NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For 65 minutes, Mexico and the U.S men's national team played one of the dullest matches in the rivalry's long and storied history.
The match was ragged to say the least. While Mexico midfielder Diego Lainez showed off some slick dribbling moves at times, El Tri was largely kept at bay by a U.S. defense led by Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers. But that was more than could be said for the U.S. attack, which looked lethargic and predictable, especially in the first half.
Then the match came to life, and a rivalry that is very much in a state of transition received an injection of fuel in the form of some new heroes and villains. Miazga tangled with Lainez in an amusing exchange that saw the 5-foot-5 Mexico midfielder square up to the 6-foot-4 Miazga. Miazga then poked fun at his lack of height.
It wasn't quite U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu staring down Mexico forward Jared Borgetti during a World Cup qualifier back in 2005, but the exchange still had the same effect. The U.S. team kept its composure while Mexico lost its. El Tri forward Angel Zaldivar was sent off for a late challenge on Wil Trapp two minutes later, and a match that had already begun to tilt in the U.S. team's favor soon saw the home side running downhill. In the 71st minute, substitute Antonee Robinson broke down the left wing and his centering feed found the late arriving Tyler Adams to convert with a first-time finish.
"I feel like after the 60th minute, when I start to make those late runs, that midfielders can't really track me," said Adams. "It was good timing, and the ball just trickled right to me. It was one of the weirdest things. Watching it was like in slo-mo, the ball just came to me and I was able to finish it."
The U.S.-Mexico rivalry has long been characterized by the dynamic that while El Tri had the skill, the U.S. had the mental edge. That changed during the last cycle, with Mexico excelling on both fronts and winning a World Cup qualifier on U.S. soil for the first time in more than 40 years. And while this was nothing close to Mexico's first team, the same was true for the U.S, and collectively it grasped the game's mental challenges better than its rivals.
"It was normal. We talked a little smack. It's part of the game," said Miazga about his set-to with Lainez. "It's mental warfare. We got in their heads and they got a red card right after that. You saw what happened. We took control and we won the game."
Adams, for one, appreciated Miazga's willingness to engage in some jawing.
"Typical Miazga, I love that from him," he said. "It gets the guys going. He's not [going] to back down from someone like that. At the end of the day, your teammates see that, and you want to keep going and back your guy up. And the next tackle is going to be a tough one. That's another one that you want to win that one and we were aggressive ... For us, we kept our composure to the best of our ability, no stupid yellows and we moved on from it."
The goal also amounted to a bit of redemption for Robinson. The U.S. defender was given a torrid time last Friday by Brazilian attacker Douglas Costa, who torched him in the run-up to the Selecao's first goal. Coming on as a substitute, Robinson rebounded to play a critical role in the match.
"I didn't have it too much on my mind, the Brazil game," said Robinson. "I just thought I've got to go out and do my best whenever I'm needed."
There is a strong impulse to dismiss friendly results, but this one has value. It adds an additional building block or two as this program lurches forward and tries to rebuild. And it provides some needed experience for encounters with El Tri down the road.
But there is also no reason to get carried away. The soccer the U.S. played was downright brutal at times, and it's worth noting that it took a forced substitution -- Weston McKennie going off with a sprained left knee and being replaced by Julian Green -- combined with a change of formation at halftime for the U.S. to begin to get on top in the match.
The change involved Green operating as a second forward and it was clear that having an extra body in the attack in closer proximity to Gyasi Zardes made the U.S. more dangerous. The move had the added benefit of placing Adams alongside Trapp. In the first half, Trapp was asked to provide the primary shield in front of the back line and he was neither mobile enough to track the likes of Lainez -- who looks an immense talent -- nor rugged enough to win his individual duels.
With Adams by his side in the second half, Trapp stepped into passing lanes more confidently and was overall more of a defensive presence. It seemed to lift his attacking game as well.
And so for what seems like the millionth time, the U.S. showed once again that it is much more comfortable operating out of a two-striker alignment. U.S. caretaker manager Dave Sarachan said he had "toyed" with the idea of playing with a second forward prior to the match, before ultimately deciding to start the game with the 4-1-4-1 that has been used during the bulk of his tenure. But it's pretty clear that in the absence of a creative force like Christian Pulisic, the U.S. simply has to have an additional forward on the field to generate any kind of sustained attack.
The use of two holding midfielders will also need to be examined, as well as Trapp's place in the lineup. Historically he has fared better with someone at his side, and these days with the Columbus Crew that man is the Brazilian Artur. Having someone like Adams next to him on a full-time basis might have the same effect.
That will be on Sarachan's mind when the team reconvenes next month for friendlies against Colombia and Peru. But so will the growth of players like Adams and Miazga, who look to be mainstays in this rivalry for years to come.