United States defender DaMarcus Beasley relied on his considerable history with Mexico to place this CONCACAF Cup playoff in perspective. These two countries meet frequently as they jostle for superiority in the region. He pondered exactly where this match — complete with the possibility of a FIFA Confederations Cup berth in 2017 — fell on the spectrum.
Beasley outlined the stakes clearly: This meeting is the most important encounter between the two countries since the Americans’ 2-0 victory over El Tri in the round of 16 at the World Cup back in 2002.
Article continues below ...
These matches always matter, but the possibility of procuring a trip to Russia in two years injects more urgency for the Americans ahead of the date at Rose Bowl on Saturday (live, 8 p.m. ET, FS1, FOX Sports GO). Other countries slough off the utility of the Confederations Cup, but U.S. Soccer takes these opportunities seriously. The possibility of playing competitive, high profile matches and sorting through the inevitable logistical and technical hurdles in Russia increases the stakes.
"It’s just another opportunity to play in a major competition, get used to the facilities and what it is like with the atmosphere the year before going into a World Cup," U.S. forward Clint Dempsey said, "I think it helped us with South Africa. Hopefully, we’re able to get the job done."
It is a recurring theme in these affairs. There is no premium placed on the beautiful game. These matches are more fundamental, more rigorous in nature. It is a gauntlet first and foremost. And it is the sort of occasion where both players must rise to the occasion.
"It’s just the tension that’s involved in it, the passion from both sets of supporters and from the players," Altidore said. "It just goes so far back. The game means that much more each time it is played. I think this will be one of the biggest ones to date."
Cast aside the stakes … and the chatter
Every match between these two sides generates discussion in the buildup. Landon Donovan played his part this time with his comments about Jurgen Klinsmann, while Mexico roiled through a coach appointment (Juan Carlos Osorio is on tap and in Los Angeles), a series of selection issues and worrisome injuries to Andrés Guardado and Rafa Márquez (both key figures are expected to start).
None of those things matter when the match starts. Most of noise washes over the players anyways, but there is a need to cast aside the nonsense and focus solely on the task at hand.
"It’s going to be a very tight game," Klinsmann said. "It’s going to be a very intense game, there’s no doubt about it. There are a lot of emotions out there on the field. They have to stay very disciplined, very focused. That’s what we talked about the whole week through. And then we’re going to go for it."
Lineup issues leave both teams in search of firm footing
Part of the process includes figuring out the right team shape. Klinsmann and Mexico interim manager Ricardo Ferretti spent most of this week trying to sift through their options and sort out how exactly to formulate their approaches.
Klinsmann boasts more latitude given the familiarity within his ranks (16 players featured on the World Cup roster a year ago). There are some issues to contemplate on the day with Alejandro Bedoya ruled out through illness, but there is a steady framework in place. The reliance on integral figures like Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey endures. It is more about how to complement them in the starting XI (the exact choices in central defense, for example) and how to summon the best from the team on the day.
"I think everybody is comfortable with each other," U.S. defender Matt Besler said. "Certainly Jurgen has mixed lineups before. That’s something we’re used to. I think it’s beneficial for us to play with different guys. Whoever he calls for this game and on that given day is going to be comfortable and going to be ready."
Ferretti faces the opposite problem given the fitness issues surrounding Guardado and Márquez. The wait on their availability — Márquez only joined training late in the week, for example, but he deemed himself 100 percent fit in his press conference on Friday — complicated the planning process because they play such integral roles in the side. It leaves El Tri to alter things at the last minute in the hopes of extricating a cohesive performance. It is not beyond them to produce a performance given their experience with chaos, but they must start well to establish the necessary foundation.
All of the chopping and changing places considerable emphasis on cobbling together an assured start. Both teams boast enough changes — the Americans with more changes in the back four, the Mexicans with a potential tactical overhaul (4-3-3 instead of 4-4-2 or 5-3-2) — to create some uncertainty in the early stages. The key for both sides: figuring out how to navigate through the inevitable foibles without stumbling.
"Everything starts with communication," Besler said. "We can work and train as much as we want on the training ground, but, once we get out there, we have to talk to each other and help each other out. Getting pressure on the ball initially is important and having the cover and the balance behind the ball is important."
… and manage the demands in midfield
Balance and pressure loom as the potential keys for the Americans as they confront Mexico. The tried and tested methods include a 4-4-2 shape and a willingness to set out a defiant stall behind the ball. Klinsmann might return to a midfield diamond — perhaps amended with Gyasi Zardes spread wider on one side and Jermaine Jones tucked on the other — to allow the Americans to pressure the ball effectively.
Mexico’s midfield tumult — there is the possibility of a midfield triangle with Márquez improbably thrust into a holding role to replace the injured José Juan Vázquez — does not alter the balance of the game. El Tri is expected to dictate terms in possession and spend much of the evening trying to carve open the American defense.
The emphasis once again falls on restricting the time and space afforded in key areas without expending too much energy on a day expected to approach 100 degrees. The central defenders must compete with Oribe Peralta in the air and track Javier Hernández everywhere. The fullbacks need to eliminate room in the channels. The central midfielders — especially Kyle Beckerman if he is picked in a holding role — need to provide cover in front of the center backs and squeeze the room afforded to Guardado and Héctor Herrera to combine on the edge of the penalty area. The wider players need to temper the effectiveness of Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layún. Altidore and Dempsey must wield their influence off the ball to direct the Mexican buildup into preferred areas and place themselves in position to break quickly when it matters.
These are familiar instructions, but they must be carried out coherently to place the Americans in a position to succeed.
"Nothing changes in that aspect in terms of us wanting to be strong and solid and eliminate any gaps and spaces for them to play," Guzan said. "We want to be strong. We want to be difficult to break down. And you do that by being compact and well organized. You have to talk to the guys around you."
Take advantage of the Mexican weaknesses when the time is right
If the Americans can stay compact and frustrate Mexico in possession, then they can threaten when they win the ball in good areas. Bradley and Jermaine Jones function as the primary catalysts on the break. Their passing opens avenues for others to exploit, particularly if the Mexican line is set too high or the fullbacks venture too far into the attacking third.
This U.S. side poses the greatest threat when it plays vertically in short order. The key is to locate those times when a handful of passes can place Altidore and Dempsey in positions to threaten. Those instances lead to the sort of menace — whether from the run of play or through fouls garnered in the process of pushing forward — necessary to unlock Mexico.
At that point, the focus falls on execution. The past six matches showed the effectiveness of the basic American template — composure in defense, defiance in midfield, ruthlessness up front — against Mexico. This group must meet those standards once more to ensure this date at the Rose Bowl ends with a trophy in hand and a trip to Russia on the calendar.