Tonight, the U.S. men’s national team will face Mexico at the fabled Azteca Stadium in the third game of the Hexagonal round of World Cup Qualifying (10:30pm: ESPN, Univision, Watch ESPN). The last time the two teams met, back in August, the U.S. did what had until then been impossible: it won at the Azteca. The goal was scored by none other than former Union man Michael Orozco Fiscal, and shocked pretty much everyone. That game, of course, was only a friendly (though I do use the term lightly).
This one counts for more than bragging rights.
So, that game in Colorado was crazy, huh?
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like it. The Costa Ricans certainly hadn’t, and they filed a protest with FIFA arguing that the game never should have happened, and ought to be replayed. Thankfully, FIFA issued a statement on Tuesday morning saying the result would stand. Still we can all agree on one thing: Friday’s game didn’t tell us very much about the U.S. squad. No, that’s not true, it told us a heck of a lot about their character and attitude—two things they will need in abundance to get a result in Mexico. What it didn’t tell us was how well they play soccer together.
Here’s a few things we do know:
- The back four of DaMarcus Beasley, Clay Goodson, Omar Gonzalez, and Geoff Cameron seemed a much more coherent unit than the one that played in Honduras. Cameron was far too careless in his passing, as he tried to jump-start the offense, but defensively, all four looked solid.
- The forward pairing of Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey worked well together, and linked up well when they could. It was their interchange that led to the goal.
- Herculez Gomez and Graham Zusi played as fairly traditional wingers, and ran a lot, but didn’t see much of the ball.
- Michael Bradley was tasked with protecting the back four, and did it well. Jermaine Jones partnered with him, and was really all over the field, biting into tackles and looking to make offense with his passing. Jones divides opinion, but he performed well (forearm shiver aside).
So, we had a collection of decent-to-quite-good performances from individuals and units, but the conditions prevented us from seeing much in the way of team play and tactics.
Looking forward to tonight
Only one roster change has been enforced: While he’s lucky not to have been suspended for picking up the yellow card he should have received for whacking Bryan Ruiz, Jones can’t play, anyway, because of an ankle injury sustained in Friday’s game.
Who, then, will come in for Jones, and are we likely to see any other changes? I believe Maurice Edu will come in for Jones, and will swap places with Bradley, allowing Michael to roam box-to-box while Edu sits and protects the defense. If I were Jurgen Klinsmann, I wouldn’t make any other changes.
Beasley looked good against Costa Rica, and if Klinsmann wasn’t willing to start relative youngsters Justin Morrow and Tony Beltran at home, then he definitely should not start them away to Mexico. Besides, the defense looked sharp.
Ahead of them, a front six of Edu, Bradley, Zusi, Gomez, Dempsey, and Altidore is the best combination of experience, defensive nous, and attacking firepower the U.S. could field from the current roster. None of the more attacking players on the bench (Sacha Kljestan, Brek Shea, Terrence Boyd, Brad Davis) have the international experience or defensive commitment that will be required against a Mexico side that will be more than up for it.
I could see Klinsmann sacrificing Zusi for Kyle Beckerman in a very defensive 4-3-3 shape, but I feel that would compromise the U.S.’s ability to attack. And the U.S. will need to attack—trying to hunker in and play defense for 90 minutes isn’t going to cut it.
That said, I doubt we’ll see the 4-4-2 shape that we saw start the Costa Rica match. Whether by design or habit, I expect Dempsey to drop deep into midfield when the U.S. doesn’t have the ball, for a defensive 4-5-1, then rely on the counterattack for offense.
The state of Mexico
Mexico, in case you haven’t heard, is so far undefeated in the Hex. Of course, they haven’t defeated anybody, either. After a 0–0 draw at home to Jamaica, the Mexicans went 2–0 up on Honduras through two Chicharito goals, before allowing Honduras to score and then equalize late. In the end, Mexico actually has fewer points in the group than the U.S. does.
Which means that there’s a lot riding on this game for Mexico, in case any more pressure was needed for a game against their cross-border rivals. If the U.S. can weather the storm and stop Mexico from scoring an early goal, the crowd in the stands may get antsy and turn on their own players.
The Mexican players know this, too, of course, so expect them to come absolutely flying out of the gate, hell-for-leather, right from the word go.
Let’s start with the lineup. As I said above, I think Guzan; Beasley, Goodson, Gonzalez, Cameron; Gomez, Bradley, Edu, Zusi; Dempsey, Altidore is the way to go.
As to the score? I cannot predict a U.S. win, unfortunately. I believe the U.S. can score on Mexico, even at home. Equally, Mexico has it in them to score on the U.S. Anyone who remembers the string of stellar saves Tim Howard made back in August can attest to that.
That said, I can’t bring myself to predict a U.S. loss, either, even if that’s what seems most probable. Instead, I say a draw, with Mexico scoring early but the U.S. holding them off and equalizing late, 1–1.
No matter what, it should be a heck of a game.