If you had offered me 4 points vs. Mexico at the start of World Cup qualifying, I would have absolutely taken it. After that Azteca game, however, I’m feeling that the US were unfortunate not to have taken all 6 points. Which is crazy!
The trip to the Estadio Azteca is, of course, marked as the most difficult fixture for the United States Mens National Team at the start of every qualifying cycle. It’s not just the general quality of the Mexican national team; a trip to the Azteca means dealing with long travel times (often including time zone differences), poor air quality, and limited altitude acclimatization (the stadium sits at 7,200 feet above sea level). Every match in the Estadio Azteca is a severe test of adaptability and physical and mental stamina for the away team.
For each previous visit to the Azteca, the USMNT has aimed to merely hold a deep defensive line and hope to get a goal against the run of play. And, frankly, that’s been decently effective in recent visits, with the US unbeaten in the 3 previous matches in Mexico. But that’s completely different than going to Mexico and choosing to impose the game on Mexico. And that’s exactly what Gregg Berhalter had his players do on Thursday. The team went in and pressed Mexico, choosing to try and stifle their ability to play out across the whole field. It was a risky decision, one with serious chances of backfiring. But the team went and did it. Don’t be fooled by the goalless scoreline; the USMNT created two tap-ins that they just didn’t manage to score. The US controlled that game by playing the familiar style of pressing and possession that we’ve been seeing throughout qualifying.
The US–Mexico Rivalry Has Changed
When the USMNT beat Mexico in their home qualifier in Cincinnati, back in November, I asked Gregg Berhalter how the rivalry between the two teams had changed from back in his days as a national team player (Berhalter played vs. Mexico in the 2002 FIFA World Cup, as well as in both legs of qualifying vs. Mexico). Here’s what Berhalter said:
I think fundamentally it hasn’t changed much, right? It’s two teams that, that understand what the rivalry means, understand that... how important this rivalry is for the region. You see when the teams are on the field, in the Nations League Final or the Gold Cup final, both teams want to win. And they want to compete. So... from that stand point, it hasn't changed. What I think about our age, our, you know, the youth we have in this generation coming up and having to compete against Mexico, that’s an experienced team. And you know, these guys just keep going and they are relentless.
I think, from the standpoint of the intensity of the matches, I believe Berhalter. But looking at this most recent match in the Azteca, I can’t help but suspect that the relationship actually has changed since 2002.
It used to be the case that, at home, the USMNT won their qualifiers v. Mexico thanks to gutsy displays built on organization and physicality. Meanwhile, Mexico owned the right to say that they were the ones who truly played the beautiful game, and especially so in El Azteca, their fortress in mountains. But I think that’s changed. You just can’t look at Gio Reyna make this run, take on — and beat — all these Mexican players — in the Azteca! — and say that the US is the one without flair and style.
This was absolutely ridiculous. I don’t recall ever seeing something like this from an American player. Shame it came to nothing but hot damn the kid can ball. pic.twitter.com/spDWPiAF3O— Rob Usry (@RobUsry) March 25, 2022
Look, it’s definitely a stereotype that the USMNT’s of the past couldn’t play proper soccer. But the USA’s performances in past US–Mexico games were decidedly not displays of sophistication. I mean, in the 2002 World Cup match, the most definitive and iconic of all the dos-a-ceros, Gregg Berhalter himself punched the ball out of the penalty box and got away with it! These past matches were showcases of pragmatism, not aesthetics. But you can’t say that about these most recent two qualifiers v. Mexico. In both the home and away matches, the US took the front foot, asserting themselves on Mexico. The team successfully pressed Mexico to the point of suffocating their midfield. The US created chances from possession. Yeah, the team didn’t win this time, but I think the days of saying that El Norte can’t play real fútbol are over.
And the results as of late reflect that. The US won three straight matches in 2022 in home soil, and now they’ve added a draw in Mexico to that list. And, while the team hasn’t managed to actually win in the Azteca in qualifying, this is now the third straight qualifying match in Mexico that they US has drawn. Add in the one friendly the team’s played in Mexico (a win), and the US is undefeated in 4, spanning a full decade. At this point, I am quite happy to declare that El Azteca is no longer a fortress, especially after considering Mexico’s recent record in World Cup qualifying (and how infrequently their national team actually plays their otherwise anymore).
But this isn’t merely a mark of a turning of the tide in the rivalry. This isn’t merely the US having a dominant spell; there’s really something that’s changed with the relationship between the two teams. Take a look at the second part of that Berhalter quote.
What I think about our age, our, you know, the youth we have in this generation coming up and having to compete against Mexico, that’s an experienced team.
Berhalter highlighted the team’s youth. And I think that’s a huge part of what’s changed. Gio Reyna was out there clowning the experienced Mexican defenders, at the age of 19. Reyna could be doing that against Mexico for the next 15 years. Almost the entire core of the team is between 19 and 23 years of age. We could have this collection of talent for the next decade. And there’s now a full pipeline of players coming up, players who are potentially just as technically gifted, tactically astute, and athletic as the current USMNT core. A full pipeline of talent that is every bit talented enough to assert themselves over Mexico.
So here’s the big question: How does this draw affect the USMNT’s qualification hopes?
Here’s what the standings currently look like:
The US sits in 2nd with 22 points, three behind Canada and tied with Mexico. Costa Rica moved up into 4th place with 19 points, while Panama slipped to 5th with their draw v. Honduras. The top 3 automatically qualify for the World Cup, while the 4th place team has to go through a playoff vs. New Zealand.
With 22 points and a game against each of Panama (at home) and Costa Rica (away), the US sits in control of its destiny here. A win or a draw vs. Panama would guarantee that the US finishes ahead of Panama, and thus, in 4th place at the worst. A win vs. Costa Rica, independent of other results, would guarantee the US automatic qualification, while a draw would most likely give the US a minimum of 4th place (Costa Rica would need to beat El Salvador by at least 7 goals in their penultimate match... and that’s not happening).
Beating Panama and drawing Costa Rica would most straight forwardly give the USMNT automatic qualification, putting the US at 26 points and out of reach of either Panama or Costa Rica. As already stated, a win vs. Costa Rica would guarantee a World Cup berth, even if the US loses to Panama. If the US beats Panama, the team will still finish above Costa Rica and no worse than 3rd so long as Costa Rica does not overcome the 7 point gap in goal difference in their next two games, including the match vs. the US.
There are more scenarios depending on other results, but it would be tedious to go through all the possible permutations. The short of it is that the US needs to win at least one of their remaining games and for Costa Rica to drop points (whether v. the USMNT or El Salvador) for the US to be guaranteed a World Cup spot. Ideally, the US beats Panama while Costa Rica draws or loses to El Salvador, giving the US qualification with a game in hand. Given how difficult the away match in Costa Rica has historically been for the US, it would be far more straight forward to just win vs. Panama and maximize the chances of qualifying before the final match.
Congratulations go to Ricardo Pepi for playing in this match. While he wasn’t particularly effective in his 60 minute outing, that match must have been an absolutely huge deal for a Mexican American. And he deserves credit for his work rate and effort.
The gamble of going for a result vs. Mexico includes the question of how fit the team is to play vs. Panama on Sunday. The Estadio Azteca fixture is notoriously draining and it can affect a player’s fitness well after the match. On top of that, there was the risk of suspensions through red cards and yellow card accumulation. Indeed, we’ll be missing DeAndre Yedlin and Tim Weah through yellow card accumulation. The USMNT needs to win vs. Panama and that’s going to require evaluating fitness and rotating. The good news is that Panama looks beatable. They’ve dropped points in 3 of their last 5 matches, including a draw at home v. last place Honduras. After a strong start, their away form has dropped considerably. And they’ll be desperate to win vs. the US, potentially forcing a stoic defensive side into playing a more open game. Meanwhile, the MNT has depth and has played particularly well at home throughout qualifying. In addition, the USMNT’s youth potentially gives the team a quicker recovery time.
Costa Rica looks beatable. Look, I don’t want to have to count on getting a historic first result vs. Costa Rica. I’d rather see the USMNT take 3 points over Panama while Costa Rica drops points, securing a USMNT advancement. But Costa Rica has to go all out for three straight games and I’m not convinced that their collection of aging veterans will have enough gas in the tank by the time they play the US.
A lot of people were/are upset that the USMNT hadn’t already locked in qualification before this window, but that’s unreasonable. It’s reasonable for people to be anxious about whether the US qualifies or not, especially given that we didn’t qualify last time. But expecting the US to dominate so utterly is simply unrealistic. Qualifying is tough and chaotic and fans need to understand that. The USMNT has thus far done well and are on pace to qualify.
That’s it from me. As always, we want to know what what you took away from the USMNT v. Mexico match and how you feel about the upcoming Panama match in Orlando. Drop a comment in the comments section down below!