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Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Late changes spark U.S. comeback

By Leander Schaerlaeckens
ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- Expectation left to metastasize unchecked inevitably breeds disappointment.

But while the actual game in Jurgen Klinsmann's maiden run-out in charge of the U.S. national team may have been tepidly disappointing, the outcome against archrival Mexico and the initial touches the shiny new German head coach has put on the squad should leave the U.S. deeply satisfied.

First, the outcome. Given that the U.S. underwent a regime change just 12 days ago and that the new man in charge is supposed to be the antithesis of his predecessor, the fired Bob Bradley -- and thus wouldn't have been able to get away with leaving things more or less the same in his first game -- a 1-1 outcome is as good as the U.S. might have hoped for. This is even more true given that it was overrun virtually the entire game. Mexico, like it did in the two teams' epic 4-2 Gold Cup final in June, commanded the play in quantity and quality. Mostly, the U.S. walked away with a draw in which it actually had the bulk of chances because Mexico didn't look sufficiently perturbed by the score line to actually do something about it.

Then, those alterations. The U.S. was well-organized defensively with Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones playing behind the newly advanced Michael Bradley. Collectively, they crashed into space well and covered the runners into the box. Offensively, the U.S. used its space better than it has in the past, advancing its wing backs high up the field and splitting the center backs to cover the back territory by themselves -- with the help of a holding midfielder who would drop back when in need. Although this seemed risky, it helped the U.S. establish the manpower in midfield that was necessary to stymie somewhat the flow of Mexico's technically dazzling midfielders.

Yet much that ails this team is still far from resolved. Mexico eventually began running through the lines, tapping the U.S. into oblivion and picking it apart like it had in June, destroying the Yanks in the possession department. It was only the U.S.'s sturdy play in the middle and El Tri's inability to connect with a forward through the middle that kept the scoring floodgates from opening. Not until Mexico tired in the final 20 minutes did the U.S. start producing on offense, when young forwards Robbie Rogers, Juan Agudelo and Brek Shea created problems for Mexico with their movement. Before then, however, the U.S. had mustered nothing of consequence on offense, establishing a presence neither on the wings, through the middle nor at center forward.

Even under Klinsmann -- and no miracles could ever be expected of him, no matter how long his tenure was longed for -- the U.S. has structural problems. It is missing the talent and manpower up front to have a lone striker hold the line by himself. Yet it also can't afford to lose a man in midfield or on defense, prone to getting overrun as it was today.

Klinsmann has been confronted with this truth about this team early. It's a quandary he'll have to set about solving, if his tenure is to be a success.

With that, here are the grades for the U.S. players:

Grades: (1-10; 10 = best)

GK Tim Howard, 6: Games against Mexico are seldom so uneventful for U.S. keepers. Howard had little to do and was blameless on Mexico's goal.

D Steve Cherundolo, 6: Cherundolo was predictably solid and steady.

D Michael Orozco Fiscal, 5.5: Orozco was a tad shaky early and sometimes dodgy on the ball. But he did what he had to do, especially given that he's fairly new to the team.

D Carlos Bocanegra, 7.5: The captain is still completely irreplaceable in the middle of the U.S. defense. He had another strong game and was caught out just once by Rafa Marquez.

D Edgar Castillo, 4.5: Castillo was sometimes useful on offense but a liability in the back. He isn't sharp yet and sent some bad passes. Still, he's an upgrade over Jonathan Bornstein.

M Kyle Beckerman, 5.5: Playing just behind Bradley, Beckerman had one of his better games for the U.S. But is he suited long term for this level? Probably not.

M Jermaine Jones, 5: Playing in a holding role behind Michael Bradley, Jones was at times useful but not as often as he was invisible. For large swaths of his 60 minutes on the field he was nowhere to be found in spite of very much being in the center of the field -- a worrying reoccurrence in his short tenure with the U.S.

M Michael Bradley, 6.5: Another ambiguous night for the no-longer-coach's son. He played well as a central attacking midfielder, distributing well with square balls and still getting back to do plenty of defensive work. His return to the position he played at Heerenveen earlier in his career was a success. The Mexico goal in the 17th minute in which he let Oribe Peralta swivel around him and dink in the 1-0 was not.

M Jose Torres, 5: Torres is no winger, we learned that much. He dropped too deep and drifted too central. What's more, he was delinquent defensively, even if he was solid on the ball.

F Landon Donovan, 5.5: The U.S.'s somewhat mercurial stalwart underdelivered today. He sent in the odd dangerous cross from the wing, but didn't have enough impact.

F Edson Buddle, 4.5: With almost none to absolutely no service coming his way, and with little support out of the midfield or from the wings, Buddle had a chance to brush up on his Spanish, surrounded as he was by green jerseys.

Subs:

F Juan Agudelo, 7: The much-hyped youngster was instantly dangerous after coming on and did good preparatory work on the American equalizer.

M Brek Shea, 7.5: At last Shea translated his club form with FC Dallas to the national team, after two ineffectual caps. The giant winger was mobile, physical and active, and set up Rogers' equalizer beautifully.

F Robbie Rogers, 6.5: The usually underachieving winger scored the equalizer and went on dangerous runs, one of which saw him through on goal alone before being brought down (when inexplicably only a yellow card was drawn). He fluffed a shot or two as well though.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @LeanderESPN.