The U.S. men’s national team will take the pitch tonight in Columbus, Ohio, with a chance to make it a very special night.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s team is currently in second place in the CONCACAF Hexagonal, one point back of Costa Rica. The Ticos defeated the Americans on Friday night to break their 12-match winning streak. A win by the U.S. tonight at Columbus Crew Stadium, combined with a Honduras win or tie against visiting Panama, means the Americans can punch their ticket to next summer’s World Cup in Brazil.
Sounds easy, right?
Well, there is one thing standing in the way of the celebration – arch-rival Mexico.
At first glance, it may seem as if the U.S. has a major advantage heading into the game, especially when you consider that:
- This will be the fourth consecutive home qualifying match the U.S. will play against Mexico in Columbus. The U.S. has won the previous three, all by the score of 2-0.
- The U.S. is unbeaten in nine games at Columbus Crew Stadium, posting a 6-0-3 record.
- The U.S. has not lost a home qualifier against Mexico since 1972, posting a record of 4-0-2 since then.
But things are never that simple in sports. For starters, the U.S. will be without four key players.
Central midfielder Michael Bradley will miss the game with an ankle sprain suffered during warm-ups for the Costa Rica game. They will also be without defenders Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler, along with forward Jozy Altidore, who are all suspended after receiving their second yellow cards during the game against Costa Rica. In their place are midfielders Joe Corona, Brad Davis and Jose Torres and defender Clarence Goodson.
For their part, the U.S. team is not panicking about facing its biggest rival with a short-handed roster.
“I think there are things we look at (from the Costa Rica loss) and think we can get those right and we’ll be a heck of a lot more solid,” goalkeeper Tim Howard told Sports Illustrated. “At the same time, we’ve been playing well. That happens. Sometimes, you get your butt kicked. That’s part of it. You just have to shake it off and move on. I think this group has the resilience to move on.”
If the Americans are to move on, they will have to get past an El Tri squad that may currently appear broken, they are still a dangerous squad – especially if with Gio Dos Santos, who always seems to give the Americans problems, and Javier Hernandez on the roster.
Mexico lost at home on Friday against Honduras – only the second home loss in a World Cup qualifier ever. Over the weekend, the team told manager Jose Manuel de la Torre that his services were no longer needed, replacing him with Luis Fernando Tena.
The Mexican squad currently sits in fourth place in the Hexagonal, two points behind Honduras for third place and a guaranteed spot in Brazil. But they are just one point ahead of Panama and, with only two games remaining after their match with the U.S., need to start taking points if they hope to make it into a play-in game against New Zealand.
No matter how much they may be struggling right now, the Mexicans want to do everything they can to avoid seeing the U.S. celebrate at their expense and avoid the pressure of having to win the final two games just to have a chance to make the World Cup.
With a roster that will rely on call-ups in some important roles, the biggest advantage the Americans have going for them is manager Jürgen Klinsmann.
A little more than six months ago, Klinsmann was dealing with stories about the players questioning his tactics and his lineups, most notably that, because he is German, he was showing favoritism to Jermaine Jones, Danny Williams, Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler – all German-born players of American servicemen.
But since then, Klinsmann has settled the team down – did we mention the 12-game winning streak? One that was just three games shy of Spain’s all-time record? – and, the loss to Costa Rica notwithstanding, has the Americans playing at a high level at just the right time.
If Klinsmann can guide the team to a win on Tuesday, he achieves the double goal of all but assuring a place in the World Cup for Team USA while also putting a big dent in Mexico’s travel plans to Brazil.
But simply qualifying for the World Cup is just another step on what Klinsmann and the Americans hope is a bigger and longer journey.
“Jürgen Klinsmann was not hired to qualify for the World Cup,” former U.S. national team player Alexi Lalas told The Telegraph. “Jürgen Klinsmann was hired to make sure that when that moment comes and we reach the rarefied air (of the knockout stages), the players are prepared.”
The opportunity to take that next step to Brazil is there for the Americans tonight in Columbus. What they do with it, is entirely up to them.
Editor’s note: After tonight’s USA vs Mexico game, be sure to log on to WorldSoccerTalk.com to watch the live post-match reaction with Kartik Krishnaiyer, Kris Heneage and Dave Denholm.