The U.S. men's national team are hours away from opening the World Cup Qualifying Hex against Mexico, their biggest foe and perennial litmus test. While the World Cup Final in Russia may not be at stake, establishing control of the CONCACAF region most definitely is. Both teams have been performing well recently, but have also picked up noticeable scars. Mexico is the reigning Gold Cup Champion, and they followed up with a 3-2 victory over the U.S. to advance to the Confederation Cup. El Tri then reeled off eight straight matches without allowing a goal. However, in their last critical match they were embarrassed in a 7-0 loss to Chile. Meanwhile, the USMNT put a disappointing 2015 in the past with an impressive run to the semifinals of the Copa American Centenario before be bounced coldly by Argentina 4-0. Impressive runs for both teams, but the potential to lose big still looms.
What is at stake then is a reconciliation of where both teams really stand as they enter the stretch run to Russia. Exactly who will start in this big match is difficult to predict. Jurgen Klinsmann has trained followers to expect the unexpected as far as lineups and tactics go, but that should never dampen the intrigue of speculating.
In the last match against Mexico, Klinsmann called for the 4-4-2 diamond formation and the current roster lends well to that set up again. Klinsmann has also shown a bias toward starting experienced players in the biggest matches. Against Mexico, for example, all of the starters were on the roster in Brazil. So with those assumptions as backdrop, we dive in.
Klinsmann has already announced that Tim Howard will start at goal. His experience and current form make him the obvious choice. Brad Guzan has been relegated to the bench at Middlesbrough and Evan Horvath is very inexperienced on the national stage. Howard's clean sheet and penalty save put Colorado in the MLS Western Conference semifinals. He's the hot hand.
The back line is also mostly set. Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin will almost certainly man the left and right full back positions, respectively. John Brooks is the anchor of the central defense and will also start. Who Klinsmann selects as his partner is a big question. The two obvious choices are Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez. Steve Birnbaum would be the dark horse. Gonzalez has been a key figure at Pachuca and played himself back onto the U.S. scene for the last round of qualifiers, but Besler was selected for the Copa America (Gonzalez was not) and also played in the last Mexico match. The bet here is that Klinsmann goes with Besler's experience and gives him the start.
The end of the Bradley-as-attacking-midfielder experiment has been a revelation for the U.S. Bradley has looked far more confident in the six role and the team has been more stable defensively. That move was made possible by the success of Sasha Kljestan, who has admirably filled the void as central attacking midfielder. Even though a start against Mexico is a big step up for the New York Red Bull, Klinsmann will rely on his Champions League experience and give him the chance. Expect Kljestan to start at the ten.
The wings are where it gets interesting. Klinsmann has shown a strong preference for Alejandro Bedoya and Jermaine Jones over the years, and both are healthy, although both are coming off of recent injuries. Both players offer an excellent work rate and will clamp down on defense, but both have issues going forward against the best competition. Enter Christian Pulisic. Will Klinsmann will give Pulisic the start or will he favor his experienced duo? The reality is that Klinsmann will need that creative force and pace to break down Mexico and Klinsmann knows the future is now for the young winger. As for who pairs with Pulisic on the opposite side, that is anyone's guess. Julian Green and Graham Zusi are also options but they seem more like substitution options depending on the situation. Bedoya gets the nod as he's been more of a fixture on the right hand side. Jones battled back from injury to be ready in time for this match, so look for Jones to come in as a sub, regardless of the score, to spell either player.
Klinsmann is thrilled to have both Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore healthy and in good form, because the forward pool is achingly thin after those two. Alan Gordon has replaced the injured Jordan Morris and Aron Johannsson is back on the roster after a serious hip injury. Both Wood and Altidore are the clear starters and both need to be on the pitch to beat Mexico.
Here's how that proposed lineup would look against Mexico.