august 2012, Featured, USMNT

USMNT-Mexico Preview, Part Two: Never A Friendly, This One Has Strange Feel

Mexico City celebrated Olympic Gold in the streets four days ago. Now they honor the Gold Medalists and host their arch-enemy in a stadium where the Americans have never won. Good luck!

Jon Levy

Brace yourself, this one feels different. Not necessarily “good different,” or “bad different.” More like “weird.”

CONCACAF’s hate-filled rivals meet south of the border to do battle at altitude in the Azteca; players choking on equal parts oxygen and smog, and all the while refusing to give an inch, because USA/Mexico should never be described as a “friendly.” But that’s not the weird part. Holding this particular hard-edged match on the most dreaded international date on FIFA’s calendar is a bit weird.

European clubs should probably seek out some more depth in the transfer market, because key players always go down on unnecessary international duty right before the season starts, and that rule holds even for matches without rancor. This is USA/Mexico, any idea how high the casualty count might get? Let’s just say it doesn’t bode well for players joining a new European club, so Rapid Vienna (Boyd) and Stoke City (Cameron) should be shaking in their boots. The curse of the new signing is bad juju, and I’m pretty sure stuff like that is more powerful in places like Tenochtitlan. And what about the rosters? Some (we, too, in part one of our preview!) have pointed out that the mixed bag USMNT squad is a bit odd, but that’s nothing compared to the shock of seeing an El Tri team that doesn’t feature Rafa Marquez, Carlos Salcido, or the ever-present tri-colored Superman Gio Dos Santos. Yes, there are good reasons for the absences, but that brings me to my next oddity. The Yanks and over one hundred thousand Yank-haters will witness a pre-match coronation for the Mexican Olympic squad that just brought home the gold medal. Even in Mexican soccer’s current uber-renaissance, it’s not exactly run of the mill for the likes of Landon Donovan to be subjected to the rightful afterglow of such a significant accomplishment by the bad guys. Not to speak of the fact that the Azteca, always a rabid cauldron of urine (literally) and vinegar, is likely to be at its all-time rabid high hosting its arch-enemy four days after Mexicans celebrated a gold medal win over Brazil in the streets. So, yeah– it has a strange feel.

Ten years after Dos a cero — the tables have tilted back to El Tri in this rivalry.

Series: This is the 60th meeting between the United States and Mexico. El Tri lead 32-15-12. Mexico leads 10-0-1 at the Estadio Azteca, with the lone tie coming in World Cup qualifying in 1997. This is the first “friendly” played between these countries at the Azteca since 1984.

Weather: 65 degrees a kick, with around a thirty percent chance of rain.

What to watch for from the Yanks:

We’ve been treated to a new emphasis on quick passing and ball possession thus far under Jurgen Klinsmann, and the process isn’t close to complete. But this squad doesn’t feature Michael Bradley or Clint Dempsey, two of the manager’s star pupils with respect to quick touches and building meaningful possession. So the onus will be on players like José Torres and Jermaine Jones to keep and move the ball. Additionally, Klinsmann should rightly look for Graham Zusi to build on his last international call-up and his consistently outstanding MLS form. Whether it’s Zusi, Corona, Shea, Beasley, or Donovan out wide for the US, service into the box should be a constant in this match. The lofted pinball into the 18 might not be Klinsmann’s preferred attack in most matches, but it’s a great early test of a Mexican backline suddenly lacking its real ball-winning leaders. Maza and Hector Moreno don’t lack size, but might they get a little lost without Marquez and Salcido?

But we can’t scoff at the Mexican defense when the US isn’t bringing one experienced international defender. Time to cross your fingers and close your eyes, because saying that Maurice Edu or Jermaine Jones needs to keep our backline clean just isn’t strong enough.

Still, the Americans would do exceptionally well to counterattack as efficiently as they have in the past against Mexico. Two things make it distinctly possible the U.S. will have its share of opportunities to do that tomorrow night. First, Mexico, as a program playing with incredible confidence, will likely play an extraordinarily high line with great ball pressure. This is nothing new, but factor in the home crowd, the desire of the senior team to put on a show on a night they honor the Gold Medal kids, and the opponent, and Mexican pressure could be frenetic. When Edu, Torres, and Jones do win the ball in the midfield, they’ll have chances to get out on the break.

As in 2010, Mexico will hold a very high line and pressure constantly. Add in the rabid crowd and a senior team honoring a Gold Medal- and the US will need to act quickly on the counter. But opportunities will exist.

Great counterattacking football starts with a quick change of possession, which we’ve hypothesized can and WILL occur at times in this match, and even without MB 90–Jones, Torres and Edu are certainly capable of quicker distributions necessary to jumpstart the attack. Landon Donovan, at 30 still one of the best counterattacking pieces in the world, is on the roster as well, and, was, if you’ll remember, part of a devastating counterattack that put the Americans up 1-0 the last time they visited the Azteca.

The second reason the US should be able to get out and counter effectively has to do with the aforementioned defense missing its traditional “glue pieces”– a lack of organization and a quick break might give the US a chance to exploit the (at least at club) effective movements of a Chris Wondolowski, or the sneaky late running Herculez Gomez. The key, again, will be the first pass from the center after the switch to Landon Donovan (or even whoever is on the other side– but make no mistake it’s Donovan when it is most dangerous). After that pass- the forwards get going, and all it takes is a bit of space and some touch and class on the ball. Wondolowski hasn’t showed this at the international level in any respect- but tomorrow is a new day.

Wondolowski isn’t Charlie Davies. But he does move great off the ball. That could be very useful tomorrow against a bit of a patchwork Mexican backline.

And what will we see out of El Tri?

A Mexico team without Giovani Dos Santos; I’m flabbergasted. I know what Mexico looks like without Salcido, and I know what they look like without Rafa. But it’s been years (and many coaching changes) since I saw this team not even have the option of bringing Gio off the bench. But sadly for our boys, the Mexican attack in its current incarnation is good enough to be effective against quality opponents, even without their trusty pivot-point wild card sitting behind Chicharito. Gio operating in his role turns a good offense into a world class attack, but good offense might be all that’s needed to put a couple goals past an untested American defense.

Mexico’s magician on the ball.

Mexico Player to Watch: Andrés Guardado

The new Valencia winger with the trademark greasy 80’s hair is Mexico’s most talented player with the ball at his feet, especially with Señor Dos Santos injured/partying in a luxury box. Guardado’s usually an important figure out wide to the left for El Tri, and the Dos Santos absence means that more of the distribution and offensive creation responsibilities will fall on his shoulders. This is key, because Chicharito can’t create for himself like the throngs of idolizing Mexican fans might have you believe. Should Chicharito fulfill every little bit of potential he has, he’ll turn into Ruud Van Nistelrooy, not Diego Maradona. He’s not running through defenses from midfield to score his goals–this young Mexican striker needs service. Andrés Guardado provides that service. But Guardado also has the moves to dribble through defenders. Oh, and the touch to score on ridiculous volleys and howlers from 35 yards out. So there’s that. And this.

US Player to Watch: Fabian Johnson

At long last, the answer at left back. The Germamerican kid that turned us into Stan Lee “true believers” through his first twenty or thirty minutes of World Cup qualifying. The guy that helped make history in the win over Italy in Genoa. The player that then got lost on a play in the box and almost let Guatemala score a vital goal. The shining example of steely American redemption who recovered from his gaffe and enjoyed a solid rest of the match in Guatemala.

Fabian Johnson’s biggest test yet? Absolutely.

Okay, so it’s more fun to rhapsodize about Fabian’s limited exploits with the national team than it is to type “Johnson vs. Barrera.” You try writing a hundred USMNT match previews without going off the reservation from time to time.

We know Johnson has better ball skills than almost any American fullback we’ve ever seen. We also know he has speed, and we’ve seen him use it to good advantage in one v. one situations. But playing against a potent Mexican attack, and Pablo Barrera in particular, will give Fab a bigger test than he’s ever had with the national team. Since leaving Mexico to take his talents to England and Spain, Barrera has been a crap player at club level, but like Gio Dos Santos, he continues to excel with El Tri. So whether he got it right in returning to his home country to play for Cruz Azul will be immaterial on Wednesday night. Fabian Johnson will have to be up to the task or the Yanks will be down early.

Prediction: USA 1 – 3 Mexico

Landon Donovan was right: Mexico are simply a well-oiled machine right now. As much as I’d love for the US to deliver a statement game, and their first win at Estadio Azteca, I just don’t think it’s on the cards this time. Remember, we can’t become the dominant team in this rivalry again by winning one exhibition match, no matter the location. De Negris and Chicharito both score. Terrence Boyd delivers a goal and some hope, but not a win. Here’s hoping there’s a Herculez hat trick I don’t see coming.

Enjoy the match, and Go USA!

Jon Levy