MEXICO CITY -- The United States hopes its historic victory at Estadio Azteca is a precursor of sorts, but nobody is mistaking it as a shift in the balance within the region's primary rivalry. The gap separating the Americans from Mexico remains intact, and the only questions concern how great is the chasm and what must be done to bridge it.
Mexico's focus on youth development has created a golden generation of players and could signal El Tri's arrival among the truly elite in international soccer. Last weekend's gold-medal triumph at the London Olympics, with their under-23 team, follows successes by the U-17s (World Cup titles in 2005 and 2011) and the U-20s (third place at last year's World Cup), and the impact on the full national team -- the one that could, for real, be competing for the spoils in Brazil in two years -- has been profound.
Mexico's destruction of the U.S. at last year's CONCACAF Gold Cup final at the Rose Bowl, built on the sublime talent of Giovani Dos Santos, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Andres Guardado, was product of Mexico's reaction to the Americans' dominance in the series for nearly a decade from 2000.
Now the U.S. must respond in kind.
“I think Mexico deserves a big compliment,” coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in advance of the Yanks' 1-0 victory in Wednesday's friendly. “What they've done the last three or four years is tremendous. They’ve identified a way they want to play, and everybody dedicates themselves to that style of play. ...
“There is a gap. It would be foolish not to recognize that.”
The U.S. went 10-2-2, with both losses at Azteca and one of the victories from the 2002 World Cup, over a span of about 8½ years. That dominance, star forward/midfielder Landon Donovan notes, was while “we had a group of us together for five, six, seven, eight years, and they were kind of in flux.” The roles shifted: The U.S. team is now in transition under Klinsmann.
He took charge a year ago after that Gold Cup defeat and is working toward creating a system and a style that will emphasize attacking soccer, a necessity for success in a landscape that has been altered by Spain's success the past five years. He's also altering the makeup of an aging squad, especially at the back. The Americans' great youngsters aren't so young anymore; Donovan is 30.
Mexico's most important figures aren't yet in their primes. Chicharito is 24, Giovani 23. Defender Hector Moreno is 24. Guardado, a relative veteran, is 25. More than a dozen more first-team pool players are younger than 25.
The U.S. also has a promising young contingent -- Jozy Altidore and Brek Shea are 22, Terrence Boyd 21, Danny Williams 23 and Fabian Johnson 24 -- and several others under 25 who might or might not pan out as international players.
“It's hard to quantify a gap,” Donovan said. “We're kind of a little more in flux now, but the hope is that in two years we've closed that gap and we're [like Mexico] a well-oiled machine.”
The 2014 World Cup is the Americans' chief focus, but the real view is longer. Whatever success the U.S. has enjoyed has been about belief and power, not technical and tactical acumen, although there have been great improvement in both areas since the 1994 World Cup changed everything. Klinsmann, a legendary German striker who has called Orange County home for more than a decade, is looking to alter the foundation of how the U.S. plays, and that requires a philosophical shift.
“We're developing a team toward Brazil 2014,” Klinsmann said. “We started that process last year, and I think it's a very good path. We will go through ups and downs on that path. We will try to establish a system and a style of play that suits us, that hopefully excites us, that excites the people [in the U.S.].
“We're working on that. It's a work in progress. It's not going to happen overnight. I think we've already been a couple steps forward, and the players are buying into a few different ways of doing it.”
They're trying to evolve from a defending, counterattacking team into a side that can impose its game, or least make a valid effort to do so no matter the opponent.
“You can't just sit back and counterattack and hope you’re going to win a game,” Klinsmann said. “You’ve got to play with the best [teams]. We have to get physically on another level and pace-wise on another level, which we are working on. On many other elements, we have to do better work. Here and there we see results.”
Culture aided in Mexico's transformation. The game is of vital importance in Mexican society, and there are lessons the U.S. can draw from their successes the past half-decade or so.
“How they built that under-23 team over many, many years, running them through kind of the same path from under-17 to under-20 to under-23s,” Klinsmann explained. “You know, there are players on that team, they almost got 100 caps in youth teams over those many years. They have a clear idea of how they want to play. It's the same style, the same system, pretty much like the senior national team plays, so you can see them and lead that path, and you can learn from them to.”
Rules requiring Mexican clubs to provide minutes to young players in league games has helped, and several top players -- Chicharito, Giovani, Guardado and Moreno among them -- make their livings in Europe, where their games are broadened by exposure to different systems and a greater diversity of talents.
There are far more Americans, many of them nowhere near the national team, playing overseas, and youth development in the U.S. has made significant advances through Major League clubs and the U.S. Soccer Development Academy system. There is much room for further advancement.
“I think we need to discuss and develop solutions for what is best for the U.S.,” Klinsmann said. “For what is best for our specific, very complex youth development system in the U.S. It's very different from other countries. So if we can take some positives from other countries, yes, we should do that. We should throw them in the mix and should discuss it and develop solutions.
“We have to do what's best for us.”
There remains debate on what is best, but a certain Latin flair is desirable -- especially with so many first-generation Mexican-American players, such as Herculez Gomez, Jose Torres, Joe Corona, Edgar Castillo and Azteca goalscorer Michael Orozco Fiscal starting to make an impact with the national team, and far more talent coming through. The skill levels of all players, no matter their backgrounds, must continue to improve.
“[Technical skill has] never been a real strength of U.S. players,” Donovan said. “Just sheer passing and decision-making and keeping possession -- it's not really been a staple. But I think going forward it has to be something we're focused on. The better you are at keeping the ball, the better chance you have.
“The times we've been successful against [top] teams, we attacked them. A team like Mexico is not a team that likes to be attacked. They like to have possession, get a rhythm, dictate the game. And when you can turn the tables and flip in on them, they tend to struggle. Brazil is the same way, Spain's the same way. And when we've done well we've done those things. We have to do it more consistently.”
Patience is required.
“It's going to take time,” Donovan said. “We're still not a country [in which] we grow up, from 5 years old, learning how to possess the ball. We learn how to do other things. And that culture has to change.”
That's a prescription for winning a World Cup one day. The first step is to regain the top spot in the region, and that means overtaking Mexico.
“We're not too far off. You've got to realize that,” said Gomez, who plays for Mexican champion Santos Laguna. “There are only a few teams in the world that can really say they've got something on a totally different level.”