Quick turnaround and ease in pressure give U.S. fighting chance in Mexico
MEXICO CITY -- An odd vibe has taken over the run-up to Sunday's World Cup qualifier between old adversaries Mexico and the United States.
After a rocky start to the final round of qualifying, the U.S. team's 2-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago on Thursday moved it up to third place in the CONCACAF Hexagonal standings. That has allowed the Americans to breathe a bit now that its most important task of this World Cup qualifying fixture period has been taken care of. As U.S. forward Jozy Altidore put it last Thursday, the U.S. can "play with our minds clear and just go after it."
But that release of pressure has coincided with the feeling that a loss Sunday would by no means be disastrous to the Americans' hopes of reaching Russia 2018. Without question, the matchup will be intense, but the fact that just three days separate the two matches has meant that the build-up to the game is shorter than normal, allowing less time for emotions to reach their typical level of frenzy.
That isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the U.S has factors in its favor as it attempts to win a World Cup qualifier in the Estadio Azteca for the first time. The team is healthy and has spent the past two weeks training at altitude, a rare luxury in preparing to face El Tri away. There is about a 2,000-foot difference in elevation between Mexico City and the team's training base in Denver, but manager Bruce Arena knows, preparationwise, the U.S. has done all it can.
"I don't have great concern about the higher altitude," he said. "We know that this is obviously an aspect of the game. We traveled in yesterday, arrived last night. My first opportunity to look at the players will be on the field [Saturday]. We'll observe them in a light training session and determine our starting 11 [Sunday]."
The last time that the U.S. prepared in such a fashion came in 1997, and the Americans secured a 0-0 draw while playing most of the match with 10 men, just one of two occasions when the team avoided defeat in a World Cup qualifier at the Azteca.
There is also a sense that the stadium isn't quite the home-field advantage that it used to be. Certainly the fact that the match will take place at night will mitigate some of the weather and atmospheric conditions. It was under precisely that set of circumstances that the U.S. claimed a 1-0 friendly win in 2012.
"It can be done," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said about winning at the Azteca. "Of course, it wasn't qualifying, but they didn't roll over and die for us here. We beat them handily, and we feel confident that we can do that again. It's good to know that we have before. Before then it was, 'What if?' because we had never done it."
The quick turnaround from Thursday's match creates challenges, however. Arena has long stated that the starting lineups for each match would look vastly different. Howard, Michael Bradley and Christian Pulisic all seem certain to play. Just how much Arena mixes and matches remains to be seen. But Howard likes what he sees from the current U.S. roster.
"It's an impressive group with regard to the fact that everyone is here to play minutes, play important minutes," he said. "I don't think that's always the case. Certainly in my time, you had a few passengers. This team doesn't have any passengers. [Guys] are hungry to compete, whether they're experienced or not."
Along those lines, Kellyn Acosta, who came on as substitute against Trinidad and Tobago, has made a strong push to be included in the starting lineup. With Pulisic playing at the top of a midfield diamond against Trinidad and Tobago, the U.S. struggled at times to account for various elements of the Soca Warriors' midfield. Khaleem Hyland, in particular, found plenty of space to receive the ball and carry it further upfield. With Mexico likely to adopt a similar 3-5-2 formation, Acosta's inclusion alongside Bradley would provide more defensive support in front of the U.S. back line.
"We have a game plan that's been [drawn up] by Bruce, and we're just going to do what we can to get the result that we need," Acosta said. "For me, I'm just go out there and treat it like another game. Just play with a lot of confidence, [connect] my passes and just help my teammates win."
For that to happen, Pulisic, who has had a hand in each of the past eight U.S. goals, will be expected to galvanize the U.S. attack. Pulisic is no stranger to big matches in big stadiums, having taken on the likes of Real Madrid at the Estadio Santiago Bernebéu in the UEFA Champions League. It is another opportunity to further burnish his reputation.
"It's a big game, a big stage; he's comfortable in it," Howard said about Pulisic. "This is where you earn your money; this is where good players become great."
But Mexico remains a big favorite to do the double over the U.S. in World Cup qualifying for the first time since the 1974 cycle. Manager Juan Carlos Osorio has his team on a roll in which it has claimed 13 points out of 15 in the Hex, its lone blemish being a 0-0 road draw with Panama.
Mexico will be without the injured quartet of defender Rafa Marquez, midfielder Andres Guardado, midfielder Miguel Layun and defender Nestor Araujo, while Jesus "Tecatito" Corona will miss the game because of a family issue. Carlos Salcedo was injured in Thursday's 3-0 victory over Honduras but could be available.
Yet Osorio also has immense depth at his disposal, so much so that El Tri's all-time leading scorer, Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, was left on the bench in the Honduras match. Osorio is also a constant tinkerer, meaning his players will be ready for whatever personnel changes he makes.
"They do a good job of, whenever they change their lineup, their system doesn't change," said Howard about El Tri. "They try and overload you on the one side, and then play long switching balls and make you move and shift. No matter the personnel, nothing is going to change in that regard."
Howard says he expects Mexico to try to take control from the opening whistle. That's all the more reason for the United States to be sharp defensively in the early going.
"You're going to have to weather the storm," he said. "No team comes here and dominates. You have to kind of absorb that pressure. It's good. If you can absorb that pressure and be diligent in your defending, you can hurt them going the other way. But yeah, early on it's crucial that you keep things tight."
About the only stir that has taken place this week has surrounded Pulisic's comments that there was "no reason" why the U.S. couldn't win in the Azteca.
"I think I would like our players to believe that that they can win," Arena said. "I will make this a public statement. We're going to try to win the game tomorrow. I don't think there's anything wrong with saying that."
And if the U.S. can prevail, history will be made.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.