The U.S.-Mexico Rivalry, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the U.S. National Team

The United States vs Mexico rivalry has always stirred up strange emotions in me.  When I was younger (circa high school age), I was a U.S. soccer basher.  It is hard to admit, but I hated MLS and heavily criticized the firm defensive style favored by Bob Bradley.  Both the national team and nearly all MLS sides played a direct, predictable and ugly brand of soccer in my young eyes.  The U.S. team did not win games or play particularly exciting soccer, so why bother supporting them?  Instead, the soccer from south of the border pulled my interest.

In my adolescence, I was solely an El Tricolor fan.  This support had nothing to do with the language or culture, as I had not yet learned conversational Spanish and didn’t have many friends in the Mexican-American community in Western New York then.  The Mexican national team appealed to me because of the dynamic style of play they exhibited on the field.  They were just more fun for me to watch than the U.S. team.

I remember in 2009 my friend, a Mexico supporter, was trying to give me flack for the 5-0 drubbing in the Concacaf Gold Cup Final.  I didn’t bite because at that time it didn’t bother me at all at the time that Mexico’s A team routed the U.S. B team.  I had no great sense of national pride and I only mentioned in passing that the U.S. A team would have given a better match if they weren’t preparing for the Confederations Cup.

After I went off to college I had a bit of a revelation; I started watching MLS matches and caring about the U.S. national team.  In 2010, I supported both Mexico and the U.S. at the World Cup in South Africa.  Mexico was definitely more fun to watch as they eased to victory against France and actually traded chances with Argentina.  The U.S. on the other hand somehow topped their group with only five points playing an American style.

More importantly, the U.S. had a tremendous emotional appeal for American sports fans during the World Cup.  Landon Donovan’s near post roofed, blast of a shot was surpassed  only by his now iconic late game rebound goal against Algeria which sent the U.S. into the Round of 16.  By this time, Mexico still played a brand of soccer that was more attractive to me, but I had developed some sense of emotional connection to the U.S. team.

Fast forward to the 2011 Gold Cup and it was largely the same story.  El Tri exhibited a fluid and dynamic style of soccer and won their three group games by a combined score of 14 to 1.  In stark contrast, the U.S. struggled to beat Guadeloupe and was wholly embarrassed by Panama in the group stage.  At some point during the knockout stages, it dawned on me; the U.S. was actually going to play against Mexico in a competitive match with both countries’ strongest squads.

If I was still an independent observer, I would have liked the game for producing 6 goals.  If I was still just a fan of El Tri, I’d have loved the game for the result and manner of comeback.  But I wasn’t either of those things; I was a full-hearted U.S. supporter and that game was the worst kind of pain.  I was shocked when Bradley put us ahead and then overconfident when Donovan nabbed the second.  Watching the U.S. team unravel and ultimately capitulate in the 66 remaining minutes was not only like witnessing a train wreck but rather like sitting on that train.

When I saw Gerrardo Torrado look for Gio’s diagonal run into the box, my stomach turned.  I knew the resulting play wasn’t going to be pretty, however, I just assumed dos Santos would win the footrace and chip Tim Howard.  What actually happened was much worse.  The scene of Tim Howard crawling and swiping helplessly at the ball was etched into my brain.  For U.S. fans, that goal is the stuff of nightmares.  Howard’s reaction after the goal, squatting down hoping the ground would open up, was no doubt emulated by all supporters of the Stars and Stripes who were watching the game with Mexico supporting friends.

“Hey man, did you like seeing Gio make Howard crawl around like a dog?”  I had to answer to that for months.  I later took some solace in knowing that being bothered by those comments meant that I had internalized the fate of the U.S. team.

Then in January 2012, I lived in Puebla, Mexico for 5 months as part of a study abroad program.  Clearly many of my conversations turned to soccer.  I had been following the Mexican Primera Division for a few years and had the pleasure of attending three matches while I was living there.  I also had the chance to watch the Mexico – Colombia friendly match, which was the same day the U.S. beat Italy.

At the beginning of the match, I was rooting for Mexico but as the game wore on and Rafael Marquez proved himself a liability in defense (which is a great conversation starter with El Tri fans), I couldn’t help but gloat a bit.  On the same day that the U.S. beat a world power in Europe, Mexico struggled against an inferior Colombian side in Miami.

Each of these episodes has been a chapter in my evolution as a soccer fan; I have grown from wholly disinterested in the U.S., to disappointed, to humiliated, to hopeful and proud.  Right now, I’d say I have reached the maturation of my national fan-dom.  I love the U.S. team, but I still cheer for El Tri.  As long as Mexico isn’t playing the U.S., I don’t see why not.  I have more friends who support Mexico than the U.S., and I was never one for hatred along national divides (though club loyalties are a different story).

In the coming weeks I look forward to hearing the stories of why you support your team and learning what this rivalry means to you.  To me, this match is the most important game of the year for both teams.  And while tempers may flare during the game (and perhaps a few days after), it is important to me to remember that the U.S. and Mexico will always be intertwined, just as they were in the development of my soccer profile.

Previewing My Trip to See Red Bull New York and Tottenham Hotspur Football Club

Next week I will have the immense pleasure of seeing my beloved Tottenham Hotspur play live.  While this will be the second time I see Tottenham, second time at Red Bull Arena in fact, this match will be very special for me as two of my favorite teams face off.

Spurs brought a fairly strong squad along for their U.S. tour.  The only notable missing players besides Olympic players (Danny Rose, Steven Caulker, Gio dos Santos, Sandro) are injured Scotty Parker and hoping-to-be-transferred players Luka Modric and Steven Pienaar.  Youth players like John Bostock, Massimo Luongo, Dean Parrett, Iago Falque and Souleymane Coulibaly are still in Europe training with Tottenham’s development squad.

We’ve seen in the past that Red Bulls’ head coach Hans Backe and his coaching staff play full strength teams during these mid-season international club friendly matches.  Look for Thierry Henry to play 45 minutes against the team he tormented for so many seasons in the Premier League.  Jermaine Jenas, Jermain Defoe, Tom Huddlestone, Aaron Lennon, Michael Dawson and Benoit Assou-Ekotto will all remember playing in those North London Derby slugfests against Henry’s Arsenal in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

It will be interesting to see how Tottenham lineup under new head coach Andre Villas-Boas.  The prospect of seeing a true 4-3-3 at White Hart Lane has spurred much debate and discussion.  This tour’s roster only includes two true strikers (Defoe and youngster Harry Kane), so it looks like a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 is in the cards.  Recent signings Jan Vertonghen and Gylfi Sigurdsson are likely to slide right into the new look starting XI, as they did against the Los Angeles Galaxy this past Tuesday. Continue reading

Match Preview: Rhinos Host Los Angeles Blues

The Rhinos have four games left to play this season against teams with four very different records.  On Friday the Los Angeles Blues (8th place, 7-8-2) come to visit Sahlen’s Stadium, before Orlando City (1st place, 14-1-4), Charleston Battery (3rd place, 11-7-0) and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds (10th place, 3-12-5) travel to Rochester in the next few weeks.

Los Angeles welcomed Rochester to Titan Stadium twice this season back in April and you may remember the Rhinos coming away with two wins.  Tyler Rosenlund earned Rochester a 1-0 victory a week before Hoxie and Banks served up a 2-0 win.

Not counting an odd two game series against Antigua Barracuda FC played in Florida, the Blues have a 2-4-1 record away from home.  Their only other road wins came against Dayton and Pittsburgh (two of the three worst teams in the league) in early May.

Los Angeles has undoubtedly missed Bright Dike, their star striker who was recalled by the Portland Timbers.  While Dike was on loan, he scored 6 goals and set up 2 others, which means he finished or assisted 8 of the team’s 11 goals during his stay in Los Angeles between May 8 and July 10. Continue reading

Rhinos Win Against Pittsburgh; Doherty Soccer Man of the Match

The Rochester [formerly Raging] Rhinos were fully expected to get three points at home against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds.  Not only was Pittsburgh sitting in 10th place out of 11 teams, was coming off a five game losing streak, has only managed 1 win and 6 goals away from home all season, but the team was also struggling from a demoralizing home loss Friday night before traveling to Rochester through the night.  All signs pointed to a Rochester win and J.C. Banks did his part to ensure the victory early.

In front of an announced attendance of 7,221 fans, J.C. Banks nodded home a ball at the far post that was crossed in by right back Lucas Fernández and flicked on by forward Isaac Kissi in the 10th minute.  Banks told me after the game that he felt a tweak in his knee during the scoring play and you can see him jogging back gingerly after his shoe polish goal celebration with Kissi.  After hobbling around the field and taking an injury break, the tenacious winger called it quits on the night’s proceedings. Scoring a goal is not bad for 10 minutes worth of work and 9 minutes of playing with an injury.  There are more important games coming up in the team’s schedule so Jesse Myers didn’t want to risk needlessly aggravating the slight knock. Continue reading

Pittsburgh Riverhounds Match Preview

The Rochester Rhinos are now in the home stretch of the 2012 USL-Pro season.  That’s not just a figure of speech; it’s also literally true.  All five of the team’s remaining regular season games are at home in front of the several thousand faithful at Sahlen’s Stadium.  Charleston Battery are idle this week so the Rhinos have a chance to reclaim second place and take hold of an automatic semifinal playoff berth.

On Friday, the Rhinos apparently added Houston Dynamo draft pick Karo Okiomah before the USL roster freeze date.  This big forward from Austin, Texas, is not afraid to go at defenders and could display the tenacity and fearlessness up top that has been so sorely missing from the Rhinos this year.  I wouldn’t expect him to start in his first eligible league match, but Okiomah could be an effective unknown for Pittsburgh to defend coming off the bench in the second half.

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds come to town sitting in 10th place out of 11 teams.  At home the Rhinos have recently gotten wins against both Antigua Barracuda FC and Dayton Dutch Lions when those two teams were in the bottom two.  On paper, things are looking good for a confidence boosting Rochester win.  But on the field, things might not be so simple.

Pittsburgh has no grand illusions about the way they play.  They set up defensively and know they are going to absorb a lot of pressure, especially playing away at a top three team.  This means that the Riverhounds will have no problem sitting back and putting men behind the ball.  To score against this mentality, the Rhinos will have to be patient but more importantly they will have to recycle possession back out to a midfielder or the defenders while maintaining a high level of pressure.

Translated into play, this means that the Rhinos will need to play probing balls through the middle or out wide at diagonals to find seams through the tightly packed Pittsburgh defense.  If the Rhinos try to overload one side or the other by either sending a fullback on an overlapping run or pinching central midfielders over, they leave themselves vulnerable on the counterattack.  Instead, the team needs to look for openings across the field but remain disciplined in the back.  A player like Drew Cost or Gustavo Zamudio, who can effortlessly spread the point of attack with accurate passes, is essential for this strategy.  He will sit back while other players attack around him, (at the expense of sounding cliche) much like Xavi Hernández does for Barcelona or Andrea Pirlo just demonstrated with the Italian national team during the Euro tournament.

“Recycling possession” just refers to giving the ball back to your deep lying playmaker in the midfield (probably Drew Cost) when the opportunity to go to goal doesn’t readily present itself in order to look for another chance elsewhere.  This prevents the team from pushing too hard on one side or from trying to work the ball through an area where there is clearly very little probability of producing a shot on goal.

Patient play does not mean a slow pace, however, as the forwards and both wingers will need to constantly be moving to open up space for their teammates.  If a forward makes a run to the left side post, that opens up space for the right winger to run into in the box.  Playing like this requires not only physical activity but a great deal of mental activity.

This style of play will put a a heavy load on the midfielder who stays just outside the top of the box.  He will need to stay open and know where to play the ball before he receives a pass.  If this player is not up to snuff, attempts to recycle the ball may result in turnovers to the opposition, whose center forward will then run at the Rhinos defense.

Pittsburgh is coming off the back of five straight losses; the Riverhounds haven’t won since June 22.  This team is very beatable but the Rhinos need to play with intelligence and patience; neither one of which has been on ample display so far this season.  The Riverhounds (road:1-7-2) have only earned 5 points of the road from ten games but the Rhinos (home:3-2-2) haven’t exactly turned Sahlen’s Stadium into a fortress either.  Rochester needs to perform well on Saturday to build confidence before hosting current second placed team Charleston Battery and defending champions Orlando City in coming weeks.

Rhinos Close to a Deal with Karo Okiomah?

Today, July 20th, is the roster freeze date for teams in USL-Pro.  That means that any transfers USL teams want to make have to be finalized by the close of business hours today.  According to Jeff DiVeronica, the Rochester Rhinos are close to a deal with Karo Okiomah.

Okiomah, 6’2″ and 185 pounds, is a big center forward from Austin, Texas.  Okiomah was drafted by Houston and then trained with Chivas USA before the MLS preseason ended.  He has also played for Carolina Dynamo of the Premier Development League during the summers of 2011 and 2012.

On Tuesday January 17th, Okiomah was selected as the 12th overall pick in the MLS Supplemental Draft by Houston Dynamo.  The forward joined the Texas-based club for training on January 22.  Okiomah performed well in an intra-squad scrimmage on the 28th, playing 45 minutes and creating a few chances.  However, by February 17 he had failed to adequately impress the coaches in Houston and was cut by the team.

Chivas USA liked what they had seen during the MLS Combine and took advantage of Houston’s decision to bring Okiomah into training camp.  “He’s kind of a big, strong forward who’s flown under the radar a bit,” Chivas head coach Robin Fraser said of Okiomah. “He tested athletically really, really well at the Combine.”  Unfortunately for Okiomah, he sustained an ankle injury on Monday February 20th and when he didn’t recover immediately, Fraser was left with little choice but to dismiss the forward prospect.

Okiomah, a forward out of High Point University, is a three-time NSCAA All-Region selection and a two-time All-Big South honoree.  According to the Big South Conference site, “Okiomah finished his HPU career second in the High Point Div. I career record books with 68 points on 29 goals and 10 assists. He is second in team history in goals scored and his 0.43 goals per game is an HPU Div. I record. As a junior, Okiomah was among the national leaders in goals per game at 0.75 after scoring 12 goals in 16 games. Okiomah was named a third-team All-American by the NSCAA and the Big South Player of the Year.”

I found Okiomah’s collegiate career profile on the High Point University website.

In 2008, Karo Okiomah started 11 of the 16 games he played in and finished second on the team with five goals and 11 points to earn the Big South All-Freshman team honors.

Okiomah was named to the third-team All-South Atlantic Region by starting 14 of 16 games and finishing second on the team with five goals and four assists and tied for the team lead with 14 total points in 2009.

As a junior, Okiomah was named Big South Player of the Year, first-team All-Big South, the Big South All-Tournament Team, Big South Player of the Week on October 5, the Top Drawer Soccer and College Soccer News National Teams of the Week on October 4.  He started 14 of the 16 games in which he played and finished tied for the Big South scoring lead with 12 goals and second in Big South with 26 points.

In his senior year, 2011, Okiomah started 19 of 20 games and finished second on his team with 7 goals and 17 points.  He was named second-team All-Big South, named to the Big South All-Tournament Team.

Okiomah would be another body up top for the Rhinos as first year head coach Jesse Myers gets his team ready for a play off run.  The team has 5 straight home games before the start of the 2012 postseason and Myers thinks the Austin striker could be the player to turn Rochester into a title contender.  After suffering a 4-0 massacre at the hands of Orlando in southern Florida, it is obvious that the team needs something more. Chances are in order to win a championship this year, the Rhinos will have to figure out how to dismantle a very strong Orlando City side and the coaching staff hope Karo Okiomah can be the man to do it.

Complaints about the Rhinos

The following is a laundry list of things that have upset me recently about the Rochester Rhinos.  Don’t read this post if you’re expecting something insightful or clever.

The official write-up on the team website misattributed J.C. Banks’s absence from the game in Orlando.  “An injury to star winger JC Banks forced him from the lineup..”  Jeff DiVeronica uncovered that “Rochester played without… top-scorer JC Banks, who was attending his brother’s wedding. Myers said [he] knew of the conflict for months.”  Banks is very clearly the best player in Rochester and easily one of the top five performers in the league.

Two things about that; first, how does Devo get the dish on a player’s whereabouts ahead of the team’s own website?  Nobody who writes for the team bothered to actually ask a coach or player?  Secondly, how does Jesse Myers feel like he doesn’t have to tell the fans?  We, the Rochester Rhinos fanbase, give our money to the organization which is the same money that pays Myers.  Shouldn’t there be some sort of commitment between the organization and the fans?

To turn the focus on that same point, what duties does the club have to its fans?  Not all home games are on Time Warner Sports Channel.  I have only viewed one USL-Nation feed that didn’t have significant issues out of every away game this season.

I can’t hold it against the Rhinos’ organization itself for not having a national television deal; that’s the league’s fault.  I can’t hold it against the Rhinos for not having a functioning stream for away games; again, that’s the league’s fault.  (It should be noted that I haven’t had any problems with the UStream service that NASL uses.)  I can’t hold it against the Rhinos for not having access to download or even view match archives; that’s the league’s fault, as well.

NASL has working streams for all its games.  NASL puts up the entire match replay by the day after the game.  NASL has two minute highlight videos on YouTube for each match.  NASL has a four minute “Weekly Rewind” video for each week.  NASL has a minute and a half “Plays of the Week” video on YouTube.  NASL has a video profile for each “Player of the Month”.

I can blame the Rhinos for joining USL-Pro instead of being a founding member of NASL.  But then again, two USL-Pro clubs have been able to produce off the field for their fans despite membership in the USL.

Los Angeles has been able to upload their home matches and then also their away matches.  Orlando goes classier and produces a “Match Recap” video for each home game.  You can see from the following highlights of the Rhinos match in Florida that the club is outclassed by Orlando both on and off the field.  Head coach Adrian Heath even sits through a post-game press conference.  Do you think Adrian Heath would have neglected to tell his fans that the team’s best player won’t be playing one of the most important games of the season?

Maybe I’m just a little spoiled, but I think the team’s organization should work just as hard as the players or fans.  The organization doesn’t provide any incentive to swell the ranks of college-aged fans (18-25 year olds), as just about every other team in the country does.  Besides the on-field troubles of a hapless Jesse Myers’ led team, the Rhinos could do so much more off the field, too.