American Outlaws sang into the night while the United States players popped champagne and beer in Columbus on Tuesday, but something didn't feel right.
Wins over Mexico are supposed to be monumental occasions and reasons to boast about a grand accomplishment. Instead, everyone was a more subdued kind of happy than usual. The players and fans knew how bad Mexico was on the night. Beating them wasn't the same accomplishment that it was in other qualifying cycles or the 2002 World Cup. It was just getting the job done.
Mexico used to be a measuring stick for the United States. Their professional league has been in place in something resembling its current form since 1970, and they're a massive soccer-crazy nation whose player pool is always deep. They've made the round of 16 at the World Cup in five straight tournaments. They're a legitimately good team and have been for a long time.
Playing them twice in qualifying and a handful of other times in friendlies and Gold Cup between cycles is great for the United States because they're the only other consistently good team in the CONCACAF region. If the U.S. can beat Mexico, it probably means that they're good enough to hang with the world's best at the World Cup.
Thanks to "Chepo" Jose Manuel de la Torre, Luis Fernando Tena, the management that was unable to get rid of them quickly enough and the players who have been unable to overcome their poor leadership, beating Mexico is not a major accomplishment. Tuesday night's win was great for three points and might have been important for the psyche of the players, but it tells us absolutely nothing about how good the United States are or can be in the near future.
It's incredible how suddenly this has happened. Mexico beat the USMNT, 4-2, in the 2011 Gold Cup final because they had the better players. U.S. manager Bob Bradley fielded a surprise lineup in that game and his team took a 2-0 lead on the back of his tactics, but ultimately it didn't matter. Mexico scored the next four goals because they had too much talent for the United States to handle.
Most of those players still play regularly for Mexico and most of them are still quite good. Javier Hernandez, Carlos Salcido and Andres Guardado are the same players they were two years ago. Giovani dos Santos and Hector Moreno are probably better. But that Gold Cup team never panicked, even when they went down two goals, and they always believed they could score. The same players don't seem to feel that way anymore, and they're handicapped by management that makes ridiculous personnel decisions, both pregame and in-game, and publicly states they're not good enough.
A bunch of talented players who have looked brilliant in El Tri colors before and who regularly look excellent with their club teams somehow managed to spend 78 minutes Tuesday looking jumpy and panicked, then 12 minutes looking indifferent. On the evidence of their week-in, week-out club performances, Mexico has better players than the United States, but that translated into nothing of substance on Tuesday night, much like it has in all of Mexico's games in the Hex. They haven't put together a single good performance in eight games.
The United States didn't need their best to beat Mexico at home. They might have posted their famous "dos a cero" result a bit more comfortably or won by more than two goals if Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Matt Besler and Steve Cherundolo were on the pitch, but they weren't required. Mexico never looked threatening. A United States C-team might have been able to hold onto a 0-0 draw. They learned nothing about themselves by beating El Tri.
The United States also didn't learn anything by losing to Costa Rica, who have beaten the United States at home with teams much worse than their current one. They didn't learn anything by beating a Germany C-team in a friendly either. An away win against Bosnia-Herzegovina was impressive, but does it mean much if the United States is also getting worked by Belgium?
There's an excellent chance that Jurgen Klinsmann has transformed the United States into a team that can keep the ball and play on the ground against the world's best teams just as well as they can sit deep and play on the counter. Don't be surprised if the United States wins a weak World Cup group or comfortably finishes second in a strong group next summer. But it's impossible to tell how good they are at the moment, and there aren't many conclusions to draw from the Mexico game. Mexico was horrible, and there's no reason to believe they were horrible because of the United States' tactics. They've been horrible for eight consecutive qualifiers.
It'll be mid-June before anyone can get a reasonable idea of how good this United States team is, and you can thank those in charge of FMF for the United States' complete lack of a good measuring stick against the rest of the world.