Welcome to the Wednesday Q&A series, where we focus on one particular topic – today's being the upcoming USA v Mexico World Cup qualifier – and ask you to react, share, and discuss in the comments section. However, feel free to ask about anything game-related (MLS, USL, NASL, USMNT, CanMNT, etc.) over the next several hours.
The US will face Mexico on Friday afternoon in the opening game of the Hexagonal (7:45 pm ET; FS1 & Univision). It is a hyperbolic stretch to call this, the first in a 10-game qualifying sprint that will hopefully end up with a berth to Russia 2018, a "must-win."
But at the same time, it is dangerously optimistic to assume that this result doesn't matter. Remember how close Mexico came to elimination last cycle? Remember how obvious the likes of Honduras and Panama have made it that, on any given day, they can compete with or beat the US (2015 Gold Cup, y'all)? I don't even feel the need to mention Costa Rica -- a team that made the quarterfinals of the most recent World Cup, and a team that the US have never beaten on their home turf.
Even the group patsies, Trinidad & Tobago, will not be pushovers. They held the US to a scoreless draw in the opening game of the last qualifying round, and they actually topped Mexico's group at last year's Gold Cup, before a controversial quarterfinal loss to Panama on penalties.
So the narrative is that CONCACAF presents an easy path to the World Cup, but like all narratives it deserves a good dose of scrutiny. Is it easier than, say, CONMEBOL? Yes, by orders of magnitude.
But it's not a given, and dropping points at home is how you end up needing a last-second miracle to preserve your path.
With that, here is the big question to ask ahead of Friday:
Will it be a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1?
The US have been better in a 4-4-2, both historically and recently. That should make this fairly straight-forward, right?
Wrong. Part of the US success in the 4-4-2 -- especially during Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure -- has been due to the hybrid attacking ability of Clint Dempsey, who naturally floats around the field looking to combine. He's been part playmaker, part fulcrum, part hold-up man, and all goal-scorer. Nobody in the history of the US player pool could swap those roles on the fly the way Dempsey did.
That includes Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood, who are both center forwards of varying skillsets. Of the two, Altidore is much more likely to drop into midfield and make plays:
Jozy's gonna have to get on the ball in spots like this vs. Mexico.https://t.co/fzd3AZYK0U— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) November 9, 2016
There is, however, a difference between that kind of dropping into the midfield, and the kind that Dempsey was so good at. The weakness of the 4-4-2 in the modern game is the propensity for it to get overrun in possession by teams with three-man central midfielders (which is what Mexico will certainly have). While possession in and of itself isn't necessarily a path to victory -- the US have proved that against Mexico plenty of times, right? -- exercising control of the game's tempo and rhythm in central midfield is.
And a hybrid like Deuce, who could step into midfield on both sides of the ball despite lining up as a forward, gave the US a level of flexibility in the 4-4-2 that most teams don't have. Neither Wood nor Altidore can replicate it, and while Christian Pulisic might be able to adopt some part of it, he's much more likely to be used on the wing.
That leaves the other option. The 4-2-3-1 has its own host of questions, and here are a few of them:
- Does Wood start on the wing, where he's been mostly ineffective?
- Can Jozy -- who's always been better in a two-forward set-up, handle being a lone forward vs. El Tri?
- If it's a double-pivot deep in central midfield, does that undo the progress the US have made since Michael Bradley became the lone d-mid?
Click that Bradley link and read it. The argument the numbers make are compelling, and shouldn't be ignored. Neither should the fact that the central midfield of Bradley and Jermaine Jones have never been equal to the sum of their parts when played together. The big benefit of the double pivot is supposed to be that when one guy pushes, the other covers the space left behind -- something that takes repetition and chemistry.
These guys have never had the latter, and "lack of chemistry in central midfield" has a long and storied history of leading to USMNT sadness against El Tri:
That's from five years ago. Here's one from 13 months ago. They tell largely the same story.
And that's what Klinsmann will have to figure out over the next 48 hours. The US have more talent than they've ever been able to boast of before, and every opportunity to keep up the string of Dos-a-Ceros in Columbus.
But it'll have to be earned. And if it's not, well, nothing's a given. Not even World Cup qualification out of CONCACAF.
Ok folks, thanks for keeping me company!