DENVER -- The U.S. came to Denver for the cold and the altitude. The Americans received more than they bargained for Friday, playing a pugnacious Costa Rica side in blizzardlike conditions that bordered on the absurd. Snow, wind and low visibility combined to ensure this was far from the ideal of the beautiful game. But after a tumultuous week in which the squad's chemistry had been under scrutiny, the only thing that mattered was the result. Jurgen Klinsmann's team gutted out a 1-0 win to earn its first points of the Hex. It travels to the Azteca knowing its fans can take their fingers off the panic button.
Klinsmann was relaxed enough to laugh postgame while calling the clash a "nice snow battle," one in which, he admitted, "the conditions made it very hard" for his players to execute any kind of game plan. Jozy Altidore summed up those difficulties from a player's perspective when he revealed that "the ball came to you and you would kick the snow instead of the ball."
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- Rapid reaction
This U.S. team will try to recuperate quickly before lining up at the Azteca on Tuesday to battle the Mexican team, as well as the accompanying triple threat of altitude, smog and heat. After a win played out in such ice-folly-esque conditions, what lessons can the team claim to take down with it?
Klinsmann was realistic in his response to that question. "How much [the win] helps us adapt to high altitude in Mexico, we will see. The Hex is a lot about adjustments. Dealing with different fields and climates and make the best out of it to get your points."
Asked to define the lessons he would reinforce, the German coach admitted, "They are not big lessons. The big positive is how they battled through and showed the desire to win, but obviously from a tactical side or passing element –- there were many elements we just could not play. "
Klinsmann continued in his matter-of-fact tone: "You have to get your points at home. Now we have to make sure we get some points away, and we hope to start with that at Azteca."
The coach would have been relieved to see how his new captain, Clint Dempsey, demonstrated the extra dimension his game received from the added responsibility. After marking his first full game as captain with the only goal of a game, the Tottenham Hotspur attacker said, "I tried to lead by example. When you lose the ball … [you] give an extra effort and chase it down."
Dempsey hailed the ability of the makeshift defensive line to keep a clean sheet and singled out the play of Jermaine Jones. The German-American had been accused of being a symbol of the team's division, yet he thrived in the snow, and although Jones limped out of the locker room in obvious pain after receiving halftime stitches in a leg wound, Dempsey said, "Jermaine was unbelievable, breaking up play so quickly, making great decisions and keeping possession"
Herculez Gomez was quick to point out the team "ground it out," adding, "good teams find out a way to win games and that's what we did today ... because it was pretty hard to play actual soccer."
Asked whether running, passing or tackling was the hardest aspect of playing in the snow, Gomez thought for a minute, then, with a twinkle in his eye, answered with one word: "Yes." For the Santos striker, the main lesson the squad took from the game was "unity." Gomez said, "We stuck together, we did not blame. We were intense with each other, and we knew it would take all of us together to get out of this. "
As he so often does, Michael Bradley deepened that point. Hinting that team has spent the week discussing its core values, Bradley said, "We talked over … the things our team always needs to always be about -- the fight, the determination … the willingness to suffer. We looked at each other and said this has not been where it needs to be if we are to be a team who wish to compete at its highest level. When you look at those factors, tonight there is a lot to be proud of."
After the limp performance in Honduras, the U.S. was buoyant without ever being hyperbolic in the wake of the victory. Perhaps the most articulate statement of the night was the way the players charged toward the American Outlaws to celebrate behind the goal after the final whistle, an act that made it clear that, after a difficult week, their dominant experience was one of relief.
Perhaps for good reason. After watching Mexico draw 2-2, the Americans know they are caught in one of the most competitive Hex battles of all time. So Denver was all about morale, momentum, three big points and silencing the naysayers.
For now, at least.