Mexico set to give United States and Christian Pulisic toughest test yet
MEXICO CITY -- U.S. starlet Christian Pulisic laid down the gauntlet to Mexico on Thursday, when he said the team will not just go out to win on Sunday in Estadio Azteca but will accomplish that.
The 18-year-old's comments after the U.S.'s 2-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago were swiftly spotted and published in the Mexican media. It's likely the first time that has happened to the youngster, although it surely won't be the last.
Pulisic and the United States may well feel confident. They dispatched the Soca Warriors with relative ease at home, and suddenly Bruce Arena's side is now looking comfortable in third place in the Hexagonal World Cup qualifying table.
But the Mexico team awaiting on Sunday has never been defeated by the United States in World Cup qualifying on home soil and certainly won't be rolling over now.
"We know that we are taking on a very difficult opponent, but they should think the same way about us," Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio said after Thursday's 3-0 win over Honduras. "The [Mexico] team has a special collective spirit, fight and determination to give problems to any opponent problems."
Since a 2-1 victory over the United States in November, El Tri has made solid steps forward. Osorio's philosophy is clearly seeping into the players, and there hasn't been a public complaint about his rotation policy. Most importantly, the results have come, with Mexico on 13 points from five qualification matches and having conceded only one goal.
Honduras didn't really seem to have a chance on Thursday, and the win against Costa Rica in the same stadium was also comfortable for El Tri. Now a third home victory would virtually guarantee Mexico's spot at Russia 2018.
Ahead of Thursday's match, both Giovani dos Santos and Carlos Vela spoke of the union in this Mexico squad. The friends have both had mixed histories with El Tri: Dos Santos has been dropped at important moments, while Vela didn't show up for over three years between 2011 and 2014.
Watching them answer questions during Wednesday's news conference in such an assured and mature way could almost be a metaphor for the improvements in the Mexico national team camp in general. Last summer, both Dos Santos and Vela were left out of the Copa America Centenario squad. Now they are back and committed as Mexico coasts to Russia 2018.
The competition for starts is now real, and with Mexico in this kind of form, El Tri goes into Sunday's game against the United States as a clear favorite.
"In our home, we want to win," striker Raul Jimenez said on Thursday. "We won in the United States, and now it's time to do the same here. We are confident that the team that plays will do well."
Tickets are already sold out for the game against the United States, and the words "Estados Unidos" were roundly booed at the end of the match when the PA announcer read them out to encourage people to show up early for Sunday's match.
The atmosphere will be intense. Fans at the Azteca are notoriously difficult to win over, but they are fully behind this team right now, lifting it early on against Honduras when Mexico was struggling to click into gear. That will only be increased come Sunday against Mexico's greatest rival.
"They are always a difficult opponent, and it's special in the region," Guillermo Ochoa said of the next game. "We have to think of the three points to take us to the World Cup and take advantage of being at home."
Osorio will already have his plan sorted and has probably gone through it with the players during their long camp. Players are starting to reap the benefits of continuity in Mexico's head-coaching role and are implementing Osorio's intricate strategies for nulling opponents.
"We respect all our opponents," Osorio said. "We analyze their strengths and weaknesses, and the players know the plan for each game perfectly. There is a lot of competition, but Mexico has known how to win with authority, and the credit should go to our players."
The young Pulisic has a bright future and every right to be brash and confident about his and his team's chances against Mexico on Sunday. But he should also be prepared for by far the biggest test of his short international career.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.