2018 World Cup Qualifying, Featured, November 2016

USA Begin Final Round “Hex” Against Rival Mexico: The TYAC Preview

USA. Mexico. The Hex. Let's go.

USA. Mexico. The Hex.
Let’s go.

Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon

The United States opens play in CONCACAF’s final round of 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying Friday night in Columbus, Ohio. The Americans will play rival Mexico at MAPFRE Stadium at 8 PM (FOX SPORTS 1). Over the past fifteen years, Columbus has established itself as the American home to the Mexico qualifier, every bit as much a House of Horrors as its Mexican counterpart, the 100,000+ seat Azteca. In fact, only the Americans have earned an away point in the rivalry this century, grabbing an unlikely 0-0 draw in the prior World Cup cycle. 

Columbus has given the US an edge in a rivalry where they lacked one for a long time, according to US captain Michael Bradley.

“We have history here,” Bradley told the media this week. “There’s an aura and mystique to this stadium. History doesn’t guarantee that we win, but the atmosphere and the way games get played here is a very positive thing for us.”

Couple the opponent, the park and the opening of the Final Round “Hex” and you get a special chapter in one of international soccer’s fiercest rivalries. 

The soccer story of the border rift needs little else in the way of introduction but this masterful video released by US Soccer is a worthwhile assist:

In a normal week in America, the story of this game and rivalry, its history and legend, the opportunity to seek and find new heroes in an ever-expanding folklore that will continue to be the subject of sports books and the object of affectionate fascination for fans and writers alike, that would be enough.

The match between the two neighbors is often politically charged, or at the least, informed by politics. This is an inevitable byproduct of history. From a Mexican perspective, America’s determination and ultimately its war to tear Texas away from Mexico facilitated generations of distrust, a malaise and uneasiness toward its northern neighbor magnified by trade, drug, immigration and foreign policy. The most recent competitive meeting between the two nations came shortly in the aftermath of then candidate Donald Drumpf’s assertion that many of the Mexicans coming to America were rapists and criminals. The Mexican press, along with the FMF, took understandable offense, utilizing the remarks as motivational fodder. Meanwhile, FOX SPORTS, quite regrettably, hyped the game as a sort of sporting referendum on the commentary. The end result was a politically charged crowd at the Rose Bowl and a tenacious, physical 3-2 Mexico win.

The politics and resentment do not only exist to the south. From an American perspective, the resentments are more localized or sport-specific: U.S. fans in particular loathe the smarmy dismissal of American soccer by Mexico, behavior and rhetoric that lingers no matter how often the US finishes first in a “Hex” or bails Mexico out from World Cup elimination or advances to the same round in a World Cup. 

The end result is a game that has a bit of everything even when political life is stable.

In a normal week in America, then, this game is a political moment.

But this isn’t a normal week in America. This game feels different.

On the heels of a brutally divisive election that has left open, gaping wounds across America, there’s an element of this game that feels different. Protests and celebrations of the presidential election result occurred throughout the country on Wednesday and into Thursday, confirming what we already knew after 18 months of campaign slog: America is a place of deep, wounding divisions. There’s a sense that folks in America right now distrust whether their neighbor wants what is best for America. That is something that hasn’t happened since the dawn of the Civil War.

And whether a person voted for Donald Drumpf or Hillary Clinton, there’s a reality that many Americans are leaving this election uncertain and afraid of what’s next. Drumpf’s rhetoric towards people of color, immigrants, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, don’t exist in a vacuum. They will be ever-present around a game played in a state that voted comfortably for Donald Drumpf. And they are part of the narrative, on both sides of the game.

It’s not possible to separate international soccer from nationalism, in both productive and negative forms.

Whether a game produces flag-waving unity and joy or the often chauvinistic, anti-otherness formulation frequently depends on the fans, both at the game and nationally.

That international soccer has helped formulate and at times nearly defines and captures cultural identities of nations speaks to the game’s impact. Argentina hosted the 1978 World Cup only two years after a coup d’etat propped up a military junta, and won, behind César Luis Menotti’s tactical genius.  The win helped many in the country forget that dissidents to the junta were being murdered and exiled.

Brazil crafted a national psyche and identity through joga bonito, the mesmerizing almost lyrical ability of its people to play with a round ball as if floating. When Brazil lost the 1950 World Cup final at the Maracanã, built specifically to host the tournament, the famed Brazilian anthropologist Roberto DaMatta called the loss a national tragedy”, noting that “it happened at the beginning of a decade where through football Brazil was looking to assert itself as a nation with a great future.” Today, they are the greatest footballing nation the world has ever known, but a 7-1 defeat to Germany at home left a bruise on the national psyche that this summer’s Olympic gold only partially healed.

There are other stories, good and regrettable.

Benito Mussolini used the 1934 World Cup to promote fascism, hosting the final in the National Stadium of his Fascist Party. Cote D’Ivore saw a Civil war halt thanks to a World Cup qualification. Helmut Kohl won an unlikely reelection following Jurgen Klinsmann and Germany’s win at the 1990 World Cup. Nelson Mandela famously used rugby and soccer to put post-Apartheid South Africa back together. The bid to host the first World Cup on African soil was an integral part of that dream. 

Point being, international soccer is one of the last vestiges of acceptable, encouraged nationalism. A victory delivers a sense of not just personal satisfaction, but of communal pride or something beyond that, like identity validation. 

Friday night’s match offers that, I think. It’s why the American Outlaws are right to emphasize via email the Woody Guthrie tune “This Land is Your Land”, an ode to American inclusion, and encourage anyone at the match to speak out against any hateful action or rhetoric. 

It’s why Chicharito is probably right too, when he says that for many Latinos in the United States,  a fine Mexican performance could bring “joy and take away some of the sadness” they are going through because of the election. 

And it is why Michael Bradley is right, when he encourages American fans to be respectful of the opponent and each other on what promises to be an emotional evening in Ohio.

“I would hope our fans do what they always do, which is support our team in the best, most passionate way possible,” the Toronto FC midfielder said. “I would hope they give every person in that stadium the respect they deserve, whether they are American, Mexican, neutral.”

It’s still the USA and Mexico. It’s still just a soccer game.

But maybe for two hours Friday night, it can be a unifying force. Maybe the United States and those that live here, no matter who you voted for and who you will cheer for Friday, needs that. 

The customary TYAC preview then?

Rafa Marquez says this is the best version of El Tri ever to arrive in Ohio.

Rafa Marquez says this is the best version of El Tri ever to arrive in Ohio.

Series: 66th Edition. Mexico lead 33-18-14. 

El Tri ended four years of winless futility against the Americans with the 3-2 win at the Rose Bowl in October.

And Rafa Marquez, longtime Mexican captain and star now playing with Atlas at home in Liga MX, says this is the best side Mexico have ever brought to Ohio.

The former Barcelona defender said on the eve of the game that this incarnation of El Tri has the resolve and quality to end the streak of four consecutive 2-0 defeats in MAPFRE Stadium.

“I think it is (the best team),” Marquez told the media this week. Forever a villain to American fans, Marquez is very much a contender to play at a remarkable fifth World Cup in 2018. He will appear for Mexico against the U.S. in Columbus for the fourth time Friday night, likely as a starter.

“We’ve never had so many players [13] in Europe and playing important roles in their teams.”

Still, the US are 13-6-5 against El Tri since 2000, a terrific mark against a good footballing nation.

The biggest game between the two countries came at the 2002 World Cup, won by the United States by that scoreline before it was that scoreline, Dos a cero. Neil W. Blackmon’s story on that goal is worth reading- here.

Friday night’s game won’t dwarf that, but given the political atmosphere surrounding the fixture and the fact it opens the final round of World Cup qualifying for each country, it promises to be remembered. 

Weather: Cold. Around 40 degrees at kick and edging closer to freezing by the second half. Perfect Bundesliga in November weather. Perfect Ohio State football weather. Just bring a coat. Fabian Johnson Misery Index: 3. 

What role will Jermaine Jones play tonight? The answer to that will tell us a great deal about the American shape.

What role will Jermaine Jones play tonight? The answer to that will tell us a great deal about the American shape.

What to Watch For From The United States:

The American aim will be simple.

Maintain the offensive momentum from recent friendlies, while holding onto the solid organizational all-in defending established at this summer’s Copa América Centenario. Okay, so that was a relatively simple sentence to write, but achieving this balance against Mexico will be anywhere from “really hard” to “impossible.”

So how does Jurgen even make this audacious attempt (which by the way, he pretty much has to make given the recent play of Kljestan and Pulisic)?

Essentially, you keep a backline of Fabian Johnson, John Brooks, the non-Cameron CB (likely Omar Gonzalez?), and DeAndre Yedlin. There’s your start to recreating the Copa backline. Deploy Michael Bradley centrally, somewhere in front of them and we’re getting closer. But here comes your new high powered attack. Insert Sacha Kljestan ahead of MB90, flank him with Christian Pulisic, and you’ve got your strike-force of Altidore and Wood ahead of them. Voila! We’re one wide midfielder and a goalkeeper away from a starting eleven.

But all this puts us in a strange spot regarding Jermaine Jones. And that’s worth considering, given what the manager had to say about him Thursday.

“We are thrilled that Jermaine is back,” Klinsmann said. “He’s a big part of this team, from his leadership to his aggressiveness to his drive. We’ll see if he can go ninety minutes or how far he can go, but just to have him with us makes us feel a lot more comfortable.” 

Interesting. But not surprising.

Jones has  been Mr. Big Match for the US. At the same time, he’s certainly not playing on that wing vacancy I just referenced. And if you remove Kljestan for him, you’re playing a lineup without a chance creator over the age of eighteen.

OR–you take Altidore or Wood off the field to accommodate his role, and play a midfield triangle. Or you slide Kljestan out to a wing (NO!! NO!! NO!!)

Instead I’ll advocate for Bradley playing the de facto number six, and starting Bedoya on the non-Pulisic wing (probably the right side). There’s no true substitute for more meat in the central defensive midfielder, but Ale-Alejandro has proven that his brand of box-to-box wing play can slow a quality opposing attack. I kind of like the idea of that asymmetrical wings approach, with Pulisic bombing forward constantly on one side, and Bedoya going defense/possession-first on the other.

This set up requires Klinsmann to decide what starting 11 caliber player to omit. Given Mexico’s likely to play 3 in the back, does a 4-2-3-1 make more sense? It might, and it enables Jones to play, which Klinsmann seemed to hint was the plan. In that instance, you sit Bobby Wood in favor of the better target player and the better probing receiver of the ball, Jozy Altidore. Altidore has proven time and time again he’s willing to drop deep and get the ball, something the US may want Friday night. And without Clint Dempsey, who has been critical to the American 4-4-2 success under Klinsmann, that may make the most sense.

The other choice is to omit one of Jones and Kljestan. This risks starting the long-critiqued Bradley-Jones CM pairing, which has lacked understanding and chemistry for four years, give or take a few positive games. It’s worth remembering Bradley’s relief/joy in the afterglow of the American win in Jacksonville in September- not because Trinidad and Tobago are a comparable opponent in terms of quality- but because Bradley trusts the double pivot with Kljestan. 

I’ve heard rustlings that Kljestan, who has started a game in Ohio against El Tri with Bradley in the double pivot before, struggled in that game. This isn’t entirely accurate. Bradley excelled in that game because he was able to trust that Kljestan would drop into the space behind when he made his patented late-arriving runs. Bradley was influential all night– and in one sequence (4 minute mark below)- makes a late run just before half that results in a chip and splendid chance for the US to get two before the half.

Kljestan should be considered to start.

Please note that either of our proposed setups, the 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, and almost any others that Klinsmann is likely considering, has Michael Bradley and Fabian Johnson, two of the team’s best players, playing at least slightly out of position. That’s a reality we have to live with for now. We can’t pretend the real next left back is on this roster, so Fab’s gotta deputize as usual. And Bradley is a true central midfielder, not a DMF, bet hey, he usually does better there than he did when asked to be a trequartista.

As far as subs go, if either Kljestan or Jones does not start, they will be coming in as either playmaker or dedicated defensive midfielder if the Yanks start to give El Tri free access to the American defensive third (which is a very real possibility).

Other bench options are more interesting and less predictable. I was severely disappointed to see Jordan Morris pulled from the squad with a hammy strain. Yeah, I get how important the kid is to Seattle’s MLS Cup aspirations, but I had the in-form striker pegged to grab a goal off the bench. Let’s all hope Aronjo (sorry, I get too excited at the opportunity to make Johannsson Brazilian) can do that job in his return to the national team. I’m also interested to see what kind of impact “the new class” makes. Will Julian Green or Lynden Gooch come on and provide a needed spark on the wing? And is Caleb Stanko becoming trusted enough to do the job that Kyle Beckerman used to do for this team? With all of the injuries and omissions in the defensive midfield, is Stanko ready to be the emergency bullpen defensive mid?

Oh, and one last note on the US.

This one was penned by one of our favorite American soccer writers, Charles Boehm, earlier this week.

“Don’t be surprised if Orozco is handed a bigger role in Columbus than many expect.”

Ain’t that the truth, like, almost always.

Just insert the name of the next city to host a US Soccer match, and that line’s likely to be right. Michael Orozco (Fiscal… are we still adding that?) is a trusted utility man for Jurgen, and will be until his dying day. When Klinsmann’s the manager of LAFC a few years from now, look for Orozco to captain the team before retiring into a role as reserve team coach.

One final thing: no player in the past decade has ripped into the Mexican psyche quite like Clint Dempsey. Sure, Landon Donovan has scored more goals and Michael Bradley’s had some monstrous evenings against El Tri, but it is often Dempsey who stays on the ground longer after a tackle, grabs an extra shirt, chirps an extra word or five into an opponent’s ear. The US started beating Mexico with regularity because they improved at football, to be sure. They also started to do it because they were psychologically unafraid. Who steps into that role tonight? It can’t only be Tim Howard and Michael Bradley. Someone needs to fill that void.

Mexico have immense quality, such as Hector Herrera.

Mexico have immense quality, such as Hector Herrera.

What To Watch For From Mexico:

Mexico are wildly unpredictable, which is part of what makes them so fascinating and what makes the task of handicapping Friday night extraordinarily difficult, even with the history of Ohio and even with the tangible benefit of personnel familiarity. About the only thing you can safely forecast about El Tri is that they will exit the World Cup after the Round of 16, which they have done at each tournament since 1994. It’s part of the reason that no matter how often the US defeat Mexico dos a cero in the Ohio qualifier, the rivalry and the three points stand on knife’s edge. 

On paper, Marquez is correct to label this the most talented, prolific Mexico side to arrive in Ohio this century. Under the leadership of Juan Carlos Osorio, El Tri have lost only one competitive game.

Of course that game was un fracaso, an unequivocal and astonishing 7-0 defeat to eventual tournament champion Chile in the quarterfinals of this summer’s Copa América. The defeat was so comprehensive that Osorio’s seat has been warm ever since, with any additional misstep potentially costing the manager his job. The FMF, never extolled for its patience, would do an injustice to even its own incredulous history of short managerial leashes by firing Osorio, but the facts are that a dos a cero could usher in a new regime.

The United States lack Chile’s frenetic speed and style, but it’s worth noting that the Chileans didn’t exactly utilize their usual loco press in disrupting Mexico this summer. They simply executed pressure to disrupt Mexico’s possession weaknesses in the center of the field. Mexico can be a bit loose with passes in the midfield zones, and if you maintain defensive intensity and limit the space you afford El Tri entering the final third, you can pick off passes and initiate counterattacks. Chile weren’t the only side to do this– Venezuela were effective in this regard in the Copa América group stages and it happened again in Mexico’s October friendly against New Zealand, where the All Whites surprised Mexico (albeit a different roster) with pressure and created several quality chances on the break, but lacked Alexis Sanchez to finish them.

Playing at home, the US should be more on the front foot than they were in the shaded Mexico Rose Bowl last October, and at the least, they should attempt to emulate Chile’s work rate. It’s an immense argument for starting Alejandro Bedoya, who can track all of Miguel Layun’s forward runs, and help shade on the overlapping or incutting Guardado or Jesus”Tecatio” Corona. If the US can harangue the Mexicans early and frustrate them, there is still a tendency- seen even against Honduras in qualifying in September- by El Tri to hang heads. This is an argument for more pressure. 

As for the tactics,  if it’s the 3-3-3-1, which is really a 3-6-1, the lines are right to start with to organize good presses and traps of U.S. players to steal the ball and penetrate the American gaps, and Mexico will look to be aggressive, with a high line defensively when the US attack. Osorio favors three in the back in big games, and does so even more against teams that deploy two traditional forwards. This is a logical play. It also allows both Layun and Tigres man Jesús Dueñas to influence proceedings as wingbacks, moving forward against the weak edges of the American defense (absent the tremendous tracking of Bedoya) and pumping in crosses to Chicharito, who has a distinct advantage in this game with the US without Geoff Cameron aerially.

Mexico can struggle with chance creation. Wide play and crosses to an elite forward help compensate.

A potential deployment for Mexico should they opt out of the 3-6-1.

A potential deployment for Mexico should they opt out of the 3-6-1.

The alternative for Mexico is a back four with Rafa Marquez sitting in front. This will allow the now slower Marquez to get help just ahead of him, from Andres Guardado and Héctor Herrera, leaving Rafa to deftly cut off angles and provide a physical presence to swallow up an American forward and shield a back four heavy on CB’s but light on technical defenders. This gives Mexico an “anchor man,” something missed terribly by El Tri at the Copa this summer with Guardado and Duenas the only players in front of a Moreno-Araujo center-back pairing. The “anchor” also means that Mexico would effectively have three bodies around chance creator Sacha Kljestan, should he start for the US, with one able to step up between the lines where Kljestan thrives. 

A back four would also aid Mexico against Christian Pulisic, who Juan Carlos Osorio identified as an immense threat this week with the press. Hector Herrera is a quality defender, one who could help Carlos Salcedo, who would be the presumptive starter at right back should El Tri take that route.

In the end, I think Mexico employs that tactical wrinkle, determined not to be defeated by a shiny new American star in the manner they were by Landon Donovan over a decade ago. For all of the El Tri bluster about being the superior footballing nation, they have long cultural memories. And they can absolutely win Friday night’s game if they limit out America’s best weapons. 

US Player To Watch: Tim Howard, Colorado Rapids

For the first time in a generation, the US enter a Hex with fair questions at the goalkeeper position.

Whether it is that the Americans haven’t developed goalkeepers at the rate they used to, or that Howard-Guzan-Keller-Friedel was just manna from the footballing heavens sent to help the US weather the developing soccer nation storm, or some combination of a host of factors, there are questions about what the US can expect from the position in Russia 2018 and beyond.

For now, the 37 year old Tim Howard will get the call tonight. 

Howard told ESPN FC that his nearly one year sabbatical from the USMNT “kept his fire burning,and he credited that and a return to MLS with restoring his form. And it’s nothing to sneeze at that his form is/was good enough to help Colorado eliminate the LA Galaxy in penalties last weekend, sending the Rapids to an unlikely spot in the MLS Playoffs semifinals. 

Howard still has moments of terrific quality. But how much does he consistently have to offer at the international level? And what of the gaffes that crept into his game his final year at Everton? A Hex free of howlers has been an American birthright. Does Howard have enough in the tank to make that a possibility?

What becomes of Ethan Horvath, Bill Hamid, David Bingham, Zack Steffen and all the American goalkeepers on deck in the years to come is an important question to monitor. 

But Friday night is about an American legend,  playing in his final Columbus US-Mexico game, and whether he can do what he has done on so many night over the past decade, and make the Yanks a better soccer team than they are without him. And it’s why on a night Christian Pulisic, the most promising young American talent since Landon Donovan, makes his likely USA-Mexico Ohio debut, the Americans fate largely relies on their oldest player.

Tecatito Corona is Mexico's most dynamic young player.

Tecatito Corona is Mexico’s most dynamic young player.

Mexico Player to Watch: Tecatito Corona (FC Porto)

 That’s right, I refuse to even acknowledge that Tecatito has a real name.

His nickname’s got too much damn “carácter.” Story time!

So, Corona starts his club career at Monterrey in Mexico. That’s neither odd, nor noteworthy.

But Monterrey is sponsored by a company that’s likely to take issue with Corona’s last name, the Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery company. Among their beer brands is one of Corona’s biggest competitors, Tecate. Y’know, cerveza con carácter! Obviously the only appropriate response to this corporately offensive surname was to give the kid a nickname that forces the right brand into the equation. And Tecatito was born! The nickname’s followed the winger from Mexico to Netherlands, and now to Portugal. Brilliant branding. Turns out there are plenty of dudes named Corona; there’s only on Tecatito.

So why’s Tecatito the Mexican player to watch in this match?

Surely not because he’s got a good nickname? Surely not.

No, Tecatito’s earned himself this lofty position in our preview by continually answering the bell for club and country at a rate we haven’t seen from a Mexican winger since current captain Andrés Guardado. And Tecatito’s only 23.

Of course, context here is useful.

Aside from the aforementioned Guardado, El Tri’s been striking out for years in the search for talented and consistent wingers. The talent they’ve got, but the consistency of high level performances on the flank has been a big issue. We see it in guys like Javier Aquino and Pablo Barrera, who both showed great promise before flaming out in Europe and being relegated to the fringes of the national team. We see it in guys like Marco Fabián and Raúl Jiménez, who have been shoehorned into wing roles at times just to get more goal scoring skill on the field.

But in Tecatito we see a crafty and immensely talented dedicated winger who’s actually elevating his performances with the level of competition. Yes, he’s only coming into his prime now, and this is an oversimplification, but that’s part and parcel to the role of sports blogger/columnist. He was better Twente than he was with Monterrey, and now he’s better with Porto than he was with Twente. And while we can argue whether Portugal or Netherlands actually boasts a better overall level of competition, there’s no question Tecatito is facing better defenses now with Porto than he did in the Eredivisie. Remember, Michael Bradley was practically a regular scorer for Heerenveen, and both Jozy Altidore and Aron Jóhannsson lit the league on fire at AZ Alkmaar. I sometimes think I could score in the Dutch top flight… but I digress.

In addition to proving himself at club level, Tecatito’s proven that he’s willing to do much more than just dance on the ball when given the opportunity to don the national team shirt (seriously, this is a real problem for them, but not with Corona). He scored on the US in the U20 CONCACAF Championship final in 2013, and he scored the eventual game winner in the 2015 Gold Cup Final against Jamaica. But those were matches where everything was going right for Mexico. His most telling contribution came this summer in the Copa América Centenario. Venezuela’s tight marking was smothering Mexico, who couldn’t seem to draw a drop of inspiration or effective creativity from anywhere. But Tecatito kept his head up, dribbled past half the Venezuelan defense, then put his head down, and slammed an emphatic equalizer past the keeper.

Like I said, not just content to dance on the ball. The entire American defense is on notice. 

Predictions: 

Neil W. Blackmon:

USA 1, Mexico 0. 

On a brutally cold night in Ohio, the hero will be a young kid from…Tampa. Julian Green- remember him- of Bayern Munich rescues three points for the Yanks late. Tim Howard shines.

Jon Levy: 

 USA 2 – 2 Mexico

¿Dos a dos? There’s just no ring to it. And sadly for the US, there’s only one point in it. But I think that’s what we’re looking at this time in Columbus. The good news is that the US has definitively turned a corner since the disaster that was 2015. The bad news for the US is that Mexico doesn’t care, and is doing just fine, despite many waiting for the sky to fall after Chile’s destruction of El Tri in the Copa this summer. Bobby Wood gets another goal against Mexico, this time as a starter, but the US blows a lead in the second half. Hoping I’m wrong and we’re on the right end of dos a cero again.

Enjoy the match, and Go USA!

Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon co-founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow them on Twitter @TYAC_Jon and @nwblackmon.

 

 

 

Jon Levy