MEXICO CITY — Three points against Costa Rica last Friday may have erased the zero in the CONCACAF Hexagonal win column for the US national team, but it sure didn't erase the fact that the USA are still playing with their third-choice fullbacks on both flanks.
And when the US go into the Estadio Azteca on Tuesday night for a massive World Cup qualifier (10:30 pm ET, ESPN and Univision, Live chat on MLSsoccer.com), they'll face a Mexico side that has its best attacking weapons on the flanks.
Mexico vs. USA by the numbers: USMNT seeking first qualifying win in Mexico
The quick and tricky Andrés Guardado on the left and Javier Aquino on the right can get by defenders at will, draw fouls and also generate their fair share of attempts on goal. That's not to mention attacking midfielder Giovani dos Santos, who typically overloads either flank by drifting wide.
In the historic victory at the Estadio Azteca on August 15, 2012, Mexico peppered the USMNT with a 34-4 lopsided advantage in open play crosses. And of El Tri's 19 shots, 11 were taken by Mexico's flank players, including fullbacks.
Last Friday in Honduras, Mexico's two goals were created by plays originating from the flanks: a cross by Guardado and a free kick from a wide left position.
Against the likes of US right back Geoff Cameron, who's in his first season at the position, and left winger-turned-left back DaMarcus Beasley, all that could spell disaster for the USMNT on Tuesday.
Unless US manager Jurgen Klinsmann can do something about it. Namely, by starting five players in the back. The potential defensive double-teams out wide would help contain the Mexican flank attackers, and although it sounds like it counters Klinsmann's philosophy of taking it to Mexico on their home soil, if you can move past the number "5," it should actually help.
First, on attacking sequences, the five-man backline allows the fullbacks to essentially serve as wide midfielders, giving the USMNT up to five men across the middle and allowing for potentially more combination play and the numbers around the ball to force Mexico into turnovers higher up the field.
Maurice Edu would be the candidate to serve as that fifth defender in the middle of a three center back set, giving the US a player who is comfortable making the first pass after winning the ball.
And having Edu provide cover for the other two centerbacks – in my ideal lineup, those are Cameron and Omar Gonzalez – would take the pressure off the duo in case they make risky defensive decisions, which they are prone to do. More bodies clogging the middle would also mean a better chance of picking up the deadly runs of Mexico's Javier "Chicharito" Hernández.
As far as the attack, while you'd prefer to see two hard runners up top – Jozy Altidore and Herculez Gomez – it's tough to see Klinsmann forgo his new captain Clint Dempsey even though Graham Zusi would cover more ground.
But the attack won't be the primary concern on Tuesday night. Against an under-pressure Mexico side, the first and most important consideration should be to provide enough cover in the back and in front of the backline. Here's the lineup that can do it:
Proposed Starting XI vs. Mexico (5-4-1): GK Guzan – LB DaMarcus Beasley, LCB Geoff Cameron, CB Maurice Edu, RCB Omar Gonzalez, RB Tony Beltran – LCM Michael Bradley, CM Kyle Beckerman, ACM Clint Dempsey, RCM Herculez Gomez – FW Jozy Altidore