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U.S. vs. Mexico: Keys to Friday's World Cup qualifier in Columbus, Ohio

The United States men's national team opens the final round of 2018 World Cup qualification against Mexico on Friday night in Columbus, Ohio. It's a match steeped in tradition, with these two CONCACAF powerhouses and bitter rivals hoping to begin the final part of their Road to the Russia with three points.

Here are the key storylines and battles you need to know before kickoff.

United StatesUnited States
MexicoMexico
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What's at stake

The simplest, most obvious answer is a strong start to the Hexagonal qualification round. The Stars and Stripes and El Tri are already heavy favorites to earn one of CONCACAF's three automatic qualifier spots but would see their chances jump to 89 percent and 99 percent respectively with a victory at Mapfre Stadium. If the U.S. can find a result against Mexico and then at Costa Rica on Tuesday, they'd go a long way toward ending any qualification drama with eight games remaining.

In the bigger-picture sense, this game gives the Americans a chance to gain back some ground they've lost in the ongoing battle for regional dominance. After having the upper hand for the early part of the decade, the U.S. ceded ground with an abysmal performance at the 2015 Gold Cup and some hit-or-miss results since. While a win in Columbus won't erase those memories, it would help them fade a bit. (It would also give the Americans a boost in the FIFA rankings, where they sit seven spots behind Mexico and six behind Costa Rica).

Mexico, meanwhile, hopes to exercise some Columbus demons while flipping the page on recent lackluster results. Like the Americans, coach Juan Carlos Osorio's side (which heads to Panama for their next match) is trying to figure out exactly who it wants to be. A good result against the U.S. would quiet the discontent back home, at least momentarily.

What's the deal with "Dos a Cero"?

Fifteen years ago, the U.S. hosted Mexico in a World Cup qualifier at what was then Major League Soccer's only soccer-specific stadium in Columbus, Ohio. The Americans won that match 2-0 on goals from Josh Wolfe and Earnie Stewart -- the game was nicknamed "La Guerra Fria" because of the frigid temperatures. In every cycle since - four games overall -- Mexico has come to Columbus and left on the short end of a 2-0 defeat, including three years ago when the win qualified the U.S. for the World Cup in Brazil.

In the 95th minute of that match, Clint Dempsey missed a penalty kick. After the game, he said he didn't do so intentionally, but let's just say he didn't look too sad about preserving the now-famous score line.

For once, a home-field advantage

Because of the success the national team has found in Columbus, the stadium has become something of a spiritual home for the squad. It's also one of the few places in the country where the American supporters outnumber the Mexican fans when the two teams play. The American Outlaws supporters club turns out in full force and full throat, and while Mexico's green, red and white made up roughly 30-40 percent of the stadium in 2013, their fans are scattered throughout rather than seated together, decreasing their ability to organize cheers.

The key man

U.S. captain Michael Bradley has a history of coming up big against El Tri. As a 21-year-old in 2009, he scored twice. Two years later, he opened the scoring in the disastrous Gold Cup final and also found the back of the net in a 2014 friendly. His biggest impact, however, has come not from scoring but from his ability to disrupt Mexico with his tireless work rate.

Since Jermaine Jones is returning from injury and not 100 percent fit, Bradley's performance in the middle of the field is even more important. If he controls the flow of the match, as he's capable of doing, the Americans should have a good night. If he fails, it will be a long 90 minutes.

Striker vs. striker

Oft-injured Jozy Altidore is fully fit and playing the best soccer of his life. After returning from a hamstring strain in late July, he scored 13 goals and added five assists in 18 games for Toronto FC. He also tallied three times in two September World Cup qualifiers (St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago) and led the U.S. with six goals in 2016. At his best, the 27-year-old combines power and pace with underrated touch and vision to torment opposing back lines.

Mexico counters with Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, the fulcrum of their attack. The Bayer Leverkusen star is a goal away from tying Jared Borgetti's record of 45 tallies for Mexico, and he is in fine form after a half-decade of middling performances for Manchester United and Real Madrid. Although he's scored only three goals for Mexico in the last 13 months, Chicharito remains a potent poacher, the type of forward who can turn a match with an inch of space.

Mexico's potent attack

In addition to Chicharito, Osorio can call on an embarrassment of attacking riches. Major League Soccer fans are familiar with the exploits of Los Angeles Galaxy star Giovani Dos Santos, whose majestic chip put the finishing touches on the Bob Bradley era in 2011. Speedy and creative Carlos Vela returns to the squad after an absence of almost a year.

Javier Aquino and Oribe Peralta have plenty of experience in big games, while Jesus "Tecatito" Corona is a rising star at Porto and Raul Jimenez isn't that far removed from setting the transfer record for a Mexican player when he moved to Benfica. Osorio's biggest problem is finding space for all of them on the field.

The American back line -- likely John Brooks and Omar Gonzalez, flanked by Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin -- has a busy night ahead.

A referendum of sorts

We're now more than five years into Klinsmann's tenure as U.S. national team manager. He's had plenty of time to bring in his type of players and install the style he wants. We've seen bits and flashes of progress, fits and starts, a step forward followed by a step sideways or back. If the Americans are going to fight for a semifinal spot in Russia -- the coach's stated goal -- it's time for them to start showing how that might happen.

A strong, cohesive performance on Friday night won't ease fears of regression; it might, however, signal that the millions of dollars the United States Soccer Federation is paying their handpicked coach aren't going to waste.

Meanwhile, Friday's game is also a referendum on Klinsmann's counterpart. Calls for Osorio's ouster from the ever-volatile Mexican press and fan base have grown louder after the team's 7-0 Copa America defeat to Chile in July and uninspiring qualification showings in September. Four years ago, the Mexican federation fired Jose Manuel de la Torre three days before the match against the U.S. A loss to the Americans might see Osorio following de la Torre's path sooner rather than later.

Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.

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