For fans of teams around the world the last week has offered a little bit of everything. Above all it offered pleasant surprises. What does your favorite international side have to smile about, read on to learn more.
It was about as ideal an international break as fans of the US Men’s National Team could hope for. On Thursday, the legend of Christian Pulisic grew a little bigger and a little brighter through his two goals against Trinidad and Tobago. He and the rest of the red-white-and-blue offered intense pressure on a harried Trinidadian back line throughout the first half. In the second half, Pulisic delivered the goods, twice. Within 10 minutes, the Hero from Hershey pounced with a pair of perfect runs and an invaluable pair of goals. At one point announcers were forced to ask, “is there anything he can’t do?”
We got the answer on Sunday night: Pulisic cannot bully Mexico in Azteca. (He also can’t legally drink inside the US, but that’s a separate matter). El Tri executed a targeted game plan to minimize Pulisic’s influence on the game. As many had predicted, doubling down on the coverage of the US catalyst mostly put the genie back in the bottle. Juan Carlos Osorio will not be the last manager to try minimizing Pulisic’s influence on the game. The real question is, will others be as successful?
Despite Mexico’s successful stratagem, the US did grab an early lead through Michael Bradley. The oft forgotten midfield-general/captain capitalized on an early Mexican miscue with a beautiful long chip to put the US in front while in Mexico (a rare occurrence indeed). Carlos Vela’s equalizer came on a counter attack. While Vela’s skill and goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa’s distribution were integral to the goal, part of the root cause was the USA’s aggressive play. Instead of camping out into a bunker, the US remained creative and opportunistic on counters throughout the match. Part of that is also owed to manager Bruce Arena’s rotation in defense and game plan.
While most national teams cling to their first choice keeper, Bruce Arena opted for a switch between the sticks to compensate for the age and health of Tim Howard. Additionally, Arena dropped John Brooks and Jorge Villafana in favor of Omar Gonzalez and Tim Ream. They (along with fullbacks D’Andre Yedlin and DeMarcus Beasley as well as defensive midfielders Kellyn Acosta and Paul Arriola) helped close down frequent opportunities for El Tri in the second half. Mexico’s overall skill and immense home-field advantage always offer a serious challenge. Sunday Night’s draw might not be the best possible result, but it certainly satisfies.
The big match for Loons fans was the face off between Kevin Molino and his Los Ticos teammates Francisco Calvo and Johan Venegas. Before they squared off Tuesday night, they faced a pair of unsatisfying qualifiers. Molino and Trinidad came away without a point against the US in Denver despite winning many balls in the air (Molino’s own best opportunity sailed over the bar).
— Jason Foster (@JogaBonitoUSA) June 9, 2017
Meanwhile, as Costa Rica drew with Panama, Franscico Calvo was glued to the bench and Johan Venegas was (to use a phrase from my favorite writers at La Nacion) “not enough to dynamite the Panamanian wall.”
All this made for a vital qualifier in San Jose. Trinidad needed a win to stay afloat in the Hexagonal. Costa Rica needed a victory to regain their momentum and cling to one of the qualification spots. From the kickoff it was a good night for the Loons. Le Sele won an early corner kick and Calvo delivered the opener around 48 seconds. Johan Venegas was let loose to attack alongside Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell, but that opened up the midfield for Mr. Molino. Sure enough, in the 35th minute, Johnny Acosta switched off and Molino pounced. His shot skipped under the leg of Calvo and past the fingertips of Keylor Navas. Maybe it was just the natural high of scoring on foreign soil, but Molino seemed optimistic about their chances after that.
First half we were in it even after the early goal and when I banged it in, I felt we had them on the back foot and the game was there for the taking. –Kevin Molino speaking to Newsday
Unfortunately for Molino and the rest of his countrymen, Bryan Ruiz grabbed the winner right before half-time, dekeing one defender out of his boots before blasting in from outside the area. Trinidad and Tobago still had a little initiative at the start of the 2nd half. However, when the referee failed to call a clear penalty near the start of the first half, the aggrieved Soca Warriors never really came back. (It’s worth saying that the foul was so egregious that even Costa Rican announcers were disgusted by it.) With that Costa Rica claimed sole position of 2nd place before their next match, a crucial tilt in the USA.
The International Break Down neglected to mention that Loons Defender Jermaine Taylor was called up for an all expense paid trip to Arequipa, Peru. The match was a welcome tune-up for next month’s Gold Cup. Judging by the 3-1 defeat, it was also a well needed one. Taylor played the full 90 and bailed out the defense in the 12th minute with a deft sliding tackle on a break away by Christian Cueva. This was only a stay of execution, as Peru peppered Andre Blake and a battered back line. The Reggae Boyz struggled to keep their shape and ceded three goals on a variety of poor clearances, poor marking, and acres of space left open for clinical passing. A late consolation goal would be their only solace on the flight back to Kingston. (Well the goal and the flying back to Jamaica.)
— Jahan Miah (@AllAboutTheAFC) June 10, 2017
(Oh, and Norway and Sweden turned out to be a 1-1 draw in front of a moderate crowd. Enjoy showing your lefsa-loving relatives the highlight package. It’s nice to see goals by a Norwegian/Moroccan named Mohammed Elyounoussie and a Swedish/Cuban named Samuel Armenteros)
Elsewhere in Asia, Thailand’s War Elephants will have to feel hard done by. Their second point could have been a moral victory in keeping with the theme of this recap. Instead a late equalizer from the UAE denied the Thais their first win at this stage of qualifying.