The US men’s national team host Mexico in Cincinnati on Friday night in World Cup Qualifying (9:10 pm ET | ESPN2, Univision, TUDN). This is each team’s seventh game of the final round. Mexico are in first place, and the US are in second.
It is a very big game. It always is when these two teams meet.
It is also, however, a chance for Gregg Berhalter to show he’s learned from both his own team’s games and the film of Mexico’s and make some adjustments. There are potential changes to make to the US XI, but beyond that there are some different ways to put pressure on El Tri that have been demonstrated by some of the opponents they’ve already faced.
With that in mind, here are a few quick thoughts on what I’d like to see from the US:
Play over the first line of pressure
This makes intuitive sense given that Berhalter chose not to bring John Brooks, who is the best passing CB in the pool. If the idea was to play through that first line of El Tri pressure, then Brooks would have to be there.
The other reason it makes sense is because the US just haven’t shown the ability to play through Mexico’s pressure no matter who’s out there. We saw it repeatedly in both meetings this summer, and we saw it two years ago in a friendly where Mexico smoked the US 3-0. The US had no Plan B in that particular game – the only thing they were going to do was try to build. Tata Martino had his side prepared for exactly that, and the US got pumped.
So that’s why not to do it. There is a compelling affirmative reason for the US to play over the press, though: Mexico’s expected midfield (Edson Alvarez, Hector Herrera and Andres Guardado) can’t match the range and ball-winning ability of the expected US midfield (Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah and Tyler Adams).
This is especially true if Mexico’s front line is pushed up high to press the US backline and goalkeeper. Whenever they’ve played like that in qualifying there has been a pretty significant disconnect because Herrera and Guardado just don’t cover ground like they used to.
What I’m saying is that midfield 50/50s should be a strength for the US. This is not a call for Berhalter to go full Energy Drink Soccer, but if the game starts looking like a scrap in the middle of the pitch, the US have the personnel to make that a good thing. Mexico don’t.
This is probably the biggest reason Berhalter has opted for Zack Steffen over Matt Turner in goal. I think the difference between the two with regard to distribution is overstated, but that difference does exist, and if the goal is to drop 40-yard balls into areas where McKennie, Musah et al have the advantage, Steffen is better-suited for that.
It is a risk – Turner is a much better shot-stopper than Steffen – but there is a coherent thought process behind it.
Use Weah & Pulisic at right wing
Berhalter said on Thursday that Christian Pulisic is not going to start this game. My preference would've been 60 minutes of Pulisic and 30 minutes of Tim Weah (Brenden Aaronson should go 90 on the left wing), and while there are individual reasons for this – Pulisic has been more consistent as a right winger because he doesn’t get Neymar Brain when he’s out there, he just attacks; Weah has spent most of his time for club and country on the right – there is also a good tactical reason: immediate verticality up the right side is the way to go at El Tri.
Tajon Buchanan had himself a field day last month at the Azteca:
Mexico’s left back Jesus Gallardo hasn’t fared well against pacey attackers. Pulisic and Weah both have Buchanan-esque speed; the ability to get the edge on Gallardo, turn Mexico’s entire defense around and force them to run at their own goal.
Aaronson doesn’t have that. When he’s played on the right side he’s at his best making diagonal runs angled toward goal, splitting the LB and left center back. That is useful, but in this game I think it’s more useful to drag Gallardo out to the touchline and annihilate him. And on the flip side, Aaronson has been the best winger in the pool at combining with the rest of the attack when playing inverted.
The second order effects here are obvious: Mexico get more comfortable and start to dominate games when they can bring their fullbacks up. Weah and then Pulisic pinning Gallardo limits that, while on the other side of the field, Aaronson would be clearing out the entire left flank for Antonee Robinson on the overlap.
We talked about this a lot on Extratime:
Start Joe Scally
I’m kind of surprised at the tenor of the discourse around the right fullback slot for this window. Given Sergino Dest’s absence it’s obviously a topic worthy of discussion, but the approach seems to be more of a wait-and-see thing than I’m used to hearing out of the US fanbase.
Here is a simple fact, though: Berhalter has already started four teenagers (Gio Reyna, Ricardo Pepi, George Bello, Musah) thus far in qualifying, and the results from that group have been mostly promising. His whole M.O. has been “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.”
Scally has certainly looked good enough thus far with Borussia Monchengladbach, and beyond that, neither of the other right backs in this camp – DeAndre Yedlin and Reggie Cannon – have lit the world aflame with their recent play. Yedlin still has the same strengths (high effort and speed to burn) and weaknesses (below par skill on the ball and in distribution, and a potentially fatal penchant for back post inattentiveness) that he did when he broke onto the scene eight years ago, while Cannon has barely played this season.
I get that this is Scally’s first camp, and it’s coming in the biggest game in the region. It’s also coming against Chucky Lozano, who is one of the three best players in the region.
But given the other options, the way Scally’s played since August and both his physical and footballing gifts, it feels like a worthwhile chance to take.