MEXICO CITY – The US men’s national team and staff have certainly played or coached in big games. Some have competed in, even won, UEFA Champions League; others have won (and lost) MLS Cups and vied for top honors in European leagues. Most of the current group has picked up ample experience in the current World Cup qualifying cycle.
Most of that pales in comparison to the next seven days, however.
“One thing I told the staff in our meeting as we started camp was, this is probably the biggest week of our lives as professional coaches. And that's just honest,” Gregg Berhalter told reporters in Wednesday afternoon’s matchday-1 press conference. “I've coached in Columbus and I coached in an MLS final … but this is bigger than that.
“And what I reassured the group is we've all coached in three games before, we've been through qualifying already. We've coached a lot of games before and we have a process, and just stick to the process. And I think that's what's making it easy both for the staff and the group is we just stick to the way we work. It's been successful so far, and that's what we continue to do. And I think the second thing is just staying in the moment.”
USA vs. Mexico - it’s qualify or go home for the USMNT
On Thursday night the USMNT step onto the hallowed turf of their oldest, deepest rivals for a fixture many participants have called the biggest game of their careers: A qualifier against Mexico at mighty Estadio Azteca.
Pride and bragging rights are on the line, as always, yet the urgency transcends that. The two Concacaf giants enter this window locked in second place in the Octagonal standings, both in need of not only a positive result Thursday, but also in their final two matches, to be certain of a place at Qatar 2022.
For the United States that pressure is further amplified by the lingering pain of their 2017 collapse at this stage, ending a three-decade streak of successful qualifications. That said, only a select few from the current squad were involved in that firsthand, and on Wednesday two of them emphasized that it’s a new era for the program.
“I've been looking forward to it for years now, without accomplishing it last time around,” said Christian Pulisic, an effervescent teenage starlet in the last cycle whose tearful heartache provided some of the most searing images of the shock loss at Trinidad & Tobago that cut short the quest for Russia 2018.
“It's been a massive goal of mine and this team, so I'm obviously excited and we're going to give everything because I and this team 100% want to play in a World Cup … we have the opportunity now. We definitely don't want to go through that again.”
Pulisic tends to be reserved and careful when addressing the media, though a few glimpses of the intensity and defiance that has powered his rise to the top of the world game flashed through on Wednesday.
“We're just a more confident bunch of guys and I think our team, we understand the quality that we have and we think that we can come down here and compete and really go for a result,” said the Chelsea FC attacker.
“There's nothing massive that these guys aren't going to be ready for,” he said of Azteca’s famously intimidating aura. “Of course, it's going to be a tough game and it's going to be a good atmosphere, a tough atmosphere to play in. Of course, we're aware of the altitude, some guys may be more used to it than others. But it's going to be a battle no matter what.”
Kellyn Acosta also experienced that trauma firsthand.
“I haven't really thought about it. I mean, that was part of the last cycle and this is a new cycle, with new challenges and a new group, new blood,” said the LAFC midfielder. “We all have the same objective, which is to qualify for a World Cup, and we are in a great position right now.”
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A leading contender to take the place of injured talisman Weston McKennie, Acosta has produced some of his best international performances against Mexico, and his willingness to get stuck in and engage in the gamesmanship of this rivalry may be a decisive factor for Berhalter.
“You want a competitive advantage no matter what, but it's just one of those things, that aspect of the game where you try to do your best to get everyone involved, get everyone fine-tuned and excited and ramped up and ready to go,” said Acosta. “You try to put the opposition off their game. Whether it be sticking up for your teammates, I think that's all of us, we all just care for each other. So, I mean, that's just something that's natural – using the referee to our advantage, because we want to get as many calls as we can, obviously, so the game doesn’t get too, too chippy.”
After dropping a few lineup revelations here and there over the course of the past year, Berhalter refused to be drawn in the slightest on who would be in the starting XI, saying, “my stock answer is just going to be we're working through it, even if we had made a decision.”
He did, however, face up to the stiff challenge that has always awaited the USMNT in the Mexican capital, where the program is 0W-13L-3D all-time in qualifying, even if they’ve beaten El Tri in their last three meetings: The Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup finals and their home Ocho date in Cincinnati last fall.
“In those three wins, you almost see growth in each of those games, culminating in the last one, in the qualifier, where the guys were really confident going into the game. So I do think it adds some confidence,” said the former USMNT center back, with games vs. Panama (March 27) and at Costa Rica (March 30) also looming.
“But we can't let our guard down. I mean, our record here is horrendous. The odds are against us getting something out of this game, right? We know that, we realize that. And that's just how it is. And we're focused on going in and being difficult to play against, competing."