Bruce Arena happy to see U.S. execute game plan against Mexico
MEXICO CITY -- U.S. manager Bruce Arena hailed his team's ability to follow its tactical game plan in a 1-1 draw with rivals Mexico, as well as the bond that the individual players have formed with each other.
The U.S. scored on a wonder goal from Michael Bradley in the sixth minute. The U.S. captain intercepted a pass from Javier Hernandez, surged into the attacking third, and after spotting Mexico goalkeeper Memo Ochoa off his line, scored on a delightful arcing shot that went just under the bar from 40 yards out.
Mexico equalized in the 23rd minute through Carlos Vela, but with the U.S. adopting a conservative 5-4-1 formation, Arena's team was able to hold El Tri at bay for the rest of the match.
"I thought we had a good game today," said Arena. "I think we played well. Mexico is certainly a very good team and even a better team at home. But our team really did an excellent job with our tactical plan. Certainly some fatigue came in at the end of the game. But I thought our players played very well."
The result cements the Americans' hold on third place in World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF. With the remainder of the games in this round being played on Tuesday, it's possible the U.S. could fall to fourth, but Arena said he was pleased with the progress his team has made since taking over at the end of last year.
"I think the competition for the first three spots in CONCOCAF is going to go down to the last game," he said. "Certainly Mexico has a big advantage at this point, and the second and third places and fourth as well is going to be very challenging right to the end. But I feel very good about where we are. We've made up some lost ground, so I feel good about that."
Arena said he had been planning to play what he called a 3-4-3 formation -- though it looked more like 5-4-1 when defending -- back in "January or February."
"We tossed that around in our office with our coaches, and they were probably not real supportive of the idea, since they maybe don't have enough experience in that formation," he said. "But I was pretty confident we could implement that. We have very good center-backs and that's a key to that system. We worked real hard preparing the team to do it."
When the team arrived in Denver and began training, Arena made it clear that the formation would be used against Mexico, and that he was going to make numerous changes from the team that played against Trinidad & Tobago on Thursday.
"I was close to nine [changes] yesterday, but fell back to seven," said Arena. "I think the short period between games is unprecedented in CONCACAF. We had two full days of rest. We had to travel; we played both games at altitude. You can even see a player like Christian Pulisic tonight, he's probably our fittest player on the team, he was basically done. To repeat the lineup that we played Thursday, we would have struggled big time at the altitude.
"Our players were well aware of the fact that we were going to make changes. We worked as best we could over the two weeks to try to get adjusted and try to level the playing field when we came here, but we know you can never really do that. But we certainly benefited with the things we did over the last two weeks."
Arena also has been impressed at the way the team has become more cohesive since he took over in January, and especially in the last two World Cup qualifying fixture periods. That leaves him feeling good about his team's position in the Hexagonal standings.
"The older players who weren't on the field were very supportive of their teammates," he said. "I think my experience with national teams in this is critical because you meet even fewer times a year now, most of these players tonight will disappear until September. To leave with the bond that they've acquired over the last four games is very important. So the next time around, I'm optimistic that we can better in the next two games of qualifying."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.