Confederations Cup Playoff, Featured, October 2015

USA. Mexico. CONCACAF Cup. The TYAC Preview

Not fond of one another, the US and Mexico will play for a championship Saturday at the Rose Bowl.

Not fond of one another, the US and Mexico will play for a championship Saturday at the Rose Bowl.

Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon

Introduction by Neil W. Blackmon

USA vs. Mexico week. That’s enough to get the heart pumping faster even for a friendly.

Let’s state the obvious. Saturday night in the Rose Bowl (8 PM EST, Fox Sports 1) ain’t no friendly.

You know the stakes. One game playoff. Winner to the 2017 Confederations Cup. Loser to the bowels of the Rose Bowl and a press conference room smelling of sawdust and swirling with uncertainty.

Two sides remarkably familiar with one another.

Mexico, fresh off the 2015 Gold Cup title, reigning champions of the continent, but not without questions. First Gold Cup champion this century to not win their group at the tournament, and a tournament win shrouded in controversial victories in both the quarterfinals (Costa Rica) and the semifinals (Panama).

Mexico, playing for an interim manager, Tuca Ferretti, who has stepped in to manage the team specifically for this match, following the stranger than fiction termination by the FMF of Gold Cup winning manager Miguel Herrera, who punched a television reporter days after the dominant Mexican win in the Gold Cup final. Ferretti will not lead the team a day past Saturday, yielding to Colombian Juan Carlos Osorio, who resigned his job as manager of storied Sao Paulo FC in Brazil to become the first non-Mexican to lead El Tri since the ill-fated tenure of Sven-Göran Eriksson from 2008-2009. Ferretti will lead a side without international talisman Gio Dos Santos and one relying on two ailing captain figures, Andres Guardado, fresh off an ankle injury, and Rafa Márquez, who is 36 years old and battling a groin injury. El Tri fans will likely paint the Rose Bowl green and red and regrettably serenade Pasadena with sounds of “Puto”, but this isn’t an overwhelming opponent, even if they are the reigning champions of CONCACAF.

With Donovan's comments lingering in the background, expect a prideful group of Yanks.

With Donovan’s comments lingering in the background, expect a prideful group of Yanks.

The United States, two years removed from a dominant Gold Cup run, fueled by the now-retired Landon Donovan, the program’s greatest field player and, as events this week reminded us, forsaken son. Landon Donovan wasn’t the first former American player to suggest that US manager Jurgen Klinsmann be fired if the US lose this game, but he’s certainly the most visible.

Klinsmann, whose team just finished a stunning fourth at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, less than a year removed from finishing second in a World Cup group with Germany, Portugal and Ghana, isn’t helping matters by hyping up the importance of Saturday’s game and the US earning the result.

Following roster selection, Klinsmann called Saturday’s playoff  “a game that for the next two or three years to come is probably the biggest game” the US will play, a staggering statement given that the US begin qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia next month, and a victory or defeat in the CONCACAF Cup will have no bearing on whether the Yanks play soccer in Russia in 2018. Calling the game “a unique opportunity for every player to really write a piece of history” is one thing– making the claim that it’s the most critical game the US will play in a timespan that includes the CONCACAF Hex is quite another.

It’s an odd game to emphasize for a manger whose winning percentage in matches that “matter” only bests his predecessor Bob Bradley because Bradley managed to qualify for a Confederations Cup and then had the audacity to make a final. Yet here we are.

Klinsmann’s emphasis on Saturday’s playoff is also precisely the type of bold claim a coach that trusts he’ll be around in the future gets to make, and make no mistake,it is the belief of these writers and others that Jurgen Klinsmann will be the manager of the US national team- and likely the technical director of the US Soccer Federation- well into the Russian World Cup cycle, win or lose. But it doesn’t take much to spoil the water in the well, and while winning is a habit, so is losing and negativity and noise in the system. Jurgen Klinsmann wanted a healthy debate about soccer in this country to emerge in the press. He’s got one. And if the US lose Saturday, a centerpiece of that discussion will continue to be (and should be) about Klinsmann’s job security.

Noise will be made and has been made about Klinsmann deserving the time to put his vision into place, and to restructure US Socccer. That’s hogwash. No one is entitled to anything in life and a manager who isn’t getting results isn’t entitled to continue to implement a vision designed to get results that may not even be the right vision. Klinsmann the technical director is different from Klinsmann the manager, and the conflation of the two only perpetuates the problem.

So many questions.

Just one game.

But what if you are among the minority of American and Mexican soccer fans or writers who don’t think this match matters.

Okay, that’s a take best handled with oven mitts and SPF 45, but we’ll bite…

Jon Levy on Why this match matters:

This section shouldn’t be necessary for a match of this magnitude, but I’ll write it in response to a minority of American and Mexican soccer fans (and oddly writers) who are downplaying the importance of winning a berth in the FIFA Confederations Cup.

Is this tournament as important as the World Cup? No way, not even close.

But if you believe that it’s valuable to test your team by putting players in pressurized situations against some of the world’s best, then you should care deeply about locking up this Confed Cup spot.

Here at TYAC we are of that belief, and we think anyone who supports this team should be. This is not a “Manchester United playing reserves in the League Cup” situation. The US hasn’t earned the right to scoff at a tournament like this, especially when regularly testing themselves against the best of CONCACAF, not the best of South America or Europe. (For whatever it’s worth- Mexico, who needed a Graham Zusi goal to qualify for a playoff to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil, can’t afford to scoff at the tournament either.) The big boys from CONMEBOL and UEFA continents get plenty of top-level competition. They can be given a pass for sending a far-from-first-choice squad to the Confed Cup. But here’s the catch, even those teams don’t do that. Yeah they might leave a guy who’s slightly injured at home, but giants like Spain and Brazil always send at least a B plus squad to this tournament, usually opting for an A team of some variety.

I’ve already written all that, and I haven’t even touched on the magical American run in the 2009 Confederations Cup, or that other “dos a cero” against a seemingly invincible Spain squad. If you think that semifinal victory would live nearly as long in the memory if it was just a friendly, well, you’re so far off base that I can’t even help.

And speaking of “dos a cero,” let’s not forget who the US is playing in this match. The rivalry with Mexico is so intense that even when absolutely nothing is at stake we here at TYAC still refuse to refer to an exhibition match with El Tri as a “friendly.” So get don’t let any too-cool-for-school naysayers convince you to hit the club on Saturday night, or to come watch college football at some bar with one TV. You’re watching North America’s biggest soccer rivalry play out with a shot at playing the world elite in front of Vladimir Putin on the line. And so am I.

TYAC preview usuals,   then the particulars.

Series: 65th Edition. Mexico lead 32-18-14. Come Saturday morning, it will have been 1,568 days since Mexico defeated the United States in soccer. 

We’ll have a feature on great USA-Mexico memories that will run tonight. Nonetheless…

The US are 13-5-5 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. The Americans will play in front of a pro-Mexican crowd on US soil Saturday, which is nothing new when the two meet in large venues. Indeed, the US won by that scoreline again earlier this year in San Antonio in front of a partisan Mexico crowd. And who could forget Benny Feilhaber’s strike in 2007, also in front of a pro-Mexico Gold Cup final audience?

Mexico’s last win against the United States? A 4-2 comeback victory at the Rose Bowl in the 2011 Gold Cup final, in what was ultimately Bob Bradley’s US managerial swansong. That game was one of the better played international finals in recent memory and kickstarted the FMF towards a year of glory, one  that culminated with a Gold Medal in London.

Weather: 90 degrees and sunny. Because this is California, it won’t rain. It also won’t be terribly humid. Still, 90 degrees isn’t exactly October pumpkin spice latte weather and Friday, when highs may hit 100, will be even worse, so no respite from the heat for those that make the trip to Los Angeles. And with extreme heat comes an extreme Fabian Johnson misery index of 9. 

Andres Guardado returns from injury in the nick of time.

Andres Guardado returns from injury in the nick of time.

What To Expect From Mexico, by Neil W. Blackmon:

Which Mexico shows up?

The lethargic, offensively-disconnected side that couldn’t break down Guatemala and has conceded seven goals to Trinidad and Tobago in two matches or the side that stood eyeball to eyeball with Argentina last month and prior, left no doubt in the Gold Cup Final  against a Jamaica side that dispatched the United States in the tournament semifinals? Is there an option c, as in somewhere in between?

Mexico are wildly unpredictable, which is part of what makes them so fascinating and what makes the task of handicapping Saturday extraordinarily difficult, 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.

After three consecutive World Cups with a back three, the United States can expect to see a 3 man backline masquerading as 5-3-2 for Mexico Saturday night. The El Tri DNA remains the same. El Tri play attacking soccer, attempt to control possession and hurl players forward from the back. They also make defensive mistakes, and lose or draw games because they are punished for them.

Tuca Ferretti returned to 5-3-2 after a brief experiment with four against Trinidad and Tobago last month. The four man backline lasted a half. At Tigres, he’s also played 4-2-3-1 (more in a moment) but given the excellent performance of Mexico against Argentina with 5-3-2, it is unlikely he’ll do anything different with so much on the line. He sees himself as a custodian or trustee, and will manage as such.

Familiarity with formation is also the intelligent decision in a one-off playoff. These games are often cautious from the outset and the team that scores first traditionally has an immense advantage. The 5-3-2 allows Mexico to pressure the Americans when they have the ball while not sacrificing cover. Given the tendency of Porto wingback Miguel Layún to fly forward with abandon, the five man back line allows the CBs and the opposite wingback, probably Israel Jiménez, to fill the gap left by Layún. This would also apply if Diego Reyes or (unlikely these days) Rafa Márquez join the attack. 

Rafa Márquez, who last summer became the first player in the history of international football to captain a team at four consecutive World Cups, is battling a groin injury but if he plays, I’d expect him to play the anchor role leaving Reyes room to help build possession from the back. Anchoring Márquez between longtime PSV’s Hector Moreno on the left and Reyes gives El Tri a star studded back three, and the talent of the other two should generate trust for Márquez, even if he isn’t 100 percent. 

The presence of Márquez is even more essential given the news Tuesday that defensive midfielder José Juan Vázquez will miss the game with a hamstring injury. Mexico have been immensely improved since going to the Leon man as the lone holder, both defensively and in attack. There is a comfort and understanding between Vázquez,captain Andres Guardado and Hector Herrera in the midfield that Vázquez will be there to cover when the other two press. That’s critical, as Mexico relies on midfield pressure to keep teams from playing simple entry passes to start attacks, and more broadly, they rely on it to prevent forwards Oribe Peralta and Javier Hernández from becoming too disconnected up top.

Vázquez was tremendous at the World Cup, and his absence shouldn’t be minimized.

https://twitter.com/shinguardian/status/651576499338878977

With a host of Mexican players ailing or injured, the largest challenge for Tuca Ferretti is figuring out who plays the lone holding role. Silver lining for El Tri fans? They had to deal with no Vázquez in the World Cup Round of 16.

In that match, Carlos Salcido (not with this Mexico side) spelled Vázquez. In a game played in heat similar to what both sides will see Saturday evening in Pasadena, Mexico were clearly superior to Holland until they scored, after which, Salcido’s performance waned and with it, so did Mexico. That game isn’t like for like, of course, because Holland has superior talent to the Yanks and because Louis Van Gaal played a system that largely mirrored Mexico’s, but it does demonstrate the larger points that Mexico have played a big game of late without Vázquez and that his absence was and will be felt. 

In Vázquez’s stead, Jonathan dos Santos is the best option, even if it moves him a bit deeper than Ferretti would like. Certainly dos Santos isn’t remotely the type of defensive player Vázquez is, but he’s also less likely to do something rash, which matters in finals and given the force multiplier of USA vs. Mexico, well- he’s a better option than América midfielder Javier Güémez, even if Güémez is a natural six. That leaves a Mexico deployment looking a bit like this…

Mexico potential 11.

Mexico potential 11.

Ahead of dos Santos, expect the aforementioned Hector Herrera, who was ineffective at the Gold Cup but is a brilliant passer and immense talent, and captain Andres Guardado, the best player at the Gold Cup this summer and Mexico’s MB 90 figure on the pitch- the guy they can’t win without. El Tri have options on the bench, should Herrera have one of his “gone fishing” days he’s prone to have in the green (or black, as it were) shirt. The most talented of these options is 22 year old Porto jitterbug Tecatito Corona, who is an electrifying difference-maker on the ball and can provide the incutting ability American fans are used to seeing from Gio dos Santos, who will miss the game with a muscle injury. Corona has scored four goals early this season for Porto and should see the field by minute 60.

Up top, there are whispers that Mexico will start Oribe Peralta and Chicharito will start, which is interesting given that Carlos Vela captained the team a month ago in the 3-3 draw with Trinidad and Tobago. That was an odd match- Mexico were missing regulars and Trinidad and Tobago torched Mexico on the break, Chicago’s Joevin Jones troubling El Tri throughout, just as he did at the Gold Cup two months prior. Vela isn’t in form at club, and Peralta is the guy who scores goals for Mexico in games where they struggle to find goals, which explains that switch. The choice really is about Chicharito and Raul Jiménez, which is a decent problem to have. Either choice and Ferretti gets the work rate he needs to  succeed. Expect plenty of decoy runs from Mexico’s top two, the goal being to exploit the inexperience of the US back four and force the Americans to decide– do they follow the runner or wait for the inevitable Herrera and Guardado run into the vacated space. 

Even with some stars ailing, this is a Mexico side fully capable of beating the United States, especially if the Americans get sucked into an up and down game as they did after Steve Cherundolo’s injury in 2011. To win, the US will have to accomplish three things defensively: 1) cope with the forward running of the Mexican wingbacks; 2) make smart decisions on tracking off-ball runners, particularly when it’s Oribe Peralta, who has the best nose for goal other than Clint Dempsey in CONCACAF; and 3) do what Panama and Jamaica could not do at the Gold Cup- force someone other than Guardado to beat them.

Klinsmann's pragmatism has become too unpredictable. What next?

Klinsmann’s pragmatism has become too unpredictable at times, making it hard to figure out what’s next.

 

What to Watch For From the United States, by Neil W. Blackmon.

A prideful team that feels embarrassed about its last taste of actual competition. 

And a return, more or less, to the pragmatic, defensive soccer that helped the United States beat Ghana in Natal. 

If those two sentences end up being correct, it will be luck. Jurgen Klinsmann believes his team will win the game but there’s not a real methodology of late pointing towards the way that will occur. Klinsmann has gone from pleasant pragmatist in the build up to the 2014 World Cup to incessant tinkerer in its aftermath, with some decisions defying much explanation. Playing Ale Bedoya at defensive midfield for the first time in his professional career against Brazil is a decent place to start,  continuing to prefer Geoff Cameron as either on vacation or a right back when he’s a steady as she goes Barclay’s Premier League CB is a better one, if you are into genealogy. 

Often times, trying to postulate a best US 11 based on club form, players challenging themselves and technical ability (things Klinsmann emphasizes frequently) is more futile and less fun than watching a dog chase a squirrel. I’m certainly out of my comfort zone. 

Still, the longview points to some relative consistencies within the Klinsmann managerial tenure. 

One, he’ll play Michael Bradley a bit higher than he probably should.  The common belief is that he moved MB 90 to the top of a diamond midfield for the first time against Mexico in April of 2014. The Americans boat-raced El Tri for an entire half with MB 90 Pirlo-ing the ball all over the damn park, looking every bit the best player in CONCACAF and ending the game being called one of the best players in the world by Mexican manager Miguel Herrera. Lost in the noise of the moment? Mexico tied the game in the second half by pummeling the Americans with numbers in the middle, thus ending Bradley’s dominance. 

The reality is that Klinsmann has envisioned Bradley as the Americans primary playmaker since his first game in charge– also against Mexico, and has left him too high up the field, with the limited exception of a handful of World Cup qualifiers, throughout his tenure. Bradley is, of course, more comfortable when he’s in the scrum, where he can use his sharp defensive mind to cut off passing lines and initiate attacks aerially with his divine diagonals. Bradley needs a holder behind him and he needs lateral help with a creator in front of him, both to keep him from being stranded too high and to help allow the Americans best player (who remains for this writer the best player in CONCACAF, for what it is worth) to play to his game and highlight his best skills.

Bradley too high is immensely risky against Mexico. Too high, he can’t help initiate the break, which is a key to exploiting Mexico when they hurl too many forward. If he’s too high, his diagonal ability is limited, because he’s not deep enough to ping those balls tucked underneath the forwards inside the 18. He also can’t make menacing runs into the box like this (6:30 mark, but if you start at 5:30, you get the studs up Rafa flying into Tim Howard, and you’ll see Carlos Bocanegra save the day at 6:00):

He also can’t drop dimes, like this:

https://vine.co/v/MlbH6lzbld3

Klinsmann has consistently played Bradley too high, forcing him to run too much and play against his natural inclination, which is to find the scrum and make plays from it.

Second, Klinsmann has played young players in odd-spots, whether it be Gyasi Zardes on the wing, presumably so he can play Dempsey and Altidore, or DeAndre Yedlin at right wing, or Ventura Alvarado in the starting lineup. Like clockwork, Klinsmann has made almost one selection a match that puzzles all but the manager, which was fine when they worked, as they often did in the last cycle, but troubling when they continue to fail.

US deployment vs Ghana, which could mimic what we see Saturday.

US deployment vs Ghana, which could mimic what we see Saturday.

Finally, Klinsmann has usually opted tactically to play narrow, defensive soccer when the stakes are highest. Against a side like Ghana, this is a highly effective strategy, as the Black Stars like to use their speed to get out on the break and prefer for teams to come to them. A packed in defense in rainy Natal, even if it was more negative after the injury to Jozy Altidore, was fine because so long as the US could clear the crosses, Ghana had trouble dissecting the packed in American defense. With Ale Bedoya and Jermaine Jones playing deep and narrow on the sides of the diamond, the US essentially collapsed to two banks of four, with only the occasional foray forward by Fabian Johnson available to relieve the pressure. Even in that match, the dam eventually broke, but Graham Zusi’s ball found John Brooks’s head and you know the rest.

Against Belgium, Klinsmann made his typical “one puzzling decision”, referenced above, when he opted to put Geoff Cameron, a center back, in the midfield instead of sticking with Kyle Beckerman, who had proven very effective paired with Jermaine Jones in the group stages. That decision appeared to be about playing defensive soccer and allowing Cameron to deal with Belgium’s reasonable prowess in the air– except that with the US pushing tempo and playing a high line, Cameron’s inexperience at the spot left the Americans with an out of position holder, and gave Belgium the proverbial acres of space in the middle of the park. That Kevin de Bruyne didn’t score leventy billion goals is part a testament to his ineptitude as a finisher and largely in part to Tim Howard, who turned in a performance for the ages.

One would expect Klinsmann to return to the Ghana tactics against Mexico, and force El Tri to break them down, especially given that Mexico have demonstrated on video they sometimes lack patience and can be caught on the break. The one caveat is interestingly the one area of the USA-Belgium game where the US made inroads– the flanks.

Yes, the US will need to track the Mexican wingbacks and cover the trailing runs of Guardado and Herrera off the ball. And because of this, they can’t get too forward themselves. But, Herrera and Guardado are both limited defensively and in the absence of Vázquez, the Mexican shape may not be tremendous. This means that the opportunity is there for DeAndre Yedlin, Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley to put pressure on the Mexicans down the flanks, something the US did at times to Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens last summer, two players who defend about as poorly as Guardado and Herrera. The US can likely create some overloads with their wide midfielders that could put pressure on a Mexican defense playing with a less than 100 percent Rafa Marquez and without their best holder in Vázquez.

Mexico will concede some chances. The game will be won or lost in the American defense, whose shakiness was a leading story at the Gold Cup this summer. Michael Orozco and Ventura Alvarado are the only players in camp who started at CB vs Peru or Brazil– it is difficult seeing either get the nod in this game and the hope here is that Klinsmann has called in the backline players who started against Ghana to start them Saturday against Mexico. This would allow the US to play veterans who have faced big moments (Cameron and Besler) together in their natural positions. If ever there were a time to be in your comfort zone…

DaMarcus Beasley will start at left back for a manager who famously said “anyone can play left back.” Fabian Johnson should get the nod in front of him to give the US a menacing flank but the thinking here is Johnson will get the nod at the other fullback spot with DeAndre Yedlin in front. Klinsmann fancies Yedlin as a midfielder even if his clubs do not, and while Johnson remains the US best player from width, Klinsmann has predominantly played him at fullback when the games matter. (More on Johnson in a moment.)

Brad Guzan will start in goal, one would assume, with Tim Howard, who has more experience in games of this magnitude and is arguably in slightly better form for club (2.5 less goals than expected conceded to Guzan’s 1.8) at the moment. Both are good shot-stoppers; Howard’s ability to command a box and positioning edge would normally seem to be the difference. 

Potential US deployment.

Potential US deployment.

In midfield, Ale Bedoya is battling an illness but if he can start, he should, so long as it is at a position he has played at some point in his professional career He’s precisely the player to exploit Mexico in transition and he’s the best tracker the Americans have in midfield, with Jermaine Jones preferring the hatchet foul to tracking more and more these days and Michael Bradley often being asked to play multiple positions at once. The inclusion of Bedoya would leave a preferred midfield four of Johnson, Bradley, Beckerman and Bedoya, with the understandable caveats that Klinsmann will likely prefer Jones to Beckerman and he’ll almost certainly play Yedlin, who has started well at Sunderland on loan, at right midfield. 

Up top, Jozy Altidore presumably will start and he should be encouraged by the video of Kenwyne Jones and Jonathan Glenn punishing Diego Reyes, the aging Rafa Marquez and Hector Moreno on film. Altidore lacks the pace, skill and brute force of Jones but he’s a better player than Glenn, who was in a position to score multiple goals for Trinidad and Tobago against Mexico last month. That leaves a US deployment looking like the inset, above.

After a splendid Gold Cup, can dos Santos deliver in the defensive midfielder spot?

After a splendid Gold Cup, can dos Santos deliver in the defensive midfielder spot?

Jon Levy on the Mexican Player to Watch: Jonathan dos Santos (Villarreal CF)

This is a strange pick for me because Jonathan Dos Santos might not even play in this monumental match, but on merit, he should start. Gio’s brother is a central midfielder that El Tri fans can embrace, and as such, he’s also the central midfielder for whom writers that cover Mexico have been crying out for years. And make no mistake, he’s a central midfielder, and Saturday, he might have to be a defensive midfielder, whether Ricardo Ferretti decides to list his base position out on a flank or not.

Key to Jonathan’s development has been his extended enrollment in La Masia, Barcelona’s vaunted youth academy. Like his brother, JDS didn’t make the grade as a starter on Barcelona’s senior team (the only midfielders and forwards who do are truly world class), but he did develop into a great player for future clubs and now for country. Unlike Gio, Jonathan played three times as many matches with Barcelona B, training with youth prospects, and having tiki-taka programming hammered into his brain. You can see that programming manifest itself in his game, whether he’s pinging the ball to teammates at Villarreal or with the national team. And he made his biggest splash with said national team this summer, when he put in a “team of the tournament” level performance as Mexico took back the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

So why is Jonathan dos Santos so important to El Tri in this match? And why might he be left on the bench? These questions need answering. Luckily, I’m happy to oblige. Dos Santos the younger is the key man in Mexico’s midfield because he’s a ball-moving center mid with tremendous positional awareness who switches between attacking and defending seemingly effortlessly. Years of drilling at La Masia taught him that he doesn’t have to be the key man in the attack, but there are situational opportunities for him to join in those reindeer games.

A footballing upbringing at Barcelona must have also reinforced that there are more talented scorers on the pitch ahead of him, and that Jonathan should always remember that. These lessons apply to Mexico as much as they do to Barca, and they’ll be especially useful against an American team that has a penchant for taking advantage of El Tri’s overaggressive play. One-nil USMNT leads don’t become “dos a cero” without Mexican defenders and midfielders pushing too hard, and Jonathan do Santos is the guy that will stay responsible and keep giving his teammates chances (or the ball, at the very least) in the face of Klinsmann’s preferred pressure. That said, Mexico interim manager Ricardo Ferretti seems to have a little bit of early El Tri Piojo Herrera in him, meaning in some cases he seems more comfortable with the less talented Liga MX players he knows than the Euro-based stars he doesn’t. Ferretti didn’t call JDS for Mexico’s last round of friendly matches, instead calling in the now  injured defensive midfielder José Vásquez  in the showdown matchup with Argentina.  American fans should hope he does the same, leaving Jonathan off the pitch in the CONCACAF Cup.

To win, the US will need a great performance from one of its only great players.

To win, the US will need a great performance from one of its only great players.

Jon Levy on the USA Player to Watch: 

Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach)

 At this point I think it’s evident to anyone who’s been watching US Soccer for even a year that Fabian Johnson is one of the best players on the team. He’s an immensely talented winger who’s doing the job at multiple positions, and he’s in his prime. In fact, given how out-of-position Michael Bradley sometimes looks as a dedicated attacking midfielder (which is obviously not his best position), there’s a solid argument to be made that Fab J’s relatively greater success at even his less preferred positions makes him the USMNT’s best player, period. So what is Fabian’s best position, and why won’t we see him deployed there at kickoff on Saturday night?

I believe Fabian Johnson is a left sided midfielder, and this is far more a controversial a belief than say, “MB90 is a central midfielder, not a Number Ten.” First, Johnson spent the early portion of his career in Germany playing fullback, and that’s how he came to the USMNT. He was essentially sold to us as one of a few guys that would fight it out to see who would bear the title “The Answer (Finally) At Left Back.” But in showing promise at that perennial position of need for the US, Johnson also flashed attacking talents that weren’t exactly commonplace in the US player pool. What he lacks in true winger speed Fabian makes up for with subtle, deceptive, and effective dribble feints that allow him to run at opponents. He’s also got what I’ll call Germany-level technique on his service that allows him to pick out teammates from long and medium range with more consistency than anyone on the USMNT other than Graham Zusi, who you could argue equals, not exceeds, Johnson with the reliability of his service. So as well as Fabian’s shown in defense, his most effective stint with the US has been in playing on the left flank ahead of converted left back DaMarcus Beasley. Johnson’s clubs have been hip to the transition as well. He got plenty of midfield starts at Hoffenheim before moving to Mönchengladbach, where he’s preferred as a left mid, and used as a fullback when necessary.

But that “when necessary” clause applies to the USMNT right now, at least in Jurgen Klinsmann’s eyes. And despite the fact that this likely means the manager starts his two best players out of position, you can hardly argue that the American defense is anywhere but a panic station right now.

So Fabian will likely default back to the position he played when the US last put together a respectable back line, and that means you can expect to see him right back where he played in the World Cup, at right back. And I wouldn’t be one bit surprised to see Klinsmann give DeAndre Yedlin the 2013 Fabian Johnson treatment, playing the natural right back on the wing ahead of the converted midfielder… who was groomed to be a left back and is now playing right back. Okay, so it’s not quite as convoluted as that sentence makes it seem, but it’s REALLY CLOSE.

What’s more important to understand is that if Fab is played at right back, he’ll be tasked with keeping Mexico captain Andrés Guardado quiet, and he’ll be asked to do so without sacrificing all of his attacking potency in the process. This seems like an impossible task with Guardado, who’s already been Mr. Consistency for Mexico for years, is now playing the best national team soccer of his life, and is about to captain the side in the biggest game in a while- but we do have precedent giving us a reason to believe.

For the periods of the USA/Portugal 2014 World Cup match that Cristiano Ronaldo stuck to the left flank on which he was deployed, Johnson was able to deal with him, and he did so without sacrificing his will to attack. Yes, Ronaldo floats around the pitch more than Guardado will, so he wasn’t Johnson’s burden on every attack, but the fact that Fabian met the challenge is heartening. Especially since in doing so he also conquered another one of his greatest rivals: stifling heat and humidity. Thankfully for the notoriously cold-blooded Germerican, he’ll face neither high humidity nor Cronaldo in Pasadena, just a version of Andrés “Franchise” that’s worthy of new nickname (good for him and for Debbie Wasserman Schultz).

Jon Levy’s Prediction: USA 2 – 3 Mexico

The US shows plenty of trademark American grit in coming from behind twice to force an extra 30 minutes, but the defensive frailties that have plagued the team since last summer are still around, and  they’re more glaring than any weakness within this Mexico squad. Raúl Jiménez in the 116th minute seems as likely a death sentence as any. But that’s just when the fun begins.

The result prompts US Soccer President Sunil Gulati to make a run at Chelsea manager José Mourinho. You know the pitch; convince Mourinho that Chelsea’s a sinking ship and that it’s only a matter of time before Abramovich fires him, while simultaneously selling him the challenge of winning with the United States that, once conquered, would truly make him “the special one” he so fancies himself already. Jurgen gets wind of these liaisons and jumps ship before Gulati can hand him his hat, which means that inevitably Mourinho will turn down the offer, leaving US Soccer in the interim manager hell that that Mexico finds itself in once every year or so. Silver linings: Maybe we get a month of Thomas Rongen, and hopefully the Under-23 team is gearing up for a big summer at the Olympics in Rio while this is all going down.

Sorry for the Empire ending; enjoy being frozen in carbonite, enjoy the match, and Go USA! 

Neil W. Blackmon’s prediction:  United States Dos, Mexico, Cero.

The game is being played on my birthday. So…

US wins, dos a cero.

US wins, dos a cero.

Jon Levy and Neil Blackmon co-founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow them on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon and @nwblackmon. Reach them via email at jon.f.levy@gmail.com and nwblackmon@gmail.com.

Neil W. Blackmon