CINCINNATI – Put some respect on our name.
Gregg Berhalter didn’t use those exact words in his pregame press conference, but that was the US men’s national team coach’s clear message to Mexico ahead of their massive World Cup Qualifying clash at TQL Stadium on Friday (9:10 pm ET | ESPN2, Univision TUDN).
Seizing on recent remarks made to TUDN by Guillermo Ochoa in which El Tri’s veteran goalkeeper said “Mexico has been that mirror in which they [the United States] want to see themselves and reflect, what they want to copy,” Berhalter pointed to the USMNT’s dramatic wins earlier this year in the finals of the Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup.
“When you hear things coming out from their camp that we want to be them, we're looking at some mirror that's Mexico and want to see ourselves or something like that, it shows that we have a long way to go to get the respect of Mexico,” said the coach, himself a USMNT regular in his playing days. “And the two victories in the summer I guess didn't do a lot to get that, and we're going to have to do it tomorrow by our play on the field.”
Berhalter revealed that Zack Steffen will start in goal on Friday, and also stated that Christian Pulisic will not make the starting XI as he regains match fitness following an extended spell on the sidelines with an ankle sprain.
“He's been training for four days, and common sense is going to tell us you can't start a guy in a game like this when he's only been training for four days; he's been out for too long,” said Berhalter. “Our idea wasn't to play him 180 minutes in this trip anyway. He's not going to start tomorrow. Hopefully he'll get some playing time, we can put him on the field and he can make an impact and help us get the result that we want.”
The USMNT carry a much younger roster into this edition of the border rivalry than El Tri, who won 2-1 in Columbus in the last edition of this World Cup Qualifying fixture almost exactly five years ago. Berhalter shot down any suggestion that this could lead to complacency or lack of intensity.
“Everybody knows what this game is about. When you play in front of filled-up stadiums at your home, and it's 95% Mexican fans, you learn really quickly what this rivalry is about,” he said. “When you see the passion on the field, how both teams compete against each other, you know what the rivalry is about. So for us, despite being a young group, we know exactly what this is about.”
Berhalter and his Mexico counterpart Gerardo “Tata” Martino locked horns repeatedly during their respective MLS stints with Columbus Crew and Atlanta United, and so far have split their international meetings, El Tri winning their first two faceoffs in 2019 before this year’s USMNT victories. With many among the current squad having participated in those occasions firsthand, the Yanks believe they’re plenty ready for the magnitude of “a date that U.S. soccer fans put down on their calendar,” in Berhalter’s words.
“We're not going to be able to make up for Mexico's experience. We know that, that one's done,” he noted. “They’ll have an average age of something like 29 years old, we’ll be some somewhere closer to 22, 23 years old. That's just how it's gonna be. What we’ve tried to do is give these guys experience over the last couple of years. We played Mexico four times in the last two years, and we've learned from those games.
“And it's important that we're taking all those lessons on board as we prepare for tomorrow night. If we want respect as a team, and we do, we're going to have to earn it, because it's not going to be given to us. And we're going to have to go out on the field and earn it through our play.”
Undefeated over their first six games, El Tri enter this match in first place in the Concacaf Octagonal standings, with the United States three points back in second. With such high stakes, the hosts are eager to make a statement and aim to stamp their influence on the run of play right from the opening whistle, though Berhalter recognized the need for his squad to stay composed and resilient.
“It's just regulating ourselves, I think that's the most important thing,” he said. “It's about who can stay calm, but still compete at the 100% level. And that's the trick. There's a line that you don't want to cross, but you need to get to that line if you want to be successful. So in any position, whoever's on the field, whoever's on the substitute bench, whoever's the solution for us, we want the same thing: For them to understand their role, to go in and execute it and go all the way to that line.”