The United States faces Mexico tonight as the Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying gets underway throughout CONCACAF. It’s the biggest USMNT game since Tim Howard’s exploits carried the Americans to overtime against Belgium in the round of 16 in Brazil over two years ago. With both teams facing tricky road games this coming Tuesday - the US is at Costa Rica, while Mexico travels to Panama - a win tonight would be immensely helpful for both sides.
Here are three things to have in mind going into this match:
Tres puntas >>> Dos a Cero
The “dos a cero” tradition is all anyone seems to want to talk about right now. In four straight Hexagonal rounds, the US has hosted Mexico in Columbus, and every single time the game finished with a 2-0 scoreline. I have fond memories of going to the Guerra Fria in 2001 and not dressing warmly enough because I was 19, and 19 year olds do dumb stuff sometimes.
However, traditions don’t actually win you anything, and in this astounding 2016 where things we seem sure of are all being dramatically toppled, it seems like the American fanbase is tempting fate every time they bring up the old two-nil. So I’ll just out and say it: I don’t give a damn about winning this game 2-0. What I’m concerned about are winning the game and avoiding anything (injuries, suspensions, coaching blunders that hurt team morale, etc) that makes the upcoming game at Costa Rica any more difficult than it already is.
The math here is simple. If the US can’t get a win tonight, they face a road trip to a place where they’ve barely ever gotten a draw, and have never won in qualifying. Being on zero or one point after 20% of the Hex is done is not ideal. A win tonight is so much more important than pursuing another dos a cero.
There’s no clear formation choice here
The roster for these games, as is the case with all Klinsmann rosters, is haphazardly constructed. There are four goalkeepers. Players like Perry Kitchen, captain of a team once again contending for a spot in the Europa League, have been left out for Caleb Stanko (a most-of-the-time starter for Switzerland’s worst team). Left back has been overlooked entirely. Michael Orozco is still a more or less locked in call-up. So it goes.
The left back thing is particularly irritating, because the US could pose the question of having Christian Pulisic and Fabian Johnson playing on either flank. Mexico would be stuck defending from touchline to touchline against those two, and the US would be arguably more dangerous now than they’ve ever been.
Instead, Johnson will probably line up at left back because no actual left backs were called in. Jorge Villafana still exists, by the way. He did not vanish into the ether. Anyway, Johnson playing left back means the US either plays a 352 - which they haven’t spent much time in - or has a problem at left midfield regardless of whether they play some kind of 442, 4231, or 433. If they play 442, guys like Jermaine Jones, Sacha Kljestan, and Alejandro Bedoya all become possible starters there, but none of them are actually good at that role. In a 4231 or 433, Bobby Wood could go wide, but a) he’s never looked comfortable there and b) Jozy Altidore is at his best with a true forward partner.
The only saving grace to all this? Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio is even more of a train wreck when it comes to tactics, and he is probably cooking up some kind of system for tonight that El Tri has never even seen on a whiteboard before, much less tried out.
A rivalry with respect? We’ll see
There’s no denying that the discussion surrounding immigration during the 2016 election looms over this game. Tensions are always high when these teams meet. The games usually mean a lot - we’re talking qualifiers, Gold Cup finals, and even a World Cup quarterfinal, after all - and have had more than their fair share of controversy. In the calmest of times, USA-Mexico is still the kind of game where people leave the stadium tweeting about fights in the stands, obscenities, slurs, spit, and harassment going both ways.
My sincere hope for tonight is that we see the two fanbases support their teams while not demonizing or attacking one another in the stands. That means no racial or homophobic slurs. That means not punching each other because someone wore a green shirt on the day a bunch of other people wore white with blue sleeves. It also means reaching out and seeing that there are humans in those shirts, not monsters.
The last year - hell, the last five weeks in our little part of the soccer world - haven’t beaten optimism out of me yet. I really hope that what we see tonight is loud, enthusiastic, but civil support from everyone tonight.
Location: Mapfre Stadium (Columbus, OH)
Kick-off time: 7:45pm Eastern
Available TV: Fox Sports 1 (English), Univision (Spanish), Univision Deportes (Spanish)
Available streaming: Fox Sports Go (English), Fox Soccer 2Go (English), Univision Deportes app (Spanish), Univision Now app (Spanish)
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
Treat this as the gamethread for tonight’s game.