Five Points: USMNT must rise to the occasion against Mexico

SAN ANTONIO

United States goalkeeper Nick Rimando summed up the prospect of playing Mexico neatly in the buildup to this fraught affair. He noted the history and the rivalry between the two countries and underscored his point by noting that these meetings are not anything close to friendly.

The sight of the two teams walking out onto the field at a sold-out Alamodome will reinforce the assertion. By that stage, the discussions about the condition of the field and the weakened state of the rosters will slip into the background. The attention will inevitably fall on the two teams and their work over 90 minutes on Wednesday (live, 8:00p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go).

“I think the U.S. — Mexico rivalry is special,” U.S. midfielder Kyle Beckerman said during the pre-match press conference on Tuesday. “Not just in this region, but in the entire world. No matter where the game is played, whether it’s a friendly, a qualifier or the Gold Cup, it’s a really big game. We’re all looking forward to it. The Gold Cup is coming up. These are big moments for all of us to show we’re in form and that we can be counted on for a big tournament like the Gold Cup.”

This edition of Five Points delves into the particulars of this peculiar meeting between the sides and highlights how the Americans can ensure the fixture yields the desired benefits.

Adjust the template to fit the situation

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The culling process continues here at the Alamodome, but many of the key figures are located elsewhere. These are the inevitable repercussions of scheduling a friendly outside approved FIFA match windows. Those realities force Klinsmann and Mexico boss Miguel Herrera to amend their approaches accordingly.

Many of the operating principles remain the same. There are structures in place in both camps — Herrera plans to stick with his 5-3-2 setup even with regular wingbacks Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layún unavailable, while Klinsmann usually selects some form of 4-4-2 now after tinkering with other shapes — capable of withstanding the changes. The short buildup offers little time to implement wholesale alterations. The onus instead falls upon tailoring those existing principles to fit the situation.

“For us coaches — both sides with Miguel Herrera, me and our coaches — we want to see them express themselves,” Klinsmann said. “We want to see where they are right now. We are hoping for a lot of little pieces to observe during the match.”

Rely on the advantage of familiarity

Assessing those finer details requires coping with the way Mexico plays. Herrera expects his teams to push forward earnestly and try to dictate matches from a position of strength. Those directives encourage the wingbacks to adopt advanced positions and hit diagonal balls regularly, prompt the midfield three to leave just one holding player to protect the central defensive trio and trust the front two to shoulder much of the scoring burden.

MEXICO STARTING XI TO FACE USMNT

Saucedo; Velarde, Salcedo, Maza Rodriguez, Mier, Flores; Montes (c), Osuna, Esquivel; Torres, Herrera 

It is a system that requires particular traits from the players operating within it. Herrera spent much of the buildup to the World Cup locating performers suited to functioning within it. Most of the established figures charged with bringing it to life are not here for this friendly, but there are some components — Maza Rodriguez in the middle of the back three and Luis Montes on the left side of the midfield three, for example — capable of translating it to this unfamiliar group.

The lack of experience within the ranks ensures some teething issues at the outset. Those potential frailties — plus the knowledge of this revamped group shared by the Liga MX-based contingent — provide the Americans with an opportunity to start well and threaten from the outset.

“It’s a dynamic and aggressive style,” U.S. goalkeeper William Yarbrough said. “The advantage for those of us who play down there is that we know all of the players very well. We know their style of game. We know what they’re good at, we know what they need to work on. We can use that as an advantage to us.”

React to the strengths

The knowledge only counts as an advantage if the U.S. can find a way to blunt those forays. There are certain flash points to watch — compensating in midfield to restrict the mobility of Montes within the midfield three, limiting the 2v1 and 3v2 situations on either side and restricting those big switches from flank to flank, for example — to monitor the progress in that department.

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If the Americans can interrupt Mexico’s cadence with intelligent pressure (Michael Bradley, as always, looms as a key figure here as he roves in search of the ball) and force El Tri to play directly toward Eduardo Herrera instead, then they would set the stage to exploit the shape issues likely to follow. The key is to hold firm enough to create opportunities on the break against a stretched opponent.

“That’s really your advantage right there,” U.S. defender Greg Garza said. “You have to take advantage of them getting those numbers forward and finding those holes that they’ll leave with their outside backs. I know it’s a team that is very attacking minded, but I think getting your advantages and getting forward when their attacking players do go forward can be very important for us.”

Exploit the weaknesses by striking the proper balance

The desire to press onward carries a caveat, though: Mexico is more than capable of countering quickly if those endeavors are far too rash. There is responsibility throughout the ranks to push forward prudently.

Beckerman — if selected in a holding role, as expected — serves as the primary protection in front of a revamped defense. He offers a necessary layer of security, but there is a burden on the fullbacks to pick up the correct spots and solidify the back four, too.

Klinsmann prefers his fullbacks to take advanced positions when possible. There is a possibility for prudence in the team selection — Brad Evans offers a more conservative option on the right instead of DeAndre Yedlin, while Garza possesses more experience coping with the positional rigors of this challenge than Brek Shea — if necessary.

More than likely, the emphasis instead falls on the players themselves to grasp the demands of the game and then respond accordingly.

“You just have to feel it out for a few minutes and see,” Shea said. “If I don’t feel there’s a threat and I get forward, then they’re going to have to worry about me more than I have to worry about them.

Take advantage of the opportunities afforded

Shea’s sentiment applies across the board for the duration of this affair. This is a group of players with plenty to prove. There are claims to stake. There are places to win. There are reputations to forge. There are standards to uphold despite the peculiar circumstances in play.

This match does not fulfill any of the overarching ambitions set forth. It isn’t particularly useful in a broader sense given the roster limitations in place. And yet the incentives here — the chance to defeat the biggest rival and move the Gold Cup preparations forward incrementally — reinforce the need to muster a proper performance and secure the desired result.

“For me, every time you’re coming in, it’s proving your worth,” Rimando said. “I think Jurgen said it and all of the guys understand it: These games mean something. It means something to show Jurgen what you bring to this team and who he is going to put on the roster for the Gold Cup and, hopefully, the Confederations Cup. Being Mexico, it’s going to bring a lot more out of the guys. We’ll fight and show them what we’re worth.”