There isn’t one crescendo to World Cup qualifying, but the U.S. hosting Mexico tonight is just about as close it gets. They’ll play again in the spring of course, and both have other matches to negotiate. But this is one of the games that gets highlighted as soon as the schedule is announced, and even after two victories over their historic rivals in the summer, the U.S. needs a third far more than it needed the first two.
As satisfying as the two summer wins were, this is the one that has true stakes on it. The CONCACAF Nations League is a recently created tournament. Neither the U.S. nor Mexico brought the full-strength squads to the Gold Cup, though Mexico’s was way closer to that than the U.S. was. But this is the real deal, where a loss by the U.S. puts their qualifying campaign into some trouble and a Mexico loss puts just a trace amount of doubt in theirs.
And thanks to their coming-to-terms-with-the-thing draw in El Salvador, their full-body dry heave in Panama, and the frustrating draw with Canada at home, the U.S. doesn’t have much margin for error, especially in their home games. They’d better run the table in those to assure a voyage to Qatar next year. Even after this one, the U.S. will still have its two toughest away games left on the docket, one in Mexico City in March and, the other, surprisingly, somewhere in Canada at the end of January. If they balls-up all three of these matches, it’s going to be a real problem. They could still qualify, and rather comfortably, by winning the rest of the matches. Which they should, but nobody wants it to depend on that. It’s CONCACAF, strange shit always happens.
While the U.S. is always considered the underdog to Mexico, even at home, they need this win. And we can at least be relieved that if in other matches in qualifying the U.S. got less than ideal results by taking them a little lightly, there will be no concern on that Friday night. And the U.S. has the banked glow from the summer of beating Los Tricolores twice. But the method of getting those two wins is not how the U.S. should approach this one.
Both in June and July, the U.S. defended low, and at times desperately, and tried to spring on the counter. Especially in the Gold Cup, the Yanks were just soaking up pressure. Which they did expertly, and in that Gold Cup Final, Mexico basically ran out of ideas in the 60th minute and the U.S.’s winning goal wasn’t much of a surprise or sucker punch. But they clearly rode their luck a bit — a missed penalty in the Nations League, some bad finishing in the Gold Cup. Those moments could reverse on the U.S. simply because.
And you can get at this Mexico squad. Canada did it in The Azteca. They had as many shots on target, and more chances, than Mexico and on the road. Maybe they caught Mexico by surprise, just as they did the U.S. in September, but they still showed little fear. The U.S. needs the points, so it should go chase them.
Because it can, mostly because their midfield three should be so much more energetic than Mexico’s. If there’s one thing we know Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, and Yunus Musah can do is run all day. On the flip side, Hector Herrera and Andres Guardado are getting up there in years and don’t want to be hassled much. Their life can be made hell. Furthermore, due to injury concerns in the defense, Edson Alvarez might be needed at centerback. While they may trail their Mexican counterparts in technical ability, Mexico has already proven it has a hard time picking up McKennie and his constant movement (even if it is in every direction).
That doesn’t mean that the U.S. is going to look like Man City trying to play their way through Mexico. The already announced choice of Zack Steffen as keeper gives some clue that Berhalter wants his side to play the ball more, as Steffen is the better distributor than Matt Turner. The U.S. has suffered when trying to play out from the back against Mexico before, but they didn’t attempt it with this lineup. At some point, you have to become what’s been promised. This midfield is supposed to be able to negotiate pressure.
The choice of tactics and approach partly depends on how much Christian Pulisic can play. Is he available for an hour after only playing 23 minutes in the past three months? Is he just a sub? If he can’t, who’s on the opposite flank of Brendan Arronson? Depending on the choice, maybe the U.S. will want to spring on the wings on the counter at pace (i.e. Tim Weah). Or they could start Paul Arriola and do nothing.
There’s also the slightly scary prospect that for the first time, the U.S. will see the full Mexico attack of Raul Jimenez, Chucky Lozano, and Jesus Corona. While on the surface not having Sergino Dest wounds the U.S.’s attack greatly, the fact that he’s a defensive liability won’t be missed. Leaving them too much space by getting too aggressive, and it could get ouchy in a hurry. But there’s no way to do this without risk.
The U.S. can’t go balls-to-the-wall for 90 minutes. But turning up the temperature at different points is their clearest way to victory. It’s also the clearest way to getting pantsed, too. Fortune favors the brave, though.