They say that you can throw out the standings and form guides when bitter rivals meet. That last phrase certainly applies to any national teams of the Mexico and the United States -- but the first part doesn’t quite work with Wednesday night’s Concacaf Olympic qualifying clash at Estadio Jalisco in Guadalajara (9:30 pm ET | FS1, TUDN).
Both these sides handled their business in their first two Group A matches, taking full points to qualify for the tournament’s semifinals with a game to spare. And even though taking top spot in the group offers a measure of bragging rights and possibly a preferable matchup against Group B’s survivors, this is also everyone’s third game in seven days, and US starters Jesus Ferreira and Justen Glad are carrying yellow cards.
So don’t expect a full-strength, both-barrels approach from either team.
“I'm sure it will be an emotional, spirited match,” head coach Jason Kreis said of the Mexico showdown in a Tuesday press conference, “but at the end of the day, all of our players are clear with the knowledge that the most important game is the one that's coming up.
“The one that we have to win to make the Olympics is the semifinal.”
With only two Olympic slots for the region, the semis are the be-all, end-all here: Win and you’re going to Tokyo, lose and you’re headed home heartbroken. If hardcore fans on either side of the border are disappointed by the effects of that reality on Wednesday’s rivalry clash, they may take solace in the fact that a rematch could be just around the corner.
If both Mexico and the US win their semifinals, they will meet again in the championship final, which would immediately make that game much less of an afterthought. And Kreis and his players have targeted a tournament win as one of their goals, too, just one rung below successful qualification.
All of this adds up to Wednesday being a unique balancing act -- because the young Yanks can’t exactly mail it in, either.
“If we come into this game against Mexico and we’re thinking about the next game after that, then we’re probably going to get battered if we think like that,” warned Colorado Rapids winger Jonathan Lewis. “If they were to come out and batter us because we’re not focused, that can destroy the whole team morale going into the semifinals.”
Kreis can’t exactly play his reserves, either, because the tight 20-player roster limitation prevents him from really having “reserves” in this event.
“We’re very fortunate that we have a very deep roster, a lot of guys here that we believe can play in any of these matches and do very well. And so because of that I think we’ve been able to maintain some freshness,” he said. “But we’re still building fitness, whereas the Mexican players are all in the middle of their season. We are very much in our preseason mode
“The most important thing is the semifinal match and so we go into this game with that really guiding us. But without 20, 22 field players here, it’s not like there can be a complete rotation. So we have to make, I think, some really really educated decisions and have discussions about these decisions and really weigh out a pathway forward.”
Another factor: The squad haven’t really found their top gear and maintained it for long stretches in their first two games. So Kreis called Mexico “a measuring stick opportunity for us, to see how we compare to a very strong team,” as that search for peak performance continues.
“We collectively as coaches, I know for sure collectively as players, we feel that we haven't really gotten to reach our potential. We don’t really feel like we’ve put together a full game of what we’re capable of,” he said. “Now having said that, we definitely have put together moments in both of the first two games where we were really quite good and we were really playing to the level and style that we want. So the answer is that we want both; we want to play in a particular way and we believe that if we play in that particular way then results will come.”