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USA v. Mexico, 2022 World Cup Qualifying; What We Learned

The United States took on Mexico in World Cup Qualifying in Cincinnati and managed a 2-0 win in a dominant display over their arch-rivals. Here’s what we learned.

SOCCER: NOV 12 World Cup Qualifying - USA v Mexico Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

You’ve heard it before, and here is is again:


The US took on Mexico on a chilly and wet night in Cincinnati, Ohio and we got that familiar scoreline. The United States 2, Mexico 0. But it wasn’t just a story of the scoreline. The MNT came on and dominated the match in a way that we hadn’t really seen before.

Just Lift Yourself

After the Gold Cup final, I mentioned that the way the team set up was roughly similar to how the team played in the Nation’s League final (and, by extension, the 2019 Gold Cup final). You can see that with the similarities in the formation, with a very clear 4-3-3 in each game. In the World Cup qualifier, you can again see the 4-3-3. In fact, this is the clearest depiction of the formation yet. The big change isn’t the shape. It’s how high up the field the team chose to play. Take a look at the pass network for this game. The average position for all but four players are in the Mexican half. A full 6 players, including DeAndre Yedlin, are clearly on the attacking half of the field.

In contrast, the Nation’s League final and the Gold Cup final had merely 4 and 3 players. The entire team shape in this most recent game is markedly higher up the field.

This hints at the big change for the match: The team played an aggressive high press through the whole match. In the two previous games this year, the team definitely was willing to aggressively press. But it wasn’t this relentless nor was it this high up the field. And what press they did have did not lead to the US controlling the game as they did here. Rather, in those games, the team sat back and created their chances on the counter and scored on set pieces (two corners, a penalty, and a header off a free kick). In this game, however, the US played high up the field and created chances from winning the ball in midfield (often through an aerial duel), and then advancing up the field.

A high press like this is only possible with a midfield that has the ability to close down space very rapidly. But that’s not the only thing required. To field a high press like this, a team must also be willing to play a high defensive line. And that gives the opposition an opportunity to get in behind for a devastating attack. To avoid that, you need two high-quality center backs who have the mobility to quickly close down balls over the top. And we saw that with the pairing of Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman. Zimmerman in particular was instrumental to cleaning up in behind. Take this moment where Miles Robinson was caught high up the field.

Before this moment, M. Robinson stepped to contest a ball, but couldn’t win it before it was played back to the Mexican midfield. From there, Mexico played in a simple ball up over, with M. Robinson caught out. However, Zimmerman (just outside of frame to the right in the first image) was able to recover and beat Chucky Lozano to the ball and snuff out what could have been a threatening moment.

That ability to clean up in behind, that mobility, is absolutely vital to this style of play. Without the elite mobility of both M. Robinson and Zimmerman, Mexico would have found space and punished the USMNT. Instead, the two, and Zimmerman in particular, created a platform from which the team could build upon. That’s huge considering that, going into the match, the omission of John Brooks stood out as the single biggest controversy. In hindsight, it looks like the right decision. As talented as Brooks is, he doesn’t have the same kind of mobility as Zimmerman nor Robinson. With Brooks there instead of Zimmerman, maybe the US gets caught off guard and concedes. Berhalter took a gamble on this one, and, in the end, it appears he was vindicated.

The Man In The Mirror

Going into the game, there was some noise about a quote from Memo Ochoa, the Mexican goalkeeper, regarding the US. (Translation courtesy of google translate).

Entonces es una rivalidad y México ha sido ese espejo en [Estados Unidos] que quieren verse, quieren reflejarse y quieren copiar

So it is a rivalry and Mexico has been that mirror in which [the United States] want to see themselves, they want to reflect and they want to copy

This seemed to provoke the US team a bit, with Gregg Berhalter specifically addressing his displeasure at the line. During the game, it continued, and, well, you all saw what happened:

With three consecutive wins over Mexico this year, all in competitive matches, I think it’s pretty clear that the US isn’t trying to copy Mexico’s success.

That said, it’s still a nicely pithy line and I feel it deserves a moment of consideration. On a superficial level, there’s a little bit of truth. For a long time, Mexico dominated over the US and, as the only other significant soccer power (relatively speaking) in CONCACAF, Mexico made for a standard for the US to measure against. And both the national team and MLS certainly desire the kind of sometimes-fanatical attention from fans that Mexico and Lisa MX commands, particularly within the United States. These things were and remain true.

However, on a deeper level, the United States has no interest in copying Mexico. I think this game illustrated exactly that. The USMNT came out and dominated the match, but they didn’t play like Mexico. The USMNT came out and played like, well, like the United States, albeit at a heightened and more sophisticated level than usual. The US didn't win the game by playing the kind of intricate passing network that we’ve seen from Mexico (including, at times, from this game). No, the US did it by playing with high energy, physicality, and a sound determination to not give up. If we had a set piece goal or two, it would sound just like the stereotype of the team for the last 30 years. The only things was that the team took those traits and, combined with a good game plan, executed on a level that allowed them to dominate. In other words, it was a distinctly American performance.

And that hints at the deeper reality that, in truth, the United States has absolutely no interest in copying Mexico. All we want is to win and dominate as Mexico used to. Our soccer cultures are substantially different. Indeed, Mexican-American culture contributes to an entire tapestry of disparate soccer cultures that make up the larger American soccer culture. As evidenced by Ricardo Pepi, Yunus Musah, Antonee Robinson, and others, American soccer is, at its best and truest, about using hard work and togetherness to leverage the different skills and abilities and ideas to form one cohesive whole.

And you know, that goal celebration really highlighted that. At a basic level, the US isn’t looking at Mexico in a mirror. We are now looking down at the Mexican team from the top of the standings. But beyond that, the celebration wasn’t the work of a single particular individual. Tim Weah revealed that, while Pulisic wore the shirt, it was him and DeAndre Yedlin who had the idea. The idea came together, not as a moment of individual genius, but as a collective. It was a sign of real belief, that a teammate asked another player, a player who wasn’t even going to start, to wear the shirt. It was an incredible show of belief on the part of Weah towards Pulisic. And how fitting that it proved that Weah would be the one in the end to give him the ball as well.

They Follow Each Other on the Wind

On Friday, we were reminded that Zack Steffen is, in fact, quite a good shot stopper.

The narrative going into this game was Steffen vs. Turner, with the former better for distribution and the later an incredible shot-stopper. But as this shows, Steffen himself is a distinguished shot-stopper in his own right. Steffen had far less to do than his counterpart Ochoa, but whenever he was called, he rose to the occasion.

DeAndre Yedlin had an excellent night, probably his best performance for the USMNT. It’s odd, at the start of qualifying, Yedlin looked like he might have been the third or fourth choice right back, with talent in the position somehow still growing. Through qualifying, he’s managed to hang in there, but his performances have been uneven. This, however, was something of a master class. He was defensively sound, alert, able and willing to get down the field, and happy to play in surprisingly incisive passes up the field. Perhaps it’s because he has a distinct connection with Weah. Speaking of...

Tim Weah as a winger tremendously balances the team. Weah plays the right side as essentially a wide forward. He loves to tuck inside and provide an outlet as a sort of second-hold up option. And he’s always willing to drive in at goal. At the same time, he’s happy to torch his man down the wing. His play has helped fill a void as an attacking threat that the team has lacked since we last had Jordan Morris. Like Morris, Weah is constantly goal dangerous, but he combines that with a kind of explosiveness. I think he’s pretty widely been considered as the Man of the Match, and that is the case for me as well. This of course presents a dilemma when Gio Reyna returns to match fitness. Reyna, as talented as he is, represents a markedly different style of play, one more so built on Reyna’s individual ability on the ball. Weah offers a big contrast to that style and it will be interesting to see who gets the spot when they are both next available.

That Musah, McKennie, and Adams midfield needs to be written in ink. MMA is just too good at too many things to start slotting in alternatives. We’ve long highlighted the importance of McKennie and Adams, myself included, but for this game, it was Musah who was the true stand out. Musah demonstrated a kind of cool mastery over the ball that much belies his youth.

Final note: Well done Cincinnati. As a local, I’m biased, but I think Cincinnati put on an absolutely stellar show. The crowd was loud, supportive, and energized. The supporter’s groups in particular helped put together what was frankly a spectacular show, whether it was with the lights display, or the national anthem.

This might very well be the last time we have a US Mexico qualifier at home with any true competitive value. While we yet have the reverse fixture in the Azteca in Mexico City, after that, it’s going to be a long time before we have qualifiers against Mexico at all. The US, in conjunction with Mexico and Canada, is set to host the 2026 World Cup, which means the US is automatically qualified. After that, it’s unclear how qualifying will be organized. With an expanded field, the difficult for the US to qualify is sure to drop, which may undercut any future qualifiers. If this is indeed the last real USA – Mexico home qualifier, it at least was hosted with the care and energy that it deserved.

That’s it from me. The USMNT returns to face Jamaica in Kingston on Tuesday, Nov. 16th. If something stood out for you, tell us! We want to know what you thought of the match. As for me, well, I’m still a little bit giddy from the match, so I think I’m going to celebrate just a little bit more.