The day is finally upon us. It's the United States vs. Mexico and THIS TIME IT MATTERS! (Or does it?) Any time these two bitter rivals face off it's intense. Now that there is a prize up for grabs the hype has grown to ridiculous levels. Both sides have had their share of turmoil in the last calendar year, but as soon as they step on the Rose Bowl field on Saturday all of those distractions will be washed away.
The winner of this "CONCACAF Cup" will go on to represent the region at the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia. The USMNT enter this playoff game coming off one of their most embarrassing losses in recent memory. That 4-1 loss to Brazil coupled with the underwhelming performance at the 2015 Gold Cup have a lot of American soccer supporters feeling very uneasy.
Meanwhile, Mexico won that Gold Cup (will a little help from the referees) but haven't exactly been in the best of form either. They'll also be without Giovanni dos Santos and Jose Juan Vazquez for this game, while it appears Andres Guardado will win the race back to full fitness.
Saturday night will undoubtedly be an emotional and fiery affair between two teams who just simply don't like each other. Here are some key things you should be keeping an eye out for:
Defending, defending, defending
As it has been for the last 12 months, the USMNT back line will be the biggest question mark heading into the playoff. A consistent back four has yet to be decided on and a lack of chemistry could be a real issue. Mexico have many talented attacking players who will rip apart the American's defense if they aren't all on the same page and alert at all times.
Omar Gonzalez, a starter in the World Cup, has been kicked to the curb by Jurgen Klinsmann. While Matt Besler, another starter in Brazil, wasn't named to the Gold Cup roster, but is back in the picture for this crucial game. Our center back options have been playing Musical Chairs for the better part of a year and we still have no inkling as to who will start against Mexico.
Smart money is on veterans Besler and Geoff Cameron playing some kind of roles on the back line. As long as DaMarcus Beasley stays fit, you can expect him at left back. Fabian Johnson, who has spent the majority of his minutes since the World Cup in the midfield or at left back, will probably slot in at right back.
Hold me closely
The next big question for Klinsmann to answer is who will play in his midfield? Michael Bradley will obviously play a part. Jermaine Jones is almost a certainty as well. Does he chose to play a holding midfielder next to Jones that allows Bradley to join the attack? If so, who will it be? The two options include the aging Kyle Beckerman and the in-form Danny Williams.
While Beckerman offers experience, he's clearly lost a half of a step in the last six months. Danny Williams is playing some fine soccer with his club Reading and has shown well in his few opportunities for the USMNT, including scoring a sensational goal against Brazil in the last friendly. While the better fit might be Williams, the tone of this entire roster has been veteran leadership. That trend leads us to believe Beckerman could get the nod.
Time to shine
In big games your top goal scorers are the ones you lean on to push you over the top. Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey will be tasked with the chore of getting the USMNT on the scoresheet on Saturday. Dempsey has 47 goals for the national team and not one of them has come against Mexico. What a time it would be for Deuce to notch his first goal against El Tri.
Jozy appears to be finding his scoring form at the right time. He scored a brace against Peru last month and has several goals for Toronto over the last month. Both will need to step up and have sublime performances if the U.S. hope to win this playoff.
Key opponent to watch
We all know Mexico has the likes of Guardado, Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, and Carlos Vela. The one relatively under-the-radar attacking player that the USMNT need to be aware of is Jesus "Tecatito" Corona. The 22-year-old, who plays for Porto in Portugal has scored 4 goals in 4 games already this domestic season and was a revelation for Mexico in the Gold Cup.
He is a skillful attacking player capable of playing all across the front line. He's pacey, tricky, and can finish if he gets chances. It's possible that Corona will not start this game, but if it's a close game he'll certainly be coming on with fresh legs looking to terrorize the U.S. back line.
Support the team
A lot has been made about Jurgen Klinsmann's job security heading into this match. Whether or not if he loses he'll be fired is just not something anyone knows at this point. It does not matter if you support the manager, always support the team that's on the field as they represent you. Whether you're at the game or watch on tv, support the team.
Here's the lineup we'd like to see against Mexico: