mustered another doomed corner and a couple swift kicks to counter-attacking American players.

Mexico didn't have an answer for the collective height, athleticism and shape of the U.S. national team. But it hardly looked for one. 

Just as they had after Eddie Johnson put the U.S. in front with a towering 49th-minute header past a helpless Jesus Corona, Mexico tooled around the American 18-yard box, played slack defending on otherwise aimless clearances and turned the ball over out of bounds under tepid pressure.

There wasn't even a sense that Mexico would strike back. The party was already on in the Crew Stadium stands.

And while the prettiest moments from American players -- apart from Diskerud's assist -- were produced by Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley streaking to the corners to kill off the game, that made them no less enjoyable.

Beasley did so with a smile on his face. Dempsey did it with his typical hang-dog confidence.

It gave him a chance to extend the historic scoreline to 3-0 in the 95th minute with a penalty kick he earned. Dempsey blasted the chance wide right. But by then, the U.S. was done with the careful, timely work that gave it the lead Mexico never threatened.

Mexico, the team famed for playing the winningest and most attractive soccer in this corner of the globe, knocked the ball about, clueless and miserable, heckled at every turnover by the gleeful carnival workers in red, white and blue.

The Americans had already knocked over the bottles and won the big stuffed bear. The U.S. was headed out with a happy lady. And the carnies cheered them home.

- Jacob Klinger

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