Wednesday, August 12, 2009

U.S.A. v. Mexico

. Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Today at 4 p.m. EDT, the men's national soccer teams of the U.S. and Mexico square off in a World Cup qualifying game at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. The U.S. is coming off a thrilling Confederation's Cup campaign where they were throttled by Italy and Brazil before dismantling Egypt and Spain to reach the final against Brazil. The U.S. took a 2-0 lead into the second half of that game before collapsing in the final 15 minutes. This game is important for both teams' chances of qualifying for next summer's World Cup, but it is critical for Mexico. The top three teams from CONCACAF automatically qualify, and while the U.S. sits comfortably in 2nd place Mexico is in 4th. If Mexico doesn't win its home games, the road to the World Cup is made much more difficult.

Since the Confederation's Cup, Mexico beat the U.S. 5-0 in the Gold Cup, but that featured none of the likely U.S. starters, and few of the reserves. The U.S. used that tournament to test and evaluate some of their younger, marginal talent; the team that beat Spain and pushed Brazil to the brink is the team that will face Mexico today.

The relevant facts are these: the U.S. has never beaten Mexico in Mexico, and have only managed a draw once. And the Estadio Azteca is one of the most intimidating places in the world to play: 105,000 rabid, abusive fans (officials had to install a barbed wire fence to separate spectators from the players) who hurl insults and objects. They really really REALLY hate the U.S. team, and they expect a win. Perhaps even worse, the Estadio Azteca is 7,350 feet above sea level, and the air is badly polluted. Moreover, Mexico moved the starting time from 7 p.m. to 4 p.m. to take advantage of the oppressive heat. It is impossible to fully acclimate to conditions like those, so conditioning will be key.

So prediction time. I don't see the U.S. winning this match. Mexico needs it too badly and has every advantage pointing in their favor. There are good reasons why the U.S. has never won in Mexico (see preceding paragraph), and despite the fact that the U.S. has recently played the best soccer in their history, they've been inconsistent over the past six months and are fairly evenly matched against Mexico. On a neutral field the U.S. wins, but this isn't a neutral field: the structural factors make this game very difficult for the U.S. to win.

However, the U.S. has recently played the best soccer in their history, and goalie Tim Howard can overcome a multitude of faults. He outclassed Iker Casillas (often mentioned as the best goalie in the world) in the win against Spain, and is now in the top 5 or so goalies in the world (Mexico's Ochoa is also in that conversation). So I predict a 1-1 draw in which Mexico controls much of the game, but the U.S. defense-plus-Howard repels most of the attack and gets a goal on a counter-attack. For this to happen, Coach Bradley must use all three substitutes, and use them wisely. If the team gets gassed at the end -- as they did against Brazil -- Mexico is good enough to take advantage and score a late goal. This should be the starting lineup for the U.S.:


Substitutes will depend on whose playing well and who runs out of steam, but I would look for Feilhaber to replace Clark in the 65-70th minute, and Holden to replace Altidore (with Dempsey moving up to forward) around the same time. If the U.S. is leading, then Clark or Ching may replace Davies to hold up the ball and waste time.

No matter the result, it should be a great game. It is televised on Telemundo (Spanish) and Mun2 (English).


U.S.A. v. Mexico




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