The United States Men’s National Team opens a busy summer with the first of two tournaments, starting the busy slate in the semifinal round of the 2023 CONCACAF Nations League Finals. The program is looking to defend the inaugural title, although the approach is being made from a far different position than the previous edition, currently under an interim manager. For the second time this year, the opponent is Mexico, adding another chapter to the rivalry lore. The match is set for Allegiant Stadium in Paradise, Nevada, a 61,000-seat venue that opened in July of 2020.
This is the 76th all-time meeting between the two nations, with the visitors holding a 36-22-17 advantage and the recent Allstate Continental Clásico ending in a 1-1 draw. Ranked 15th internationally by FIFA, Mexico qualified for the Nations League Finals by finishing atop League A Group A in unconvincing fashion with a 2-0-2 record. El Tri tied Jamaica twice (1-1 and 2-2) and racked up two wins against Suriname (3-0 and 2-0). Recent friendly results include a 2-0 victory over Guatemala and a 2-2 draw with Cameroon.
Mexico is led by Diego Cocca, who was appointed to the manager role last February, his first job at the international level. The 51-year-old retired defender has extensive experience leading Godoy Cruz, Santos Laguna, Tijuana, Atlas, and Tigres UANL, among other club outfits. He has won three league titles and is known for his pragmatic “defense-first” style.
Cocca named a 23-player roster for the Nations League Finals featuring some but not all of the program’s big names. The domestic Liga MX is home to 14 of the call-ups, with the usual representation from Santos Laguna, América, Monterrey, Cruz Azul, UANL, Pachuca, and Atlas. Centre-back Néstor Araujo and Wolverhampton striker Raúl Jiménez are in camp but were left out of the final group.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Carlos Acevedo (Laguna), Luis Malagón (América), Guillermo Ochoa (Salernitana)
DEFENDERS (8): Julián Araujo (Barcelona B), César Montes (Espanyol), Johan Vásquez (Cremonese), Gerardo Arteaga (Genk), Israel Reyes (América), Jorge Sánchez (Ajax), Víctor Guzmán (Monterrey), Jesús Gallardo (Monterrey)
MIDFIELDERS (6): Edson Álvarez (Ajax), Luis Romo (Monterrey), Carlos Rodríguez (Cruz Azul), Sebastián Córdova (UANL), Orbelín Pineda (AEK Athens), Luis Chávez (Pachuca)
FORWARDS (6): Ozziel Herrera (Atlas), Alexis Vega (Guadalajara), Santiago Giménez (Feyenoord), Érick Sánchez (Pachuca), Henry Martín (América), Uriel Antuna (Cruz Azul)
Cocca has a preference for formations with a three-player back line, the deployment of which would require a holistic shift from Mexico’s traditional 4-3-3 set-up. He inculcates an orderly, defense-first style with “a highly-coordinated midfield core and pacey wing-backs” that look to harry the opposition and push into an aggressive attack. “Pragmatic” is the operative word, the understated limitation of opportunities and maintaining a solid structure that can lead to great success at the international level.
Almost two decades since his senior debut, Guillermo “Memo” Ochoa continues to backstop for El Tri and recently spent half of a season helping Salernitana avoid relegation from Serie A. The 37-year-old maintains the necessary athleticism to pull off the acrobatic wonder-saves that can tilt the balance of matches. He has displayed renewed vigor as a shot-stopper with complete controls the goalmouth, rendering most long-range opportunities moot.
Johan Vásquez thrives when shutting down dribblers on the outside, launching himself into tackles and scything away the ball. The 24-year-old can be a danger on set pieces and leaps above the crowd to win headers. In the central role is César Montes, who recently made the jump to Europe and joined Espanyol in the winter, making 18 total appearances in the second half of the season. He is a tough, technical presence and can be an occasional scoring option. The trio should be completed by Israel Reyes of América, a versatile dramatist who makes himself a focal point of the action. His combination of hard-nosed defending and productive forays into the attack designate him as one of the more intriguing all-around talents on the field.
At left wingback is Jesús Gallardo, the modern option looking to push into the final third and overlap with the winger. He attempts to beat opponents off the dribble and will also occupy an advanced position up the field if the manager is attempting to press. On the other side of the formation is Jorge Sánchez of Ajax, a more defensive option with well-timed tackles, interceptions, and blocks. The 25-year-old is a fairly-accurate passer and can launch incisive crosses when match proceedings slow to a more adagio tempo.
As expected, Mexico has seemingly endless options in the engine room. One of the best talents in the region, Edson Álvarez serves a key role, dropping deep to serve as an additional centre-back. The soon-to-be-former Ajax midfielder is impressive in the build-up phase, provides defensive cover, and wins an almost-impossible number of headers per 90 minutes. With a 3-4-3 formation, the choice could be made to deploy another protective player, which calls for Luis Romo of Monterrey. The 28-year-old is similarly strong in the air and looks to make late runs to the top of the opponent’s box, setting up for a long-distance shot.
Having made his senior international debut this year, Atlas’ Ozziel Herrera is quickly emerging as a favorite of the new manager with three caps. The 22-year-old drives the ball into the final third with his loping stride and is always looking to put the ball on frame. On the other side of the formation is fleet-of-foot Uriel Antuna, currently on the books at Cruz Azul. He ended the Liga MX Clausura on a roll with three goals in as many fixtures, using his intelligent movement and exploitative nature to get behind opposing back lines.
Leading the formation is Henry Martín, who recently wrapped the best season of his career with 27 goals and 11 assists in 42 matches for Club América, doing his best work on frenetic counter-attacks. Whether the 30-year-old can finally convert his scoring touch to the international stage remains the eternal question that has beguiled El Tri. Standing at 5’10”, he is something of a dying breed as a fox-in-the-box striker, reliant on intuitive movement and an incomprehensible attraction to the ball that could be less charitably described as “luck.” His long-distance shooting is also accurate enough to prevent defenders from backing off and stacking the area.
This is the second match between the rivals in the past three months, which could be complemented by a third at the Gold Cup. While the USMNT appears to be on the upswing with a talented young core, Mexico always manages to show up in these fixtures and provide a challenge. Relying on some of the program’s remaining veterans, Cocca could put together a safe gameplan that is able to disrupt the match flow and turn proceedings into a cagey counter-attacking affair.
The match is scheduled for Thursday, June 15th at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, 7:00 p.m. Pacific. Viewing options include Paramount+, TUDN USA, Univision, and FUBO TV (free trial).