The necessary job is done: the U.S. won all 3 points against Trinidad & Tobago at home, and after a draw between Panama and Costa Rica, find themselves in an automatic qualifying spot for the first time in the Hex. It wasn’t always pretty; the first half was once again sluggish and disconnected. But Christian Pulisic, Darlington Nagbe, and DeAndre Yedlin found their spaces in the second half and made the difference.
Unfortunately for the U.S., Mexico is far better than Trinidad & Tobago, they’re playing at home in Mexico City, and they have the benefit of no travel. In a neutral setting, I give this Mexico squad an edge against the U.S. On Sunday, the U.S. will be staring up a cliff. Chances of a positive U.S. result are slim to none, no matter what Pulisic might say in an interview. I love the confidence on the field and off it, but a U.S. result on Sunday would be almost miraculous. It’s not impossible, just really, really hard. The U.S. will need to adjust to squad rotation and most likely a different tactical formation and remain close to perfect despite the changes, travel, and altitude. It’s a tall task.
W (2-0) - Trinidad & Tobago - WCQ
D (1-1) - Panama - WCQ
W (6-0) - Honduras - WCQ
W (1-0) - Jamaica - Friendly
D (0-0) - Serbia - Friendly
W (3-0) - Honduras - WCQ
W (3-1) - Republic of Ireland - Friendly
L (1-2) - Croatia - Friendly
W (1-0) - Trinidad & Tobago - WCQ
W (2-0) - Costa Rica - WCQ
What to Watch for:
Suiting Up - Mexico will be using the full advantage of being together for the last two weeks, and they didn’t play Chicharito, Hector Moreno, Miguel Layun, and Andres Guardado to boot. In a game where short rest will be a big factor weighing on coaching decisions, Juan Carlos Osorio has plenty of first-choice players that didn’t even get minutes on Thursday. Bruce Arena doesn’t have that luxury. While he has players of quality that came off the bench, it’s hard to definitively say any of them were actually “first choice.” Who gets axed from Bruce’s starting lineup, and who will go from the start?
Loneliest Number - Chances that the U.S. start out in a one striker set are very, very high. The empty bucket was veeeeery empty against Trinidad & Tobago, and running Michael Bradley as a lone defensive midfielder at the Azteca is suicidal. Chances seem very high that Bruce will prefer to play a 4-2-3-1 with a pairing of Michael Bradley and Kellyn Acosta in the holding midfield and Christian Pulisic in front of them as the attacking midfielder. Unfortunately, this means sacrificing a striker, but hopefully Christian Pulisic’s emergence remedies the trouble that has given the U.S. Historically, the lone striker formations have not been very offensively productive for us. But Pulisic is the most forward-thinking and direct midfielder to come along in a U.S. shirt in years, and he has the skills to make that directness productive. Freed from the defensive responsibility necessary when playing with only two central midfielders, Pulisic can bridge that gap.
Alcohol - Drink it. Or your favorite substitute. I don’t expect this game to be pretty.
I apologize for exactly one of these player predictions.
I think Alejandro Bedoya starts. I’m not a fan of it, but Fabian Johnson just hasn’t looked very good in the past couple games, has put a lot of minutes on his legs, and Bedoya will muddy the waters in midfield a bit more than Johnson will. I think Nagbe stays because of how important his possession and transition work is, but he had a hard 90 minutes against T&T himself. Jorge Villafana looked gassed towards the end of the game, and John Brooks’s troubling habit of switching off on set pieces continues. You know who eats defenders switching off on set pieces for dinner? The Mexican Babadook Rafa Marquez, that’s who. I think that minus a Fabian Johnson who seems to be running cold for the national team lately, this is the best the U.S. can do in this formation with these players, but I also don’t know just who will be feeling the effects of travel and fatigue the most. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see people like Omar Gonzalez or Paul Arriola getting their shot at the Azteca, considering their Liga MX experience. It’s all a matter of who has the legs and who does not.