Featured, March 2013

Showdown at the Azteca: The US-Mexico Preview

Michael Orozco Fiscal and the US won a friendly in the Azteca last August. Tonight, things will be much more difficult.

Michael Orozco Fiscal and the US won a friendly in the Azteca last August. Tonight, things will be much more difficult.

Jon Levy

This week provides a perfect example of why I love international soccer so much. The sheer magnitude of every little event is staggering. Just a few days ago the US was in grave danger; one snowcapped goal later and they’re practically in the CONCACAF World Cup Qualification driver’s seat. On the other side of the coin, Mexico have seen their fortunes take a turn for the worse in this same timeframe, and now they’re in danger of going into full-on panic mode with respect to their once-every-four-years ambition. Small sample size giveth, and small sample size taketh away.

Meanwhile, Jurgen Klinsmann has replaced ailing Jermaine Jones, who has a sprained left ankle, with Michael Orozco Fiscal. We don’t need to tell you about Michael Orozco-Fiscal and his patron sainthood at this site again, so we won’t. (Okay, it’s a bit of a love-hate, and you can read it here) But we do like the fact that the only American to score a goal in a win at the Estadio Azteca made a two-hour drive to join the team the day before the match. What a bad MOF, if you catch my drift.  And in a way, it’s a nice move by Klinsmann, who, while still dealing with the battle between “calm in the middle of a storm” and “anonymous source”, is, for the time being or at least until tomorrow, winning.

Onto the preview.

Television: ESPN. 10 PM.

The Venue: Estadio Azteca. Sell-out. 105,000 plus. Batteries. Urine Bags. Booing the US Anthem (well, maybe not this time– good for you Chepo De La Torre!!) You get the idea.

The Series: This is the 61st meeting between the United States and Mexico. El Tri lead 32-16-12. Mexico leads 10-1-1 at the Estadio Azteca, with the lone tie coming in World Cup qualifying in 1997 and the lone win coming, of course, last August in Mexico City on the goal from Orozco Fiscal. That was a “friendly”, however, and as noted, the US have not won a point against El Tri in qualifying in Mexico since Eddie Pope and company earned a draw in 1997.

Weather: Pleasant, actually. About 66 degrees at kick. Not snowing and such.

Johnny Magallon may see the field tonight to add veteran grit to a shaky Mexican defense.

Johnny Magallon may see the field tonight to add veteran grit to a shaky Mexican defense.

So what will we see out of Mexico?

A desperate team, and rightfully so. Mexico are the reigning champions of the region (not to mention the reigning world champs at Under-17 and Under-23 level), but they’ve stumbled out of the blocks in this final round of World Cup Qualification. They’ve got two points from two matches, including an unacceptable draw after they were two goals up at home in their most recent match against Honduras. And speaking of unacceptable, don’t think for a second that any Mexican player or fan forgot the prelude to this particular bad spell; the USMNT beating El Tri at The Azteca in a “friendly” and spoiling the Olympic Gold Medal fiesta. Mexico will be out for blood on Tuesday night.

Tuesday night’s performance from Mexico at The Azteca will be a good indication of whether this team’s new recruits have it in them to respond to adversity like the guys that erased a two goal USMNT advantage in Los Angeles two summers ago. I’m looking at guys like right back Severo Meza who are newly important pieces for the national team, and veterans like center back Francisco “Maza” Rodríguez (although he will miss the match due to card accumulation, and likely will be spelled by Jonny Magallon or, if El Tri go younger, Diego Reyes) who are being asked to fill the leadership void created by the absence of Rafa Marquez. If the back four pairing is Meza-Magallon-Moreno-Torres, which seeems a safe bet, then Mexico has a bit of a problem with aging central defenders who’ve lost recovery speed and don’t offer much in set piece defense (see the first Honduran goal Friday). On the flanks, they are young and talented but have a bit of a problem getting sucked too far forward, and like an NFL corner with bad hips, they are slow to turn around and utilize the great recovery speed they have. Speed can only help so much. This makes them more vulnerable than typical incarnations of El Tri on the counter and also leads to some silly fouls– and we saw some of that Friday against Honduras as well.

I expect this team to come out flying, creating multiple chances within the first fifteen minutes, and using silky skill to make it virtually impossible for the US to get the ball. This will actually be a change– the US have really started on the front foot in qualifiers at the Azteca the last two cycles– but once Mexico have weathered the early storm the US have faded. Expect a different challenge for the Americans on Tuesday night, one where it is them who have to survive early body blows. Provided the Yanks weather the early tidal wave of Mexican momentum, the true test of the constitution of this Mexico squad will come in the ensuing 70 to 80 minutes. Everybody’s got a game plan ‘til they get punched in the face. Or, more appropriately for this match, everybody’s got a game plan ‘til they tire themselves out punching and leave themselves open to body blows and powerful counter shots.

Mexico has been open to the counterattack of late. Against Honduras and Jamaica, the weaknesses in their backline were exposed for what they are: veterans who aren’t particularly great players and young players who aren’t particularly ready. Sound familiar? They do silly little things, really, like get caught too far up forward behind either  Guardado or Gio Dos Santos, who are orchestrating the attack through the middle trying to create space through quick passes or sharp cuts for Chicharito. Chicharito then usually takes the ball at the top of the area, and has the options to hit a late runner with a pass (Guardado, Salcedo), shoot, or, swing the ball to the flank for a late-running fullback. If he takes option three, and the US win that ball, the counterattack can be on because the Mexican fullbacks do NOT play with a great deal of discipline and will get caught out. It was that sort of sequence that led to the Honduran penalty and equalizer on Friday.

Finally, Clark Kent for Club and Superman for Country Gio Dos Santos makes the Mexicans extraordinarily diverse in attack when he is on his “A game.” Semblances of his A game did show up on Friday night, and there’s no question he relishes playing for country. There is a great breakdown of Gio Dos Santos’ different tactical set ups within the Mexican team over at Shin Guardian. You should read it, and keep this in mind as well: Dos Santos’ best games have always come against the United States- including the devastating Gold Cup trifecta. When I wrote earlier that I expect the US to have to weather a large storm early in the match, it was with an incutting Dos Santos feeding a Chicharito, or playing a two-man game with an overlapping fullback or feeding a goal-starved Aquino, set up on the right flank, in mind. The onus will really be on the US fulback on the left flank to not get sucked in, and on the US holder to play responsibly and hold his ground. Tough, tough deal.

Who plays with MB 90 in the midfield double pivot might be Klinsmann's largest challenge.

Who plays with MB 90 in the midfield double pivot might be Klinsmann’s largest challenge.

What to expect from the USMNT:

First off, it’s imperative that the US deals with the expected and aforementioned Mexican blitzkrieg to start the match. This game is likely over at two-nil Mexico, so protecting Brad Guzan’s net early in the match is job one. So there’s no blaming Jurgen Klinsmann for starting this match in a defensive shell. It’ll be interesting to see who starts as Klinsmann’s traditional “number six” though, since the trusted Jermaine Jones is out with an ankle injury, and both Maurice Edu and Kyle Beckerman roles as substitutes in the Costa Rica snowstorm/match. My guess on this one is up in the air. Edu proved he can perform at the Azteca, making countless key interventions as a center half in the exhibition win over Mexico, but it seems to me that Jurgen trusts The Dred Pirate Beckerman more to play the role of the distributing defensive midfielder, and to start matches at that position. Either way, keep your fingers crossed that the dedicated defensive midfielder can shield the back four as well as Jermaine Jones and two feet of snow did on Friday night.

Jones’ absence also creates a snowball effect on the remainder of the US starting 11, and Jurgen Klinsmann will be tasked with deciding who to play in the midfield double pivot with MB 90. The common-sense decision would be Sacha Kljestan, who has played fairly well for the Americans of late and has earned Jurgen Klinsmann’s trust with his leadership and form at Anderlecht. It is also worth noting, although the game was at home, that Kljestan and Bradley manned the pivot together in Columbus in 2009 and really dissected the Mexican defense. Kljestan’s ability to read defenses, play two-touch football and make sure, thoughtful distributions were instrumental in a late-running Bradley’s first goal, and he did a nice job with his positioning on defense in the match as well. It is very, very hard to believe, given Bradley and Kljestan’s long history of playing together, that they haven’t started as a pair since the 2009 Confederations Cup. Kljestan’s inclusion also frees things up for Clint Dempsey to be involved in some quick, triangle distributions that can help keep the Mexican midfield onslaught at bay, and it gives a young Mexican defensive grouping more to think about from a “Hey, they aren’t just being stagnant, sitting back and absorbing pressure” standpoint.

Michael Bradley should, of course, be the fulcrum. As noted, his rapport with Kljestan is tremendous and that’s a positive if Sacha gets the call. Bradley will be hard-pressed to duplicate his absurd 89 percent passes completed percentage from Friday night’s blizzard, but he is certainly capable of maintaining his defensive responsibilities and quickly shifting to counterattacking football when called upon. This also would be a good night for a bit of the MB 90 bulldog grit. It’s a rivalry game. Be smart about it, MB 90, but let Mexico know you’re there.

There's an argument that Gomez's ninety minutes Friday night make him a risk in Mexico. It isn't a good argument. Who else would you want in this venue?

There’s an argument that Gomez’s ninety minutes Friday night make him a risk in Mexico. It isn’t a good argument. Who else would you want in this venue?

Beyond that, the Yogi Berra line about 90 percent of the game being half-mental or what have you is useful. The US need to be smart in possession, smart with deciding when to foul and when not to, mindful of their marker on set pieces (Mexico’s first goal against Honduras was a cheapie after a dumb foul), and clean on their clearances. There’s a great deal to be said for making El Tri beat you, especially when they are desperate. And make no mistake– as gloomy as the USMNT outlook was before Friday night around midnight– Mexico’s is equally gloomy this evening. It’s win, or big trouble.

US Player to Watch: Herculez Gomez

The Santos Laguna forward continued his string of good performances in the Denver snow, holding the ball and creating chances for others as he always does while in the US shirt. I think we’re going to see something even better out of him on Tuesday night in Mexico City. Herc has done more than make a living in Liga MX, he’s earned himself a spot on the US Men’s National Team under two different managers, and he’s done it by beating seemingly every defender and goalkeeper in the league. He’s done it while playing for four different teams, scoring on former teammates and constant rivals alike. Herculez knows these defenders, he knows this goaltender (yes, Guillermo Ochoa playing in France is still new and weird), and he knows this venue.

It’s true that he played 90 minutes in Denver Friday night, unlike Zusi or Eddie Johnson. But it bears repeating: this game, like a lot of rivalry games, is somewhat about your mental makeup. Before you argue Zusi or Johnson or both get the call ahead of Gomez, consider the following: Is there another American player who loves the moment and can handle the venue better than Herculez Gomez? The answer is really a no-brainer.

I only mention that question because sometimes there’s a man… I won’t say a hero, ’cause, what’s a hero? But sometimes, there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about The Herc here. Sometimes, there’s a man, and well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s The Herc, scoring on Tuesday night at Estadio Azteca.

Andres Guardado is the mechanic that makes the Mexican engine hum and revives it when its broken.

Andres Guardado is the mechanic that makes the Mexican engine hum and revives it when its broken.

Mexican Player to Watch: Andrés Guardado

This one wasn’t tough. There’s a good reason why he of the sweaty, kinked, floppy 1989 sleaze-metal hair is my Mexican player to watch just about every other time we play El Tri. The dude flat-out creates chances against us. We’re not special though, he does it against every team. Clubs, countries, it doesn’t matter. Hell, we actually get off easy most the time; he scores on cannon-shots from outside the box against other CONCACAF foes.

Andrés Guardado is the offensive engine upon which Mexico’s attack is built, even if the creativity of Gio do Santos and the reliable finishing of Chicharito are the innovations that turn that engine from a regular six cylinder into a roaring Hemi V-8. You ain’t getting anywhere without the internal combustion as a baseline constant, and Guardado is that combustion. I hope I didn’t mangle those metaphors too badly, I’m a writer and a sports guy, but I go to the mechanic when pretty much anything under the hood conks out. And if Mexico’s stagnant for stretches, or desperate for a goal late, you can bet they’ll go to mechanic Guardado for the fix.

Prediction: Mexico 2-1 USA

Herculez Gomez gets his goal, but the Yanks suffer a heartbreaking loss, complete with a last gasp winner from the home side. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.

Enjoy the match and go USA!

Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at jon.f.levy@gmail.com and you should follow him and his unbelievably underfollowed feed on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon.