Head-to-Head Breakdown: USA vs. Mexico

US vs. Mexico Breakdown

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Tim Howard has almost 70 caps, a decade of experience as a starter at the highest levels of both club and international play, appearances in a Confederations Cup final, the knock-out rounds of the World Cup and a shiny Gold Cup trophy of his own from 2007. He spilled a rebound in the group stage loss to Panama, and can be prone to the occasional gaffe. But honestly, he's the best 'keeper in CONCACAF by some margin. This area is of the least concern to the US.

 

GOALKEEPERS

 

Alfredo Talavera has been relatively solid in front of net for Mexico since the "tainted beef" incident, replacing regular starter Guillermo Ochoa. But he's still largely an unknown. Despite nearing 30 years of age, he has less than 100 career professional appearances and wasn't even on El Tri's radar until this January. He's a massive question mark — he could either rise to the occasion and have a game for the ages, or crumble completely. There's no real data to lean upon here.

The US defense has been in a seemingly constant state of flux since Oguchi Onyewu blew out his knee almost two years ago. Injuries caught up to Jay DeMerit, opening a spot for Clarence Goodson and a dearth of other experienced central defenders has pushed Carlos Bocanegra into the central defense. Veteran right back Steve Cherundolo had the best season of his club career, but has been playing for 18 months straight. Left back Eric Lichaj has looked good against the likes of Panama and Jamaica, but was roasted against Spain. The pieces don't quite seem to fit along the US backline, and a propensity to blow offside traps is the most worrying factor.

 

DEFENSE

 

 

Along with Ochoa, the other big loss from the clenbuterol scandal was that of central defender Francisco "Maza" Rodríguez, the physical, veteran presence at the heart of Mexico's defense. Into the breech stepped long-time captain Rafa Márquez, and El Tri have hardly missed a beat. Márquez and Héctor Moreno have locked down the central defense in the knock-out rounds, with an early misplay againt Guatemala the only blemish. Out wide, Efraín Juárez and Carlos Salcido push forward relentlessly and are able to both take a defender off the dribble or snap in dangerous crosses. The communication and organization of Mexico's defense is top notch, but their speed is suspect.

If the US are to walk away from Pasadena with their fifth Gold Cup title, they'll have to win the battle in midfield for 90 minutes. They have the talent to do so, as the foursome of Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones is more accomplished than the group Mexico can field. The problem is the pieces haven't always fit, and slick-passing teams have been able to find gaps between the central midfield and central defense, getting past the Bradley/Jones combo shield. Expect a fifth midfielder to be added to the mix — probably Bedoya wide on the right, pushing Donovan into an enganche role.

 

MIDFIELD

 

The strength of the Mexican midfield lies in wingers Andrés Guardado — who scored El Tri's lone goal in the 2007 final — and Pablo Barrera. Guardado is, at age 24, already a veteran of both top European leagues and international play. Barrera was seldom used at West Ham this past season, but that should be regarded more as bad management from the Hammers than any real fault in Barrera's game. Both are wonderful on the dribble and very, very good playmakers. The central midfield pairing of Gerardo Torrado and Israél Castro, however, can be devoid of ideas and is several years past its prime.

For the US, it's not "forwards" but "forward." Bob Bradley is most likely to play 18-year-old Juan Agudelo alone up top, leaving him high and central to try to occupy Márquez and Moreno. It's a tall order for a striker of any age. Agudelo can be creative in the final third and has a knack for producing "wow" moments, but he can stay on the ball for too long and struggles in transition. He also tends to lose focus and drift toward the ball instead of finding lanes and stretching defenses away from it.

 

FORWARDS

 

It's a contrast-of-styles — or the perfect blend, if you prefer — for Mexico's front line. In Javier "Chicharito" Hernández they have the consummate center forward, fox-in-the-box type, a modern-day Michael Owen without the injuries and awful personality. He's balanced by Giovani dos Santos, a prototypical modern attacker who drifts to the wings and takes defenders 1-on-1 at all costs. Dos Santos isn't a great goal scorer himself, but he doesn't have to be: All he has to do is create time and space for Chicharito.

 

There's not a lot that Bob Bradley hasn't accomplished as US coach. He got the team to their first major international final (Confederations Cup 2009), won the Hexagonal and the World Cup group stage. One thing he's never won, though, is the love of the US fanbase. His tactics can be stale and befuddling, and for the past two years, his team has had a propensity for coming out flat and going behind early. If that happens on Saturday, it could be the end for the US — and for Bradley.

 

COACH

José Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre doesn't have the long list of accomplishments that Bradley boasts, but he has momentum and good will on his side. The former Chivas de Guadalajara and Toluca boss has united the Mexican fanbase and Federation — no easy task — and has his team playing conscience-free, joyful soccer. He's not a tactical innovator, but instead keeps it simple and puts his players in the spots where they best fit.

The US doesn't have much bench strength outside of the midfield. Both Sacha Kljestan and Freddy Adu have shone at times during this Gold Cup, and Kljestan in particular had an outstanding European campaign with Belgian side Anderlecht. Maurice Edu is a more defensive option should Bradley need him. Up top, 2010 MLS Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski — who has found space during the Gold Cup but hasn't found his finishing boots — is the only available sub.

 

BENCH

CONCACAF did Mexico a real solid after the clenbuterol fiasco, allowing El Tri to add players to the roster in place of the five who tested positive. Of the new faces, defender Paul Aguilar is the most likely to figure. But the most likely to have an impact is Aldo de Nigris. The big center forward already broke US hearts this year when he scored for Monterrey against Real Salt Lake in the CONCACAF Champions League final, and has been a weapon off the bench throughout the Gold Cup.

Most of these US players are experienced, blooded internationals who've proved it repeatedly on the biggest stage. And that may be a problem, since the US have been showing a distinct lack of urgency for nearly two years now. Maybe the new blood can drive them, or maybe the veterans are ready to show Mexico one last time who the region belongs to. Either way, they have to find some way to break out of their current malaise and play hard, active soccer for 90 minutes. And even then it may not be enough.

 

OVERALL

 

This the best Mexican team in ... ever, maybe? The potential is certainly there. Even without Rodríguez and Ochoa, they're capable of locking any CONCACAF team down in the back, and their attacking corps is the most exciting in the history of the region. Add in a coach who lets them play, some options off the bench to provide a different look, and the goalmouth brilliance of Chicharito, and it's impossible not to admire El Tri. This the generation of players Mexican fans have been waiting their whole lives for, and Saturday should mark the beginning of a period of regional dominance.