I’m cutting it close on the preview of tonight’s Final Round World Cup Qualifying Opener against Mexico. This is without a doubt the type of game that explains to skeptical pals why I love US Men’s National Team Soccer, and international play generally. Tonight’s clash in Columbus, dubbed “La Guerra Fria” by the Mexican Media Throng that follows El Tri around the world(That’s the “Cold War” for the English-only at home)won’t be played in a blizzard as the weather has cooperated with El Tri and temperatures should stay around 50, instead of the 20 or so that Bob Bradley and US Soccer had in mind when they scheduled the game at this location months ago. However, it is quite fitting that this rivalry to begin the final qualifying phase takes place on the same day as UNC-Duke– which is undoubtedly the biggest rivalry in American collegiate athletics (this is without argument– so don’t tell me about Ohio State-Michigan football or Auburn-Alabama or even Florida-Georgia because you are hopelessly wrong and the issue is beyond debate) and arguably the largest rivalry in American sport, next to Yankees-Red Sox and Packers-Bears. The clash on Tobacco Road has cooperated with the 4 letter network so no TIVO for both is needed. So Mexico and the United States take center stage tonight. The rivalry was for fifty years dominated by George W. Bush’s “mejor amigo” to the South– but that has changed in the last ten years and since Landon Donovan’s brilliant header in the First Knock Out Round @ the 2002 World Cup, seen with this link at the 2 minute mark, the United States has had a virtual stronghold on the rivalry, losing only on Mexican soil. Mexico has failed on US Soil for ten years in qualifying, and there is scant reason to believe US domination will not continue tonight.
American dominance has taken a toll on the spirit of Mexicans everywhere. They’ve even resorted to voodoo dolls of American players, in hopes that black magic can give the Mexicans their first qualifying points of any kind on US soil since a 2-2 draw in Boston in 1997. The hatred runs beyond voodoo dolls. Chants of “Osama, Osama” have rained from the Azteca. Landon Donovan has relieved himself on Mexican soil and issued what can only be called a platitude in apology. Gooch’s stare down of Borgetti, seen above, is the stuff of absolute legend. For American players who have chosen Mexico instead of their land of origin, including the possible starter on the wide left, Jose Francisco Torres, the game has even a higher level of elevated meaning. The good news for the Yanks is that in Columbus, they likely will have a rare homefield crowd. While no one doubts that the Hispanic and Mexican population in Ohio is an important and growing one– the Americans can expect the crowd to be favorable to the Red, White, and Blue. With the table set– there are a few very interesting things about this game, and I’ll do my best to note three of them.
First, Jeff Carlisle notes that the US is a heavy favorite. The Mexicans have struggled mightily on offense and only slipped into the qualifying hexagon on goal difference. With Carlos Vela out due to international suspension, El Tri will have to hope to get enough out of the immensely talented “Golden-generation” player Nery Castillo and his compatriot Omar Bravo to score goals. There is no question the likes of Castillo, Bravo, Gio Dos Santos and Andres Guardado have enough skill and creativity to break down the US defense– one wonders about their form, as Dos Santos and Castillo in particular have had trouble seeing the field abroad. Carlos Vela has seen limited action for Arsenal as well, but his suspension means that concern is a non-starter. So El Tri will have to search for offense in places where it is less confident it can garner it. As such, one imagines that the real goal of Sven Goran Erikkson’s side is to garner a draw. This would be an excellent result for El Tri and put great pressure on the U.S. to win all home matches from here out in the Hexagon. To get a draw, the Mexicans must get great play in the back from the confident Rafa Marquez and the newly fit Pavel Pardo. Pardo is particularly important, given that the U.S. may have a very inexperienced group in the midfield, at least in terms of players who have played in games of this magnitude. If Klejstan is moved out wide left due to Beasley’s lack of form and lack of playing time internationally (less a concern after his friendly goal against Barca this past week)– then expect the Mexicans to play their typical game of dictating tempo and bringing the game to their opponents. This concerns me, because while I drink a small amount of Klejstan kool-aid– I have recognized that Sacha is less apt when he is given less space– and tends to struggle when under constant pressure. Bradley’s successes too have come in games where opponents are more content to bunker-in– and despite the Yanks clear mental edge in the rivalry, often times it is a patient and counterattacking American side that has gotten the better of Mexico on the scoreboard, but not necessarily in the run of play.
Second, I’ve been asked what I’d do in the back with Steve Cherundolo out with injury. I think the American defense is one of the most organized and underappreciated in the World. This is highly evident when you look at player ratings on things like video games. Try winning the World Cup, or even reaching the 16 with America in Winning 11, and you will see what I mean. They are way better than folks think. That said, without Cherundolo, Bradley will likely call on the 34 year old effort engine Frankie Hejduk to fill the void. This gives the Yanks a back four of Gooch, the Captain, the steady and constantly improving, yet out-of-season abroad Heath Pearce and the very limited offensively Hejduk. It is possible that he will go for pace with Jonathan Bornstein– but I have serious questions about his ability to maintain markings despite his pace. I’ve never seen anyone go from World Class Transfer target to MLS All Star to Goat faster than Bornstein did at the last Copa America, where for 45 minutes he made Lionel Messi look pedestrian, and then the next 45 minutes were played. Marvell Wynne is the final option, and he has more pace than most the cars at Daytona this week– but he’s played in a career total of zero games of this magnitude, much less started. He’ll see the field in the Hexagon b/c we need options in 2010– but not tonight.
On the wing– Beasley seems to be the best option on talent– but he’s not on the field enough at Ibrox to make it a no-brainer. Ricardo Clark may start in the midfield, bumping Klejstan out wide left with Dempsey free to roam on the right and Bradley distributing and holding. That makes sense– but Bradley may remain loyal to DeMarcus and not risk an Arena type riff, meaning no Ricardo and the brilliantly in form Sacha in the midfield. This leads me to three….
Finally, What’s with the Anger About Brian Ching on US Message Boards. CNNSI author Jonah Freedman echoes my sentiments on why it is high time for Sam’s Army to stop being bitter and appreciate the gritty Ching: My fellow bloggite Jon and I, and our pal Raf have a longstanding man-crush on Brian that gives him Paul Bunyan/Tim Tebow superpowers– and I myself have a group of awards I give out for the hardest working, grittiest, toughest player who displays the most corozan in each sport— “The Brian Ching Awards.” I am reminded that sometimes we don’t appreciate grit until it is gone– and with Brian in a lone cent
er forward position tonight– I challenge people to enjoy him while you can. No one works as hard as Brian Ching, and as a Czech man told me shortly after an embarrassing loss to open the World Cup– “Don’t worry. Brian Ching will score goals.” The fact that he sported a San Jose Earthquakes jersey is neither here nor there– he had the right idea.
So enjoy it tonight. We’ll have a complete wrap up here after– and don’t be surprised with Javier Aguirre recently dismissed from his managerial duties at Atletico Madrid, if Sven must win to prevent El Tri from making another desperate and hasty managerial change.