Let’s this out of the way. TSG has been authoring in-depth USMNT previews since 2010. The least confidence in this one.
The drama has returned to CONCACAF. The Hex, vexing.
Torrential downpours blanketed North and Central American CONCACAF games this past Friday somewhat fitting as the World Cup hopes for a few nations were left in muddy waters.
The United States and Mexico square off Tuesday in the most proper of places, Crew Stadium in Columbus–an arena rich in history, lore and symbolism for the States. The cries of Dos-A-Cero echo across American soccer media today as Columbus has been home to three 2-0 beatdowns of the Mexicans. The most recent, February 2009 in the front end of the Hex cycle series, saw Michael Bradley sling the team over his shoulder and erect a brace to carry the day.
Michael Bradley and Tim Howard shine for the USA in Columbus in a 2-0 win in February 2009
The States, of course, enter this game without Bradley–the Roma midfielder grotesquely rolling his ankle on the turf in San Jose. He’s been officially ruled out as have John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler and Jozy Altidore. Brooks due to a club team callback and the rest due to yellow card accumulation.
It some ways the string of unavailable names will resemble the US’s trip to the Azteca in March, but that’s where the comparisons end.
This is a US home game, a match-up where the US holds a gaudy 23-0-1 home record. This is not a game for survival by attrition or eking out goals. These are statement games. And the pomp and circumstance–supporters groups, ESPN coverage and more–suggests that statement will be cheered and broadcast loudly.
But the States have a vexing problem on their hands.
The US’s does not want to get into an up-and-down game with El Tri, a team whose counterattack is as good and as pretty as any in the world.
When El Tri is steaming up the pitch, with interlaced off-ball runs that look like they’re being cut by a symphony conductor, they downright savage their opponent. The rushes come furiously and without warning–not unlike how MLS’s LA Galaxy play–and the US knows all too well what happens when they are not answered with an appropriate response.
In the 2009 Gold Cup, Mexico amassed “A” level talent in the final game, inserted a rested and motivated Carlos Vela after the break and rode he and Dos Santos to Cinco-a-cero victory.
In 2011, an early 2-0 scoreline by the Yanks backed El Tri up against the wall. El Tri sprung a response a little Bruce Lee like. Some unfortunate events–Clint Dempsey banging on the crossbar from distance–and the US fell 4-2.
So the States’ must possess the ball without fail Tuesday–a task that seemed more than plausible 45 minutes before kickoff last Friday. Now though, that task becomes a challenge with two of the US’s best deep ball handlers–Bradley and Matt Besler out and no Jozy Altidore to showcase his newfound target man game.
But, if you think the States have a difficult road to hoe on Tuesday than Mexico is up a Mississippi River-sized sh*t’s creek.
El Tri finally scored at home in 2013 in their World Cup qualifier Friday, a fifth minute goal a relief more than statement of intent. Whatever goodwill that created in the stands or faux confidence it built on the field, flooded out the door when their opponent Honduras answered with two in the second half to knock the Mexicans out cold on their home turf.
Just another Friday in a hectic CONCACAF qualifier date.
Mexico currently sit on eight points in the Hex and in fourth place.
Given their track record in the US and Panama potentially salvaging a point in Honduras, the green and red could find themselves tied with the Canaleros heading into a match-up with Blas Perez and company at home with a direct route to Brazil on the line. (The fourth place team in CONCACAF this year heads to New Zealand with the victor in a home-and-away series making Brazil.)
El Tri has a lifeline today though. They’re up that creek, but they’ve discarded an old ineffective paddle and brought in a new one, a potentially World Cup life-saving one.
Fernando Tena–who rescued El Tri back in 1991 after an awful Gold Cup, is in and Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre now chucked overboard.
It’s an immediate addition by subtraction; heck even Jim Rome as a replacement would likely see a better effort from El Tri Tuesday than if Chepo remained on the deck.
Mexico. Columbus. The Hex. This is one of those games fans remember and recount every four year cycle.
Can the States pave the way to victory Tuesday?
Without further Freddy Adu, we get to our customary preview. It goes:
About The Opponent: Mexico
TSG What We’re Looking For
Keys To the Game for the Americans
11 At The Whistle
About The Opponent: Mexico
Whoa boy, a murky image Mexico presents itself as heading into this away qualifier.
Chepo out; it’s now a Fernandino Tena world. Logically that move is the first place to look for how Mexico will look to claw their way to at least a point in Ohio. What bag of tricks will a new manager spill out of the bag? Is there even enough time to make changes?
The key here may be from Tena’s words himself early Saturday after Chepo’s dismissal:
“El equipo mejorará de acuerdo a actuaciones de partidos anteriores, no podemos en tres días hacer grandes cambios ni creo que tengamos que hacerlos, tenemos una forma de pensar sobre la forma en que debe jugar esta selección.”
Paraphrased in English: “The team will improve performances to their previous games. In three days though we can not make major changes or nor think we need them. We have a way of thinking about how to play this selection.”
If you look at Tena’s recent track record–his run through the Olympic gauntlet with Mexico U-23′s team–and you look at the method that El Tri has used to put the hurt on the US in the last few matches, you arrive at two simple adjustments that may come on Tuesday:
» Improve the defense by making it more compact and defending a shade higher.
» Attempt to disorganize the US backline through counters and offball movement.
Addressing the defense first, El Tri had been downright non-fundamental under Chepo.
Sure El Tri’s defense has shipped less goals, four, in the Hex than any other team. (Note, they’re tied with Costa Rica for the lead.)
However, if you take a look at those performances, absolute sitters by Jobi McAnuff (for Jamaica in February), Joel Campbell (for Costa Rica in June..off the post) and Jerry Bengston (Friday for Honduras) should see that number unquestionably moved up by three.
There are further observations. A review of the 30′ to 36′ against Honduras last week showed a shocking oleo of defensive gaffes than went unpunished, from tracking runners, poor closeout angles, poor fouls and poor positioning. It was just a few months ago that Mexico was being talked about as being a favorite at the 2014 World Cup!
In interim manager Tena, Mexico has the right guy for the short-term–a pragmatic tactician who will demand El Tri’s defensive lines move in lockstep and who will likely elect to draw the line of confrontation against the Americans somewhere between the top-of-the-attacking third and the halfline. Improvement numero uno.
In attack, El Tri has lately been as dynamic and predictably poor as the NY Jets offense … hey wait a second.
No need to look further than the US’s gut-it-out draw in March. In that one, Mexico kept trying the same combinations over-and-over-and-over again–even with few signs of success. The pattern when Gio Dos Santos incut, Dos Santos incut, Chicharito over the top, Dos Santos Incut, Pablo Barrera round the corner, Dos Santos incut, Chicharito over the top, Barrera around the corner, Dos Santos…incut.
The bet here is that El Tri adjusts by coming out in a similar 4-2-2-2/4-3-3 that they used at home against Jamaica in the first final round qualifier, February 2013 (a 0-0 draw). They’ll look to push a bit further up the field to confront the Americans hoping to take pressure off their weak backline. And they’ll look to get out and run at the right times. They’ll still use the Dos Santos incut, but they won’t beat on it mercilessly if it’s unsuccessful.
Tena will likely employ Hernandez up top with Oribe Peralta in a non-traditional striker pairing. Hernandez may not have scored in the last three games he played against the Yanks (March 2013, August 2012, June 2011), but he causes the US backline fits in popping up like that annoying card in Classic Concentration.
Peralta is a Tena favorite having excelled under him at the London games last year. It’s hard pressed to see Tena leaving either on the bench when the whistle blows.
Gio Dos Santos will once again start wide right and look to incut seeking to find the movement off Hernandez and Peralta ahead.
Whereas in March, Dos Santos was expected to exclusively incut from the right–and continually failed (Preview – March 2013 – The Dos Santos Incut Option), the past two games has seen Dos Santos float more as he did against the American in Pasadena at that Gold Cup Final (Preview – July 2011 – The Dos Santos Swivel).
Dos Santos is absolutely vital to the Mexican attacking cause and much more so when coming in a la Ruiz, al Messi from the right.
Honduras so respected Dos Santos on Friday that they had Roger Espinoza–their best defender–man mark Dos Santos whenever he was on Mexico’s right flank.
Andres Guardado, in and out of form and favor this year and now playing leftback for Valencia in La Liga, likely comes in for Christian Gimenez on the left. Somehow, it says here, Chucho Gimenez whether he finds his way to a starting role or not, will factor in this game; he was one of the few El Tri midfielders actively moving offball and looking spritely on Friday.
Behind the front attacking four is where Mexico has some serious personnel challenges and should call in Cruz Azul’s Alejandro Castro before Tuesday.
Gerarado Torrado picked up a second yellow Friday and that is nothing short of a massive loss for El Tri. Torrado did the dirty work in central midfield, often protecting the central defense with a Mexican team that was rather ambivalent manning up Honduras.
Further, Torrado was Mexico’s Paul Scholes, continually dropping deep to receive passes and shuttling from left to right to make sure that Mexico always had his capable handling skills available to outlet.
The current thinking is that out-of-favor Jesus Zavala–recently lauded as a golden child of the Mexico midfield–deputizes. He had a solid game versus the Americans in March. Former Pachuca-now-Porto man, 22-year-old Hector Herrera will likely pair Zavala.
El Tri’s back four leave much to be desired defensively. Servero Meza at rightback is an accident waiting to happen every match–sometimes he skirts through, but often times he doesn’t. Worse, the book on Meza hasn’t changed–he’ll fall asleep at least once each game on an opposite field, far post run. Count. on. that.
At leftback is Carlos Salcido whose play has drawn the ire of the Mexican fans lately, but who looks reasonably sound by these eyes.
Salcido always has a few adventures defending, but he can be effective if El Tri uses him more in the attack. (Note: Freddy Adu should send half the money he made from the Union to Salcido, who was nursing an injury and got worked over by Adu at the 2011 Gold Cup.)
There is a very good chance, however, that Herrera in central midfield gives way to Salcido who paired Zavala there against the Yanks in March. If that’s the case then Jose Torres Nilo will deputize at leftback. That sound you heard was a collective groan south of El Paso.
At centerback the pairing will be the veteran Hector Moreno and the youngster Diego Reyes. Their positioning is not immediately strong and Reyes particularly can blow hot and cold–normal for a CB will few high pressure reps.
Joe Corona is the young keeper who shined in London last summer–unfortunately he’s been off form lately with fans and media clamoring for the bandana of Ochoa.
Mexico again will look to remain compact and sit their defense at the top of the attacking third. They’ll look for Chicharito testing the backline once the Americans have come up the field or Dos Santos finding pockets where Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones should roam in central midfield.
One they hit to the center of the US defensive body, El Tri will work the sides, especially with Guardada–a chance here that Angel Reyna is the call–looking to take on whoever the US rightback is. It has been Guardado’s creation responsible for many of the crosses that have found Chicharito with good chances.
TSG What We’re Looking For:
• Backline Lockstep
Major bulletpoint here; short, curt commentary.
Mexico 4 – USA 2
Mexico 5 – USA 0
The US got slaughtered in its two latest Gold Cup Finals for one reason and one reason alone–backline organization along with the deep CDM counterpart.
In that 2011 Final, Little Pea and Dos Santos wrecked
havoc sh*t on a US backline that looked like it had been cut with pinking shears.
In March at the Azteca, the US solved those woes, specifically the movement of Dos Santos.
Maurice Edu, Matt Besler and DeMarcus Beasley combined for 16 recoveries, 8 interceptions and 4 tackles won all in the vicinity of Dos Santos’s inward movement. Conversely, Dos Santos did not complete one incising pass or have a good shot all game.
With the absence of Michael Bradley, one would expect Kyle Beckerman to sit deep in the left central midfield channel, taking away that space and movement from Dos Santos. (Note: Mexico will probably flip Dos Santos over to the left a few times just to see if his one-v-one play can at least create one or two chances off the dribble).
What’s key for the US without Edu and Besler this time around is not only Beckerman’s positioning–expected to be solid–but also the positioning of the US left centerback in when to step forward. Besler in his first game under intense pressure in March was nothing short of masterful here. The US left centerback, be it Clay Goodson or Michael Orozco-Fiscal, will need to attempt to read the game effectively.
Progressively–because you can expect breakdowns with new parts–both Jermaine Jones and Omar Gonzalez will need to stand ready for layoffs or to close down if either Beckerman of the “US LCB” get beaten. Gonzalez is particularly quite good at this.
• Please Check-In For Your Flight.
Landon Donovan could not have returned sooner for the US. Though shut down on Friday in Costa Rica–the Ticos did a tremendous job of running defenders at him when the US was attempting outlet on the right in the beginning of the match–Donovan’s movement in picking up balls in the seams of the Mexican defense must have Tena worried for his central midfield pairing.
Whether it’s against a high line–the Charlie Davies assist in 2009–or against a withdrawn line–the Clint Dempsey assist at the 2011 Gold Cup final–Donovan should be able to find some joy on the pass or the dribble.
How much freedom that Klinsmann
gives can afford Donovan will be critical to Donovan poking at the El Tri defense.
Keys To the Game for the US:
» Defense: Mark Dos Santos out of the game, especially when he’s on the right.
This goes to Beckerman and Beasley primarily.
» Defense: Do not allow Peralta to set up shop centrally.
If Peralta plays he’s very good at turning and getting his own shot, usually to the left, but also dishing. The Americans cannot give him time on the ball centrally–goes without saying.
» Defense: Control the tempo of the game
Even with a weakened midfield corp, the American should be able to possess the ball at home. This is vital so that the game does not become vertical ping pong and present better chances for Mexico.
» Offense/Defense: Avoid cheap giveaways that can lead to El Tri taking out their attacking boom boom stick.
I just texted Jermaine Jones again. No answer. Anyone?
» Offense: Challenge the El Tri discipline and shape.
Finding Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey between the lines will force El Tri to make the decisions they want to avoid on defense.
» Offense: Take chances against the El Tri CBs, especially if they’re playing a high line.
Might the States see an Aron Johansson start? 2013 has proved that, when unshielded, Mexico’s centerbacks are prone to mental and physical errors.
11 At The Whistle
GK: Tim Howard
The skinny: Yes, Tim Howard should have come for the second goal on Friday. Yes, Time Howard should have come out on the third goal. (Note: It’s also funny that Howard didn’t cover his five hole against Campbell on that third goal. Earlier in the half, Campbell had a breakaway and Howard dropped a knee to protect the five hole. Campbell came again and it appears Howard guessed wrong.)
Calls for Tim Howard to be excused from this competition seem fair. Brad Guzan is in form and bested–well got a draw–against Mexico in March. So this will be a big moment for Howard Tuesday–and in those situations the US keeper has a decidedly uneven record. Something tells me that in Brad Friedel’s home state, Howard shows just
how bald the good how good the bald US keepers are.
DEF: Fabian Johnson*, Omar Gonzalez, Michael Orozco-Fiscal*, DaMarcus Beasley
The skinny: First. Step back. Second. Discount this section.
Tim Howard came out a few days and suggested that the US will make a single like-for-like switch in the back. And in all likelihood that’s what happens. The Fiscal stays at rightback and Clarence Goodson takes Matt Besler’s spot. Not sure that this is the best move for the States here.
It would be an understatement to say that TSG has continually questioned Goodson’s positioning. The US saw the challenges again from Goodson in the Gold Cup where speedy strikers had Goodson compromising the line. Can he step up? History hasn’t shown that.
TSG goes with Fabian Johnson at rightback on the anecdotal evidence of two left midfielders called into camp–Jose Francisco Torres and Brad Davis. Johnson also had a solid game last August when Angel Reyna and Andres Guardado manned came at him in the “Mind the Gap” friendly 1-0 win. The concern on Johnson is his penchant to get spun like a top in one-v-one situations or give up fouls in poor locations. Marco Pappa nods from Holland.
Omar Gonzalez will be at right centerback and perhaps played his strongest game in a US kit on Friday.
CDM/CM: Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones
The skinny: Beckerman has been like Klinsmann’s binky. Always there for him when he needs him, thrown away whenever he sees a new toy.
LM: Mystery Guest
The skinny: The biggest question mark and tactically illuminating spot come Tuesday. Klinsmann called in Torres and Davis again. Torres plays as a tucked in possession hub, while Davis plays at more a true left mid for the US. Two different views on a single role. If the US uses the role as a possession hub so that DaMarcus Beasley can overlap and so that the actor can help out in the left central channel, then either Torres or Mix Diskerud would get the call. And that’s the bet here–that Torres and Diskerud are challenging for the spot.
A coin flip gives the slot to Torres.
In all likelihood, Brad Davis was brought in for the similar role that he had against El Tri last time. Late game defensive sub when the US is looking to hold possession wide around the back.
The odd man out appears to be Zusi.
RM: Landon Donovan
The skinny: Donovan will be asked to be all over the field and likely asked to track as Graham Zusi did last time. With Jones pushing a little higher than Kyle Beckerman and to the RCB, Donovan should have adequate support as well if he gets caught up field. All eyes on the US goal king Tuesday; he’ll be needed.
WtF/STR: Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson
The skinny: Toyed with the idea here of a Johannson start–the Icelander seems more likely off the bench if the US can muster a lead. El Tri will press and then hitting the Space Monkey (TSG nickname) on the floor or off the shoulder of a centerback seems like a plausible scenario. Johannson definitely gets minutes in this one.
Johnson gets the call is would seem and despite his recent challenges in a US kit, he at minimum provides a few different looks the US can us. Johnson can start up top as a lone striker or in pairing with Dempsey. He could, though not likely, shift out left and look to attack the back post on crosses. And, despite getting beaten in Jamaica on a set piece, Johnson is another nice defender in the box, typically.