Bruce Arena looking for “confident, fit players” to face Mexico

MEXICO CITY – There’s no hiding the United States men’s national team’s record in Mexico. They haven’t won an official match in Mexico’s behemoth national stadium, the Estadio Azteca, since the Franklin administration, i.e. never for you US history buffs. 

The altitude. The giant crowd. The deafening noise. The talented opponent. It all has been too much for the US to overcome over the years. 

What’s the best way for head coach Bruce Arena to approach Sunday’s game (8:30 pm ET | FS1, Univision, UDN), then?

“We have to have confident players, fit players, and we have to have a little bit of luck,” Arena said.

So let’s break down all three components, working backward from simplest to most complicated.

The US team needs luck to win in Azteca. A century’s worth of games supports this claim.

The US team needs fit players. Fit could mean two things. It could be mean A) players who are rested and energized or B) players who are not carrying any type of injuries and can play at full strength or perhaps even C) both A and B. 

The USMNT last played on Thursday night, beating Trinidad and Tobago 2-0 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. On Friday they took a four-hour flight from Denver to Mexico City. Four-hour flights are not good on the legs. That leaves Saturday as the only true rest and recovery day prior to Sunday’s game.

Arena said he would wait until after Saturday’s training session to make his final roster decisions, but it’s clear he’s taking the idea of fit and ready to play seriously. 

It seems the lineup might be primed for a couple changes. FC Dallas midfielder Kellyn Acosta, tabbed by many as a potential starting candidate, only made a short cameo on Thursday. Bobby Wood also only got a few minutes. Omar Gonzalez and DaMarcus Beasley didn’t see the field. Perhaps they could meet the “fit” requirement after Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, John Anthony Brooks, and Jorge Villafana played extended minutes on Thursday. 

And finally, the confidence — one quality that Arena is known to pass on to his teams. Here’s one small sign: When asked about his potential role in Sunday’s game, Acosta responded, “I’m just here to bring my confidence in. I’m playing with a lot of confidence at Dallas and I’m trying to bring my abilities at the club level here.”

Arena’s own confident and calm demeanor at the podium suggests he might have a surprise or two up his sleeve. Perhaps the most pertinent position for the inclusion of fit and confident players comes at forward, where Wood — coming off a strong finish to the Bundesliga season — is also well-rested for a potential shift that could showcase his speed on the counterattack. Dempsey (61 minutes) and Altidore (83 minutes) logged most of the forward minutes in Thursday’s match. 

Of note, the three players didn’t appear in the media mixed zone on Saturday.

"My first opportunity to look at the players will be on the field [Saturday],” Arena told media on Saturday. "We’ll observe them in a light training session and determine our starting XI tomorrow."