At this time last year, Mexico were one of the dark horses to win the 2014 World Cup.
It was impossible not to love how they played – all clever "attackers" with nebulous positional definition, a willingness to string passes together either in possession or on the break, and a gold-medal generation of Olympians set to drag El Tri into the upper echelons of international soccer royalty.
Since then, though, they've been an unwatchable mess. In the modern history of CONCACAF, Mexico certainly have had moments when they've struggled, but they've never been a punchless punchline of a team on the brink of utter collapse.
That's where they are, even with Luis Fernando Tena – the right man for the moment, I'd wager – taking over for José Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre.
The US have a chance to go Jenga! on them tonight (8 pm ET; ESPN, UniMas). It's a seminal moment in the rivalry, because a win for the home team means one of the regional giants flips to full-on desperation mode in qualifying, a thing that hasn't happened since the 1980s.
What I'll be watching for:
1. Which Jermaine Jones will show up?
Jones missed his pass or was dispossessed 22 times against Costa Rica, most of any player on the USMNT. The first of those came on the kickoff, and the second less than 90 seconds later when he dawdled on the ball and coughed it up, leading to a Ticos break, shot saved for a corner, corner and goal.
It's not just that Jones was careless, though. It's that he was careless early. Seventeen of those 22 turnovers came in the first 35 minutes, and his insouciant start to the game remains the most puzzling thing about that night. With Michael Bradley out and the US in desperate need of midfield leadership, Jones looked and played like he just didn't give a damn.
I made this GIF the other night, and I'll link it here again because it's worth a thousand words. That's Jones in the middle doing, well, not much to stop the Ticos' second goal.
I'm not going to pin the final scoreline on Jones, though. Costa Rica are good. World Cup qualifying is hard. Zero teams in the world play better without their best player.
The Ticos are way better than most had given them credit for – remember, they held Spain to a 2-2 draw last year that the Spaniards only got because Andrés Iniesta flipped into "God mode" for a bit – and dished out a lesson.
That truth has to fuel the US now, and without Bradley it has to be Jones who wears the big hat in midfield. This seems like what he's wanted all along, and what Jurgen Klinsmann has said that Jones excels at.
2. Can the US make Gio dos Santos one-dimensional again?
My guess is that Klinsmann will try to copy the gameplans that worked so well in last August's friendly win and this March's scoreless draw in qualifying. In both instances, he was able to neutralize Giovani dos Santos, Mexico's most dangerous one-v-one attacker and, really, the guy who elevates them from "team with a few pieces" to "team that you expect to go toe-to-toe with the best in the world and create plenty of chances."
Below is a graphic, courtesy of my March to the Match buddy Matt Tomaszewicz (read his preview HERE), taken from this spring's encounter. That's dos Santos on the left, forced to play square and running into two defenders every time he cuts inside. On the right are the defensive events of DaMarcus Beasley (left back), Matt Besler (left central defender) and Maurice Edu (left central midfield).
Quite simply: They funnelled dos Santos into areas of defensive strength.
There's a way around this, for Mexico. Just have a forward – Tena will probably play in the 4-4-2 – loop to the flanks and offer an obvious channel for an attacking pass. That will either force Beasley to play deeper, or whoever the left central defender is (my guess is Michael Orozco Fiscal) to come out of his preferred lane and track the forward, effectively pulling the stopper out of the bottle and giving Gio a view to create off the dribble.
This is exactly what Real Salt Lake have done for six years, by the way.
The problem for Mexico is that neither "Chicharito" Hernández nor Oribe Peralta are particularly adept at flaring wide, and beyond that, both have been known to pout when asked to do so. Tena will have to get through to them to make this work, or drop one entirely.
3. Protect Zone 14
That's the section of the field just above the 18. In the words of Sterling Archer: "Danger zone!"
Even when Mexico are getting shut out left and right, they still create tons from that spot. Their ability to send wingers inside without fear of losing the ball creates overloads and combination opportunities that even good defensive teams can't handle.
The below chance is from March, and it's an absolute let-off:
Kyle Beckerman excels at breaking up plays in this area, by the way – another strong argument for his inclusion.
4. Will Landon and Deuce operate between the lines?
Klinsmann's biggest gamble against Costa Rica was using both Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey as true frontliners, which turned out to be a problem. Neither was effective holding the ball up against the Ticos defense, and as such the US was never able to attack in numbers.
I know there's a lot of love for Aron Johannsson at the moment – he's earned much of it with his play in the Netherlands – but he's the same type of player, someone you don't want to have to go up strength-for-strength agaisnt central defenders.
So ... Eddie Johnson needs to start. His inability to complete attacking passes is definitely a negative, but his ability to hold the ball up and actually battle the Mexican defenders on the front line is crucial. He's an outlet, he's a target on the break and on set pieces, and he has a track record.
In chess terms, starting Johnson as a No. 9 is like sacrificing a knight so that the rooks can attack. You win with your rooks – especially if you get them into unexpected spots.
EJ, for all his limitations, allows for that. Johannsson does not.