When the United States and Mexican national teams get together on the soccer field, you typically don’t need any storylines to pique people’s interest. The fierce rivalry — some argue it’s the world’s best — stands just fine on its own, and can turn friendlies into bitter boarder wars.
But when the USA and Mexico meet Wednesday night at Lincoln Financial Field (9 pm ET; ESPN2, Univisión), the game will have even more at stake than usual. It not only marks new US coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s debut, but also comes less than two months after the Americans’ humbling 4-2 defeat to Mexico in the Gold Cup final.
Ultimately, the final result of this friendly — the first non-competitive meeting between the pair since 2008 — does not matter. But with these two, it always matters, particularly when one side appears to have the other’s number.
“We want to show them that we can compete with them,” Klinsmann told the media this week. “We’re going to give them a fight.”
What do we know about the US national team now that we didn’t know on June 25 when they gave up four unanswered goals to Mexico in the Gold Cup final? In short: not much. And those fans that are hoping to see Klinsmann-infused sweeping changes may want to temper their expectations.
Klinsmann, who was hired less than two weeks ago, has already said his goals for this game do not include any major tactical or philosophical adjustments. Rumor has it he may line up his side in a 4-2-3-1 formation, a set-up Bradley used only sparingly toward the end of his tenure.
To aid in his transition, Klinsmann brought in plenty of long-time national team veterans, including goalkeeper Tim Howard, defenders Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo, midfielder Michael Bradley and forwards Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley.
The US will be without two of their usual weapons — Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore — but their absence opens up opportunities for occasionally overlooked skilled attackers like José Francisco Torres and Freddy Adu to impress the new boss. And younger forward-thinking players like Juan Agudelo and Brek Shea could get a chance to make their claim for more playing time.
In the back, Klinsmann has indicated he will make significant adjustments to Bradley’s preferred choices, recalling Heath Pearce and Mexico-based defenders Edgar Castillo and Michael Orozco Fiscal.
Other than Manchester United striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, who has been sidelined since the MLS All-Star Game with a concussion, El Tri have everyone who started in the Gold Cup final in Philly. That includes Pablo Barrera, who netted a pair of goals in the Mexicans’ 4-2 comeback win over the US, as well as Andrés Guardado and Giovani dos Santos, who both scored as well.
The New York Red Bulls’ Rafa Márquez made the short trip down the Jersey Turnpike to anchor Mexico’s defense, and starting goalie Guillermo Ochoa is one of four players — along with midfielders Christian Bermúdez and Antonio Naelson, and defender Francisco Rodríguez — back in José "Chepo" de la Torre’s squad after being suspended after a failed drug test before the Gold Cup. They were later exonerated by FIFA.
Most recently, Mexico sputtered to a dreadful 0-3 record at the Copa América, a performance that saw them plummet 11 spots, to No. 20, in the FIFA World Rankings. But that was probably just a blip since they called in a largely U-23 roster for that tournament and weren’t even coached by de la Torre, who has yet to lose a game since becoming El Tri’s full-time manager last fall.
United States key player: Michael Bradley
Donovan and Howard might be the faces of the US squad, but no one will come into Wednesday’s game with as much to prove as Bradley. The 24-year-old has been a vital part of the team’s midfield, scoring nine goals in 59 appearances since 2006, and will almost certainly continue to play a key role moving forward. Despite all of that, many observers will be curious to see how he performs in the wake of his father’s firing — and how the new coach utilizes the former coach’s son, who has been most effective for his club when allowed to get into the attack.
Mexico key player: Giovani dos Santos
The 22-year-old dos Santos underscores the difference between the two squads: El Tri are rife with young stars, while the US’s core is pushing 30. The attacking midfielder has already scored 11 goals for the Mexico national team and was named runner-up for the FIFA Young Player of the Tournament award at the 2010 World Cup. His beautiful chip shot sealed Mexico’s win over the USA in the Gold Cup final, and was later named the goal of the tournament.