The U.S. centerbacks will not be Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks, as was the case against Brazil, and there’s zero chance Alejandro Bedoya will replicate his de facto destroyer role, either. And no matter what they said before and after the game, the Americans took the field Sept. 10 knowing they had little chance of success against the five-time World Cup winner.
Mexico is Mexico, a “noisy neighbor” in every sense of the term famously used by former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson of an ambitious local rival. The zeal with which Mexico’s fans and pundits regard confrontations with the U.S. is both a blessing and a curse; since the U.S. emerged from the slime of mediocrity in the early 1990s and began to seriously challenge Mexico’s dominance of Concacaf, said showdowns were transformed from mere sporting events to tests of national pride.This game, unprecedented in that is a one-off match played on U.S. soil with a prize at stake, even if that prize is a chance to play in a World Cup dress rehearsal called the Confederations Cup. In any other of FIFA’s six confederations, it would be played on a neutral field, but no venue in Canada or Costa Rica or Honduras can provide a 90,000-capacity stadium unique in its place among the world’s soccer cathedrals: only the Rose Bowl has hosted an Olympic soccer final (1984), World Cup final (1994) and Women’s World Cup final (1999).
But enough of tradition and history and the ghosts of matches past, of comparing this game to the 2002 World Cup round-of-16 match or La Guerra Fria or any of many memorable Gold Cup confrontations. Here’s how comparisons shake out, position by position:
Munoz is an excellent shot-stopper occasionally prone to glaring errors. Both characteristics were on display in a 2-2 tie against Argentina hours after Brazil squashed the U.S. Backed by several Munoz saves, Mexico led 2-0 when Munoz lunged to reach a deflected ball going out of play and tapped it right to Ezequiel Lavezzi, who set up Sergio Aguero to score the goal that sparked Argentina’s comeback.
Guzan has been solid in most of his U.S. appearances, but not in the Gold Cup semifinal against Jamaica. Some Americans fear, rightly, that despite his years of Premier League experience for Aston Villa, he’s never been in the pressure-cooker he and his teammates are to encounter on Saturday. Still, he’s more athletic than Munoz and has been entrenched as the starter for more than a year; Munoz has been in and out of the starter’s role for much of the past decade.
DEFENDERS. Neither team has looked all that resilient for the past few months. Panama and Costa Rica opened up the Mexican back line frequently at the Gold Cup and were beaten by abysmal refereeing decisions by which Mexico converted penalty kicks. Klinsmann’s shuffling of centerbacks and fruitless search for stability at outside back is a tiresome theme, never more vividly confirmed than when he coached veteran DaMarcus Beasley out of retirement.
Klinsmann is to be commended for his persuasive tactics, but the fact he needs Beasley to fill a positional need as well as provide leadership duties is indicative of how fragile is the U.S. situation. Since he dropped Carlos Bocanegra prior to the second match of the 2013 Hexagonal, Klinsmann and the USA have often lacked a strong, experienced pillar in central defense.
Matt Besler, who has been in and out of the starting lineup since then, is the obvious successor, but he’s not been a constant presence and thus isn’t the commanding force this team needs. The return of Beasley probably means Fabian Johnson plays right back but his experience on the left side as well as midfield opens up other possibilities, as does the versatility of Geoff Cameron, a fixture for Stoke City at centerback, where he lined up for the USA at the World Cup alongside Besler.
(Klinsmann excluded Omar Gonzalez entirely, so unless there’s an injury or private matter we don’t know about it’s safe to say the coach’s confidence in him is pretty close to zilch.)
Mexico's Tuca Ferretti sent out a variation of a 5-3-2 formation against Argentina and Mexico ran the show well into the second half. It’s a system dependent on midfield cohesion and powerful work by the outside backs, who must keep their corners secure yet also range up the flank to aid attacks.
Left-sided Miguel Layun strikes the kind of swerving, teasing balls so reminiscent of ex-U.S. international Eddie Lewis, and he’s been in excellent form recently for Porto. Against Argentina, his ball from the near the left sideline found a wide-open Hector Herrera, who scored Mexico’s second goal. Layun is also a threat getting to the byline and pulling back crosses beyond the goalkeeper’s reach for onrushing teammates.
Layun will probably be complemented by Paul Aguilar on the right side and a central three of Diego Reyes, Rafael Marquez and Hector Moreno. A groin injury suffered by Marquez playing for Serie A club Hellas Verona three weeks ago has clouded his status. Vastly experienced, Marquez is 36, and would be the oldest player on the Rose Bowl field. He’s reportedly been in full training this week and relished games against the USA.
If Marquez cannot go, Ferretti could revert to the 4-4-2 formation he used in the 3-3 tie with Trinidad & Tobago that preceded the Argentina game. Since the T&T match was his first in charge, Ferretti must have expected at least a few glitches, yet glaring problems in midfield and the back line nearly cost Mexico an embarrassing defeat. Defender Jorge Torres Nilo plays for Ferretti with Tigres and is a man the coach believes in.
As is usually the case with Mexico, its defenders like to have the ball and use it efficiently. But how they will react in a frenzied atmosphere if the Americans apply cohesive pressure may dictate how the game plays out.
Mexico’s other injury concern is its captain, Andres Guardado, whose scorching runs in the 2011 Gold Cup final played a pivotal role in transforming a 2-0 deficit into a 4-2 win. Guardado’s ouchy ankle healed sufficiently for him to play his club match for PSV Eindhoven last week, and is no stranger to these border battles.
Guardado plays a cagier, more central role most of the time and is a different type of player than Herrera, yet they are similar on how they time their trailing runs in the wake of the forwards. If they are not tracked tightly, the ball will find them in great spots to score. They are also very good at hitting angled passes and through balls to set up scoring chances for others.
For the Americans, if they are to rely on Michael Bradley as their midfield catalyst, Klinsmann has to find the right balance of attack and defense around him. Klinsmann has plenty of choices yet no perfect solutions. Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones were a great tandem in the World Cup but both are 33 and not in the best form. Does the coach play both of them, choose one, or rely on the younger Danny Williams to buttress the middle?
Despite a rough outing against Brazil, Bedoya would likely return in a more attacking role out wide, but illness has kept him out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday. Klinsmann loves the speed and brazenness that Gyasi Zardes and DeAndre Yedlin offer. Zardes is more forward than midfielder and thus he could push high at times to get an extra player amidst Mexico’s three central defenders, if he's not cowed by the crowd.
UPDATE: Bedoya dropped out of the Concacaf Cup and has been replaced by Bobby Wood.Advantage: Even.
There’s enough speed to get in behind the USA back line and more than enough guile and skill to play combinations and find shooting angles. Breakdowns in communication, gaps in formation, and lapses in concentration will be severely punished. If the Americans replicate their glitches and goofups of the Gold Cup, they will lose and could lose big.
The U.S. depends heavily on Dempsey and he’ll be in the crosshairs of every Mexico player. He can trick his way through challenges and hit a variety of shots but will be smothered without support. So whether it’s Altidore backing up opponents and laying balls off, or a slashing run across the goalmouth by Zardes or Yedlin, or Bedoya foraging for pockets of space, or a well-timed run out of central midfield by Bradley, et al, the Americans need to move smartly with and without the ball in Mexico's half of the field.
COACHING. Klinsmann as USA head coach hasn’t lost to Mexico. This occasion seems ideal for that six-match unbeaten run to be broken, but he has engineered two home victories as well as a tie and victory in the Azteca. The U.S. players certainly gear up for this match, of course, yet that’s an impressive run of success regardless of circumstance.
Ferretti is a stopgap measure whose job with Tigres is secure and Juan Carlos Osorio is already signed as the long-term replacement. There might be some anxiety among the players as what will happen when Osorio takes command but they will be intense and focused on the task at hand Saturday night, and with four of his Tigres players in camp, Ferretti has loyalists who can help implant his messages.
Klinsmann knows his players better than Ferretti knows his. The counterpoint is whether the spirit and determination often cited by Klinsmann can override months of perplexing experimentation and tepid displays. If the game is to be decided by players off the bench, American fans will hope that Klinsmann’s magic touch at the World Cup and on a few other occasions will surface once again. But this may be one game in which falling behind cannot be rectified by substitutions.
VENUE. The Americans toppled Mexico, 1-0, at the Rose Bowl in their final warmup game prior to the 1994 World Cup. Mexico drilled the USA, 4-2, in the 2011 Gold Cup final after trailing, 2-0. The Mexican faithful will be louder and more colorful regardless of how the crowd is split between fan groups, but that's nothing the Americans haven't endured before.