Photo by ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Mexico might be in its most vulnerable state right now, but the U.S. Men’s National Team surely is not seeing things that way. Not after the number of intense matches the two teams have played over the years and not when considering the fact that this might be the most dangerous Mexico team the Americans have ever faced.
The U.S. and Mexico are set to renew their well-documented rivalry at Crew Stadium on Tuesday night in a game that is equally as important for both sides, but for vastly different reasons. For the U.S., the match could mark the special moment in which they assure qualification for the 2014 World Cup. El Tri, meanwhile, need a win to position themselves in a more favorable place in the Hexagonal and relieve pressure from the same blood-thirsty fans and media that recently got their wish of seeing head coach Jose Manuel ‘Chepo’ de la Torre dismissed.
Truth be told, Mexico right now is like an animal pinned in a corner, left with nothing to do but fight with everything its got to try and assure survival.
The Americans are well aware of that.
“I don’t look at it like that. Mexico is a team that has quality in it,” said forward Clint Dempsey when asked if Mexico is vulnerable right now. “We need to make sure that we prepare properly. Every game at home is a must-win game. You need to get those points if you have any hopes of qualifying for a World Cup, so we won’t treat it any different than that.
“Hopefully we can get as many points as soon as possible, make sure we make that happen. But we know it’s going to be a difficult game.”
That might be an understatement considering the intensity in which games between the U.S. and Mexico are usually played. In fact, even U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who is German-born, already knows all too well just how vital it is for both sides to win this big North American rivalry match every time it is played, especially one that is a World Cup qualifier with so much on the line.
“In this rivalry, there’s a lot of respect for each other, if it’s on the coaching side, if it’s on the player side, if it’s nation-related,” said Klinsmann, who is 1-0-2 against El Tri as U.S. head coach. “Both countries always strive for more, both countries want to get better, both countries want to be in the top 10 in the world, both countries obviously want to secure (a berth to) the World Cup in Brazil and going in there beyond the group stage, at least. At least.
“Ambition-wise, it’s very similar to our case and there’s a lot of admiration in this rivalry for each other and obviously a lot of emotions. We’re going to see those emotions tomorrow night on the field, so it’s going to be very, very tense, it’s going to be very aggressive. But at the end of the day, both teams have a lot of respect for each other.”
There certainly is respect from both sides after playing in so many memorable games, including dozens of friendlies, numerous Gold Cup finals and World Cup qualifiers, and one well-known World Cup Round of 16 match back in 2002.
That does not mean that the second-placed Americans (13 points) and fourth-placed Mexicans (eight points) will be playing a quaint little game of soccer on what is expected to be a humid Tuesday night in Columbus. Instead, tempers are likely to flare and there should also be a palpable tension in the air even before the two teams take to the field.
Managing all that will be key for the Klinsmann’s side, especially since several regulars will be missing. Jozy Altidore, Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron (all suspended due to yellow card accumulation) and Michael Bradley (injured) will not be in uniform on Tuesday, and that leaves the U.S. in the precarious situation of having to test its depth against its biggest rival.
“I’m not concerned about tomorrow night in terms of switching things around,” said Klinsmann. “Having another centerback in there, making changes if it’s up front for Jozy, if it’s in the midfield for Michael, because I think the players now really understand their roles. They know when they come in what to do, they know how we want to play.”
Among the changes Klinsmann could favor making after witnessing his side fall, 3-1, to Costa Rica in last Friday’s road qualifier in San Jose is inserting recent call-up Clarence Goodson at centerback in place of Besler. Goodson is no stranger to playing Mexico or being counted upon in marquee matches, and his experience makes him as good a bet as any to start alongside Omar Gonzalez in central defense.
Bigger questions seem to remain up top and in the midfield. With Altidore and Bradley out, Klinsmann will need to carefully weigh his options before choosing who to replace his two veteran players with. Some of Klinsmann’s options in midfield are Kyle Beckerman, Mix Diskerud and Jose Torres, and the options up top include Eddie Johnson and Aron Johannsson.
Irrespective of who starts, Klinsmann is likely to stress to his players the importance of avoiding the same type of slow start that doomed them against Costa Rica last week, especially since it is probable that Mexico interim coach Luis Fernando Tena asks his side to try and take the game to the Americans from the first minute.
“That’s the most important thing: the first 20-25 minutes of the game,” said DaMarcus Beasley. “In Costa Rica, we lost the game in the first 10 minutes. We didn’t match their intensity. Now, we’re at home, it’s a little bit different, but we know Mexico are going to come out flying because they need to win as well.
“As long as we match their intensity, match their passion about being here and trying to win the game, I think we’ll be okay and the game will settle down and we can start playing our football like we did in the second half against Costa Rica.”
What is playing in the Americans’ favor is that the likes of Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez and Giovani Dos Santos will be stepping into a stadium that has been quite harsh to the Mexicans ever since 2001. Crew Stadium, for all its shortcomings and criticisms, has been notorious for proving a tough place to play for El Tri, who have lost, 2-0, to the U.S. in each of the three qualifiers they have played there.
If that was not enough to rattle the already-frail Mexican psyche, then a sold-out crowd comprised of mostly American fans should while simultaneously pushing the U.S. on through even the most difficult of moments.
“We have history here and for soccer in our country, that’s not always the case,” said Bradley. “Soccer is still in its growing stages, and so for us to feel like we walk into a stadium and there’s history, is a special feeling. The people here in Columbus, in this part of the United States, love soccer, they love our team, they love supporting the United States, and so when come here, when we step out on to this field, there’s an overwhelming feeling of American support.
“When you play against Mexico, when you play in these kinds of games where so much is on the line, that can help the bar swing our way.”
Just as the U.S. is not overlooking its sputtering-but-talented southern rivals, it also not overly worried about Honduras’ result at home. The Americans could secure their passage to the 2014 World Cup on Tuesday if they top Mexico and Honduras draws or beats Panama, but even that plausible scenario is not enough to have the U.S. caring too much about what it cannot control.
There is no denying, however, that it would be pretty sweet for the U.S. to celebrate a World Cup berth with a win against its arch-rivals in front of a pro-American crowd.
“It’d be icing on the cake,” said Alejandro Bedoya. “Columbus crowd has been amazing for the national team. To beat Mexico is one thing and to win again in (front) of your home crowd in Columbus is another thing. It would be awesome.”