2018 World Cup Qualifying, Featured, June 2017, USMNT

At Estadio Azteca, United States Meet Perhaps the Best Mexican Team Ever: The TYAC Preview

Neil W. Blackmon

MEXICO CITY

The United States Men’s National team won the game it needed to win in the two-game June World Cup qualifying set. Now can the Americans win the game they so desperately want to win?

Can the US win at Azteca?

The United States and Mexico. A storied stadium with a mystical grip on the United States? Yep, wrote about that here.

Pulisic says the US will win, earning him the front page, and a new nickname – “El Nuevo Donovan.”

Mexico trying to pull off the double in World Cup qualifying against the United States for the first time since the 1974 World Cup cycle.

Do we need much more of an introduction?

The TYAC Preview. Usuals. Particulars.

Series: 67th Meeting. Mexico lead, 34-18-14. El Tri are 23-1-2 against the United States on Mexican soil, including, as noted, 7-0-2 in competitive matches at Estadio Azteca. The Americans have had the better of the rivalry this century, however, winning 13 of the 25 meetings between the friendly neighbors, as opposed to seven for Mexico.

Weather: Warm but pleasant, around 75 at kickoff and cooling into the low sixties during the game. One condition of US Soccer for moving this game to Sunday, on short rest for the Yanks, was that the game be played at night. This neutralizes the daytime heat advantage Mexico often uses specifically against better competition, and should make the air quality a bit better, as the smog is worse during the day. Still, it’s summer, 7,500 feet in the air, on short rest. Fabian Johnson Misery Index: 6.

What to Watch for From Mexico:

Even with a few absences ahead of the FIFA Confederations Cup that begins next weekend, this is the most talented Mexico side ever, and they’re playing like it, having lost only one competitive game in the last calendar year. Yes, that loss was a humbling defeat to Chile in the Copa America quarterfinals, where El Tri appeared to quit. But it speaks volumes about the mentality of the team that they mentally recovered quickly enough to vanquish the United States, and years of Columbus demons, only four months later.

El Tri have thirteen points through five qualifiers thus far, with only a draw against Panama preventing full spoils. While Juan Carlos Osorio’s rotations have come with some criticisms, his results have not. Further, as Grant Wahl wrote wonderfully at SI, Osorio has changed the mentality and culture within Mexican football.

El Tri feature multiple players not just playing, but excelling at clubs in Europe, including mainstay stars like Chicharito and Héctor Herrera and up and comers like Diego Reyes (still only 24) Carlos Salcedo. For ages, the problem with the Mexican national team was navigating the waters between the stars who stay at home and the ones who play abroad. This team appears more selfless, perhaps because the run to the Gold Medal in London made them so, perhaps because of the battle scars earned clawing to simply qualify for Brazil in 2014.

Either way, the US will face an incredibly talented team.  The largest question entering Sunday night is whether it will be a three-man back line or four for El Tri?

Juan Carlos Osorio has rotated between the two options and will be tempted to do so again given the absences of Miguel Layun, Andres Guardado and longtime captain Rafa Marquez due to injuries. The injuries to Layun and Marquez are particularly impactful. Against Honduras Thursday evening, Osorio opted to play three in the back with Diego Reyes, Carlos Salcedo and Oswaldo Alanis holding down the back line. Against Ireland, however, Osorio evaluated a four man back, plugging winger Jesus Gallardo in at left back and moving Salcedo, a natural CB, to the right. El Tri handled both opponents, but given the short rest, legs could be a factor for Mexico and the US should present a more credible threat.

If we were wagering, I’d bank on the three man back line, leaving Mexico with what plays as either a 3-3-1-3, but potentially plays as a 3-5-1-1, with Chicharito high and Marco Fabian underneath him. Hector Herrera will likely sit deeper than usual, to give the back three a distribution hub to the flanks.

El Tri can beat you with the playmaking of Herrera and Fabian central and they can punish you with two marauding wingers. Tecatito Corona, the speed merchant winger some feel is the best technical soccer talent in CONCACAF, will miss the game with an injury.

But filling Corona’s shoes will be Hirving Lozano, who essentially eliminated FC Dallas from the CONCACAF Champions League by himself, and will have fresh legs after a shorter shift off the bench against Honduras. And if it isn’t Lozano, you can slide Fabian wide, or play Carlos Vela, who is in torrid form. In other words, El Tri have the depth to weather the loss of a master like Corona and remain threatening on the wing.

Mexico are also stout in goal with Memo Ochoa and, unlike some of their previous teams, they aren’t wasteful on set pieces. El Tri have scored a set piece goal in every game they’ve won in the Hex, and the streak actually extends two matches beyond that into the prior qualifying round. For a US team that has struggled, putting it kindly, on set pieces, this is an enormous challenge.

What to Watch for From the United States:

Having won the vital game, are they locked in mentally, on short rest after a lengthy camp, all at altitude, to play a rivalry game? Do the Americans have the fitness to weather the inevitable storms Azteca offers? Will the side show demonstrable improvement on set pieces? Will someone outside of Christian Pulisic offer attacking and creative verve? Will the Americans weather what could be a more hostile than usual crowd, given the political discord between the two nations at present?

These are among the pressing questions the team must answer affirmatively to have a chance to win. The US know it. They respect their opponent, but they don’t think it’s an impossible ask.

“We have the greatest respect for Mexico, its people and its football team,” Bruce Arena told reporters Sunday. “I live in Los Angeles. I experience on a daily basis people of Mexican heritage. They are wonderful people who contribute to our society in a great number of ways. We think the world of them. I’m ashamed that there is discord on the political side. Believe me, I think most Americans appreciate the Mexicans who have come to America to make a better future for themselves and the way they’ve contributed to our country.”

The US respect Mexico, and her people, but they aren’t afraid. You can’t enter a competitive game with fear, said Darlington Nagbe. “Any competitor should expect to win a game, that’s why you train and work. You don’t do it to get a draw. Yeah, it’s the biggest stage I’ve ever played on. But the team is coming together. We came to win.”

How will the US approach El Tri?

Bruce Arena doesn’t have the optimal personnel to play with a lone forward, which would afford him a chance to field a 4-2-3-1 lineup with Pulisic underneath the solitary striker. If the US do choose that route, the best solitary striker option is Jozy Altidore, but he’s more a release valve playing by himself than a goal-scoring threat.

A 3-5-2, which Arena evaluated against Venezuela, seems more likely, with two wingbacks in Jorge Villafana, DaMarcus Beasley or Fabian Johnson on one wing and DeAndre Yedlin on the other. The chosen combo would then flank a three man backline of John Brooks, Omar Gonzalez and Geoff Cameron, moving left to right. Gonzalez will be the most stationary, asked to clean up crosses and win 50/50s. Michael Bradley, coming off his best game in a US shirt in the Hex, will have plenty of responsibility ahead of them, but appeared up for it against the Soca Warriors, applying great pressure and winning the ball consistently in the difference-making second half.

The two sacrifices in the 3-5-2 come in the form of Kellyn Acosta, whose form and ability to assist Michael Bradley merit starting lineup consideration, and potentially one of Darlington Nagbe or Fabian Johnson, depending on who the US want to play next to Pulisic.

Nagbe should remain a starter, which means the US have to decide whether to deploy Fabian Johnson as a wingback, or use him off the bench. While Villafana has been good, he’s also logged a ton of minutes over two matches, and DaMarcus Beasley, with plenty of Azteca experience, is fresh. The question remains what to do with Fabian Johnson.

There’s been plenty of discussion about whether the US would make significant changes from the side that played less than 72 hours ago. While I think the US will remove Clint Dempsey, it’s hard to see a scenario where they remove a fit Johnson, despite another up and down performance from the Gladbach winger against the Soca Warriors.

Arena removed the fullback early Thursday evening as well, after an hour of chasing Kevin Molino through the channels, presumably to rest his legs for the game Sunday night. Further, with El Tri lacking the experience of Layun and Marquez in the back, this could be an outstanding game for Johnson to find space and influence in the channels. If he does sit, it likely means a start for Liga MX’er Paul Arriola, not Alejandro Bedoya as some have suggested. Bedoya was the lone American sitting out in training Saturday evening, and appears less likely to fill Johnson’s spot.

That would give the US both Johnson and Nagbe as release valves for the inevitable Mexican pressure, and provide the US with the best personnel it has had to carry the ball out of the back in Azteca in many years.

The 3-5-2 would also allow the Yanks to clog the channels and match Mexico’s numbers in midfield, or potentially even outnumber them should El Tri start two forwards. Finally, even if El Tri only play with one forward, the US could essentially have the wingbacks drop deep enough to form nearly a back five when El Tri are in possession, and dare Hector Herrera to unlock the United States without the support of Layun, Guardado, and Tecatito Corona. That’s a tall ask, and El Tri, for all their ability, haven’t been spectacular at unlocking bunkered defenses this cycle.

Mexico Player to Watch: Hector Herrera, FC Porto

Heading into the CONCACAF Cup in the autumn of 2015, Hector Herrera was the “it” player for El Tri, the player in the best form, coming off the best club season, and a hot commodity in Europe. Now, he feels like the forgotten man.

But Herrera remains very much in his prime, and is coming off a spring where he earned the captain’s armband for FC Porto and delivered a series of convincing performances. He’ll be asked to deliver again, without several of the “usual suspects” to help him, tomorrow. What’s more, he’ll be asked to play a bit deeper, shielding a thin back line short on repetitions together. It’s a tall ask, serving as the critical distribution hub and the glue to what’s behind him. But if you captain Porto, you’re probably up for it.

United States Player to Watch: John Brooks, VFL Wolfsburg

If ever there was a game in the Hex for America’s twenty million-dollar man to step up and dominate the way he’s capable, away at Azteca is the one.

Brooks has, for all his technical strengths on the ground, been a bit of a problem for the United States in the air of late, as Kyle Bonn wrote at TYAC this week. He’s looked lost positionally and worse, been beaten in the air on one goal and nearly another. For a player with his technical acumen, skill, range and physical ability, this shouldn’t happen against the likes of Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago.

There’s an argument that Brooks is bored when he plays qualifiers for the States, disinterested by the lack of challenge. To this I say hogwash. While the competitive levels in the Bundesliga week in and week out may rev the engine a bit hotter; elite players impose their wills on lesser opposition. Brooks hasn’t done that, and in fact, has left the door open for them.

Whatever the reasons for his struggles for the red, white and blue, Brooks shouldn’t lack motivation Sunday evening, playing one of the world’s better soccer teams in one of the globe’s most famous stadiums.

Now’s the time for John to lead the backline, whether it is a three man group or a four man line.

Prediction: Mexico 1, USA 0.

The US fight their rears off and nearly equalize after conceding an early goal on a set piece. Pulisic hits a post late, leaving American fans to wonder about what’s to come. The US head to Labor Day on seven points, with World Cup qualification anything but assured.

Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.

Neil W. Blackmon