USA’s latest friendly versus Mexico now looks exceedingly useful

Landon Donovan will look to lead USA to victory against rival Mexico on Wednesday night. 

Getty Images

PHOENIX, Ariz. — When it was announced, some questioned the wisdom and motives behind Wednesday’s friendly between the United States men’s national team and their despised neighbors Mexico. A few even dismissed it as a naked money-grab. Because without the benefit of a full A-team — the game doesn’t fall on one of FIFA’s international match dates, and so clubs weren’t obliged to release players — and a predictably inhospitable location, a cavernous NFL stadium in a border state, little good could come of it. Or so their reasoning went.

But whatever the rationale behind the resumption of this roiling rivalry — in the last installment, in Columbus back in September, the USA beat a disheveled Mexico 2-0 to clinch a place at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil — the game now looks exceedingly useful. This is the last match before head coach Jurgen Klinsmann must submit his preliminary 30-man World Cup roster on May 12 ahead of training camp.

There are no friendlies between the United States and Mexico. One of them considers it a birthright to be better at soccer; the other derives immense satisfaction and terrific glee from turning that supposed natural order on its head. The Americans have done it often in the last decade or so. Painfully for the Mexicans, they owe their place in Brazil to a late USA equalizer against Panama, which saved El Tri’s wretched qualifying campaign by sending them into the playoffs, through which they qualified for the World Cup.

On Tuesday, Mexican head coach Miguel Herrera scoffed at the notion that Mexico is in the Yanks’ debt though. "They owe us more for California," he added with a laugh. Such is the repartee and rhetoric of this rivalry.

Klinsmann will get a look at his players in as close to a high-pressure situation as you can concoct outside of a major tournament or qualifying campaign, with the 63,400-seat University of Phoenix Stadium expected to fill up well, mostly with pro-Mexican fans. "It’s helpful to have a real game," said forward Landon Donovan. "It’s going to be a game probably similar to what we can see in Brazil — big stadium, big crowd, big stakes, a lot on the line."

AMERICANS OVERSEAS

"We don’t have a turnout like this for other games we play," said Donovan. "It’s fun for us as players. There’s a little added spice to it because of what’s at stake and players playing for spots."

Mexico is resurgent. Herrera has rebuilt confidence in four wins and a tie from the last five games. And he doesn’t lean much on his overseas players, positioning him well for this affair.

Which is a good thing, because Klinsmann still has quite a lot to figure out. He swept into office on a platform of change back in the summer of 2011, and has experimented and innovated ever since. With two and a half months remaining to put things right before the first game in Brazil against Ghana, there’s no telling how many decisions he has left to make. But Sunday’s announcement that he "reassigned" his assistant Martin Vazquez, promoting under-20 head coach Tab Ramos to his bench and bringing the old German war horse Berti Vogts along as an advisor suggest he is still tinkering with his formulas.

That includes his squad. "We want to see the players that take the field as the starting 11 to play with urgency and show us where they are right now," Klinsmann said. "We also want to see how they position themselves towards the preparation camp [two months] from now. This is a huge opportunity. It has a bit of a weight now."

Unhelpfully, midfielder Michael Bradley and forwards Donovan and Clint Dempsey, haven’t played together since June 2012. And so a team that has historically traded on its cohesion might be desperately short on just that. We don’t really know — it’s been so long.

The recent body of work does not encourage. After they reeled off a record 12 straight wins in a rip-roaring summer, fetid performances led to an unwatchable 0-0 draw with Scotland and a 1-0 loss to Austria in November. The 2-0 January friendly win against South Korea’s B-team with the MLS players was sound all around. But torpor set in again during a 2-0 loss against Ukraine with the European-based players in March.

By the grace of Major League Soccer’s new zeal to retain or return national teamers to its league, much of the starting lineup now plays at home. That will give Klinsmann a solid framework to construct his team. And for the first time, he could roll out the most likely trio of attacking midfielders for Brazil, with Donovan on the left, Dempsey centrally and Graham Zusi on the right. They will be backed by Bradley and whoever he is buddied up with.

The back line, however, may present problems. In spite of an agreement that all MLS and Liga MX clubs would be releasing their players for this game, Puebla reneged at the last minute and deprived Klinsmann of DaMarcus Beasley and Michael Orozco. The former is the incumbent left back. Since the regular right back, Brad Evans, had to pull out with an injury, there now exists an opportunity to see if there really isn’t any more depth on the defensive flanks to be excavated. DeAndre Yedlin, a thrilling 20-year-old, will likely get the assignment on the right. Michael Parkhurst appears to be the only option on the left. Any sort of competence in the job against tricky opposition by either man will constitute a success.

INSIDE MLS BLOG

Another beneficiary of much hype is winger Julian Green, who is all of five minutes into his senior club career and whose Bayern Munich provenance and grainy highlight clips has savior-starved fans salivating. We’ve heard much, but few have seen if Green is actually any good. We likely will on Wednesday.

Much can be gained and gleaned from this game, at the peril of morale. Beat Mexico again and confidence could soar. "Anytime that you can get wins it does make for more confidence and helps you get in more of a rhythm as a team," said Dempsey, the captain.

Conversely, a bad loss here could deal a swift kick where it would hurt the most: the Americans’ self-belief. And the skeptics would be proved right.