USA vs Mexico
Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, 8 pm ET
Crew Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
Watch on ESPN, UniMas | Live Chat on MLSsoccer.com
The stakes are as high as ever as North America's fiercest soccer rivalry is renewed at an iconic venue with a World Cup berth on the line Tuesday night.
Twelve-and-a-half years ago, the US national team announced its intent to dethrone the regional kings with a 2-0 defeat of Mexico in a World Cup qualifier in sub-zero temperatures at Crew Stadium, a memorable occasion dubbed “La Guerra Fría” (The Cold War). Since then the Yanks have rarely chosen to play meaningful matches with their border adversaries anywhere else – and to good effect, with matching 2-0 victories in Columbus in 2005 and 2009 that boosted gringo confidence and dinged El Tri's long-held superiority.
There's much more than just pride at stake on Tuesday. Separated by five points and two standings places in the current CONCACAF Hexagonal stage, both sides badly want a positive result. The USA can clinch their spot in Brazil 2014 with a victory, while Mexico, who dumped embattled head coach José Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre over the weekend after a humiliating and historic home loss to Honduras, are desperate to climb into one of the top three slots in the group and avoid a sweaty run-in when the Hex concludes next month.
Mexico once dominated their Yanqui neighbors and still hold an all-time advantage of 32-16-13 in the series. But the picture changed dramatically with the arrival of a new century, as the United States have carved out an 11-5-4 mark against El Tri since 2000, including a 9-2-3 record on home soil.
The US made history in August 2012 with their first-ever victory in Mexico, a 1-0 friendly win at the imposing Estadio Azteca fueled by Michael Orozco Fiscal's short-range finish. Those good vibes continued in March of this year, as Klinsmann and his men gutted out a 0-0 draw in their Hexagonal match at the same venue.
A 12-game winning streak came thudding to a halt with a disconcerting 3-1 loss to Costa Rica on Friday that exposed the naggingly unsettled nature of the backline. Midfield torch-bearer Michael Bradley has been lost to an ankle sprain. Goal king Jozy Altidore is suspended, as are steady center back Matt Besler and team Swiss Army knife Geoff Cameron.
The challenges are many for USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann, and all of his likely responses to them are riddled with uncertainty and risk. No one at his disposal can truly match Bradley's skills set, so he'll have to either go with a more cautious (i.e. Kyle Beckerman) or a more adventurous (read: Mix Diskerud, Joe Corona or Jose Torres) partner for Jermaine Jones in central midfield.
Similarly, late call-in Clarence Goodson will bring experience and aerial strength if he replaces Besler as is widely expected, yet he and Omar Gonzalez might prove a relatively ponderous pairing ill-suited for tracking quick, tricky attackers like Giovani dos Santos, Andrés Guardado and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández. The outside back positions remain problematic and up front, Altidore's absence has complicated the shape and chemistry of the forward line.
But if Klinsmann and his staff can figure out the right solutions to garner all three points on Tuesday, the USA's ticket will be punched for Brazil and the home supporters can luxuriate in the additional joy of celebrating at their main rivals' expense.
Columbus has been a humbling locale for El Tri and it's surely not the ideal setting for their latest pressure-packed qualifier. Now Mexico return to central Ohio in a particularly tricky situation, sitting in fourth place in the Hex having garnered just eight points from their first seven matches and staring at the prospect of a two-legged playoff with New Zealand in order to book the World Cup place that most of their fans consider a birth right.
Friday's 2-1 home loss to Honduras was the last straw for federation leaders increasingly unnerved by the team's steady decay under de la Torre's stewardship this year. Now his assistant Luis Fernando Tena has stepped in as interim boss in the hopes of salvaging something against the US – though he admitted on Monday that the entire coaching staff may well be dumped between now and the October round of qualifiers, depending on what unfolds Tuesday.
Last summer Tena led his nation's youngsters to Olympic gold in inspiring fashion, and several members of that team are on the current squad. Will he find a way to release the hesitation and fear that have handcuffed the normally expressive Mexicans in this Hex, or have matters spun out of hand already? Even taking a single point home from Columbus looks like a praiseworthy achievement at this point.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
USA – Jermaine Jones
With Bradley sidelined, the rugged Schalke 04 veteran will be expected to step up his game in the midfield engine room, the place where so many US-Mexico encounters have been decided over the years. Deeply trusted by Klinsmann yet criticized in other quarters for his uneven passing and propensity for heavy tackling, Jones has become one of the most enigmatic members of the USMNT. Tuesday is shaping up as a watershed moment in his international career.
MEXICO – Javier Hernández
“Chicharito” is one of his country's most prized footballing assets and ranks as one of the best pure finishers on earth when at or near his best. Yet he's been a subdued presence during El Tri's long, slow slide and is due for a headline-grabbing performance. Whether the Manchester United striker starts or comes off the bench on Tuesday, his clever movement and razor-sharp instincts around goal could torment a US backline that has been decidedly leaky of late.
GOALKEEPERS: Brad Guzan (Aston Villa/England), Tim Howard (Everton/England), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS: DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla/Mexico), Clarence Goodson (San Jose Earthquakes), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Michael Parkhurst (Augsburg/Germany), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Michael Orozco (Puebla/Mexico)
MIDFIELDERS: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes/France), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg/Norway), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim/Germany), Jermaine Jones (Schalke/Germany), Jose Torres (Tigres UANL/Mexico) Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
FORWARDS: Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar/Netherlands), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders FC)
GOALKEEPERS: Jesús Corona (Cruz Azul/Mexico), Alfredo Talavera (Toluca/Mexico), Jonathan Orozco (Monterrey/Mexico)
DEFENDERS: Severo Meza (Monterrey/Mexico), Hiram Mier (Monterrey/Mexico), Francisco Rodríguez (Club América/Mexico), Diego Reyes (FC Porto/Portugal), Héctor Moreno (Espanyol/Spain), Carlos Salcido (Tigres UANL/Mexico), Jorge Torres Nilo (Tigres UANL/Mexico)
MIDFIELDERS: Jesús Zavala (Monterrey/Mexico), Héctor Herrera (FC Porto/Portugal), Christian Giménez (Cruz Azul/Mexico), Fernando Arce (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Andrés Guardado (Valencia/Spain)
FORWARDS: Giovani dos Santos (Villarreal/Spain), Javier Aquino (Villarreal/Spain), Ángel Reyna (Veracruz/Mexico), Damián Álvarez (Tigres UANL), Oribe Peralta (Santos Laguna/Mexico), Javier Hernández (Manchester United/England), Raúl Jiménez (Club América/Mexico)