Ready or not, the USMNT and Mexico will be playing a game of soccer on Friday night in Ohio, the results of which will affect how likely or unlikely each respective team is to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Obviously, a loss for either team isn’t going to sink their campaign (never forget: Mexico qualified for the 2014 World Cup by losing three games, drawing five, and winning only two before beating New Zealand in a two-game playoff in the last Hex). However, a win provides a definite boost to start the campaign. Actually, a draw after sixteen years of 2-0 losses would probably still be seen as a boost for Mexico and a rough start for the U.S. Either way, the pressure is well and truly on now.
Both teams come in on a tentative high. Mexico waltzed through the group stages of the Copa America this summer only to be stopped in a big way by eventual champions Chile. Since then they’ve had positive-yet-inconsistent results. They beat El Salvador 3-1 away, but only drew Honduras 0-0 at Estadio Azteca, and were pushed to the limit by the same New Zealand side that drew the United States a few days later. For the Americans, their similarly good run at the Copa America came to an abrupt end, albeit with a shiny fourth place trophy in their hearts. Two impressive performances in September gave way to two more disjointed ones in October with an experimental roster, and here we are.
D (1-1) - New Zealand - Friendly
W (2-0) - Cuba - Friendly
W (4-0) - Trinidad & Tobago - WCQ
W (6-0) - St. Vincent and the Grenadines - WCQ
L (0-1) - Colombia - Copa America
W (1-0) - Panama - Friendly
W (2-1) - New Zealand - Friendly
D (0-0) - Honduras - WCQ
W (3-1) - El Salvador - WCQ
L (0-7) - Chile - Copa America
What to watch for:
Defense Wins Championships - The last four times the U.S. and Mexico have played this game, the U.S. have walked out with a clean sheet. Each of those times, a solid starting defense coalesced. Klinsmann has a first choice defense, but he’ll be without Geoff Cameron. I think he gives the nod to Omar Gonzalez, a right-sided center back to John Brooks on the left, and his experience playing in Mexico gives him an edge. That’s not to say Klinsmann doesn’t pick Michael Orozco, Matt Besler, or Steve Birnbaum, however. Add that to Klinsmann’s comments about DeAndre Yedlin during the October camp and Timmy Chandler’s inclusion here, and suddenly the starting defense that’s been so solid for the past several months seems cloudy.
When the Levee Breaks - That defense will have a chore on its hands stopping the firepower Mexico has brought to this edition of the rivalry. The usual suspects are here in Chicharito, Andres Guardado, and Hector Herrera. The lava-hot form of Marco Fabian and Jonathan dos Santos have landed them here, Carlos Vela has been recalled after another long absence, and Jesus “Tecatito” Corona has frequently dazzled with El Tri over the past several months as well. Oh, and Oribe Peralta, Javier Aquino, and Gio dos Santos are coming along for the ride as well. If you’re not at least slightly wary of that list of names, I will not be following you should we ever find ourselves in a horror movie scenario.
Heel Turn - Poking around for a chink in Mexico’s armor, the U.S. absolutely has to test their defense with somewhat steady pressure throughout this game if they expect to find success. Juan Carlos Osorio’s tinkering has left the backline a bit unsteady (he trotted out a 3-3-3-1 against New Zealand...yeah), and his lineup will be of great interest on Friday. Christian Pulisic, Sacha Kljestan, Jozy Altidore, and Bobby Wood will be key players trying to pull that defense apart, but they need to be able to sustain some possession in the final third (and not just heave the ball forward like last year’s CONCACAF Cup) to do so.
Well, here goes nothing.
I really think Gonzo’s positioning on the right side gives him the nod over Besler, and his experience and success in Mexico (he is a defending champion with Pachuca in Liga MX) will take the edge over Steve Birnbaum and Michael Orozco. That’s not a sure thing, but it’s what my gut tells me. I think DeAndre Yedlin overcomes his rough October to take the start over Timmy Chandler on the right.
Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood, Alejandro Bedoya, and Michael Bradley have all been first-choice for Klinsmann whenever they’ve been available for pretty almost the entirety of 2016, and I think that continues. the only two question marks beyond the back line will be on the left side and a partner for Michael Bradley.
I chose Christian Pulisic and Sacha Kljestan here because I think that that dynamic lineup has been the U.S.’s bread and butter since the end of the Copa America. The returns of Jermaine Jones and Julian Green could throw that prediction for a loop, on the other hand, as could one of Klinsmann’s old favorites, Graham Zusi.