U.S. eye rare result at Azteca, Mexico look to inch closer to qualification
Ahead of Sunday's highly anticipated World Cup qualifier between the United States and Mexico at the Estadio Azteca, we asked Jason Davis (United States) and Nayib Moran (Mexico) to preview the latest edition of CONCACAF's most passionate rivalry.
Is the Azteca still the fortress it once was?
Jason Davis: The Azteca's proverbial walls might have taken a hit in recent years, but they remain nearly impenetrable for the United States when it comes to World Cup qualifying. The lone point the Americans have in Mexico City stands out in a list of losses, and was earned during Mexico's worst period in a decade. Can the United States replicate or even improve upon that lone draw? Anything is possible, and the evening start time should help, but it's certainly not likely.
It's tough to draw much of a conclusion from a couple of results over the past few years about the state of Mexico's dominance at the Azteca. It's still a fortress.
Nayib Moran: The rupture that happened between the fans at Estadio Azteca and El Tri is a thing of the past because since Juan Carlos Osorio took over Mexico's head coaching job in 2015, Mexico has an unbeaten record at Azteca. In that five-game unbeaten run, the team has scored 10 goals and conceded none. Azteca once again feels like a fortress because players, more than ever, understand the benefits of having it as a home.
Who is under more pressure to get a good result: US or Mexico?
JD: Mexico is five points clear atop the Hex standings and has a win on the road in the U.S. already in their back pocket. The United States started the Hex poorly but has managed to pick up the points necessary to feel good about their chances to qualify. Mexico is expected to win at home; the United States have very little expectation of getting anything out of a trip to the Azteca. The Americans would love to exact revenge for Mexico's win on American soil back in October, but doing so isn't crucial to the qualification effort.
All of that means that Mexico is under more pressure due to cultural pressure. El Tri is supposed to beat the Americans at home in Mexico City. The press and the fans demand nothing less.
NM: Bruce Arena's U.S. men's national team comes to Mexico City with the objective of getting a result to strengthen its possibilities of reaching the World Cup. A draw could be considered a great result because, right now, El Tri's best attacking options are full of confidence, and also, it's looking like Mexico has all the ingredients to win all of its home games in this Hexagonal.
Who will be the key player?
JD: It's hard to pick anyone other than Christian Pulisic, whose star continues to rise for the United States. After two goals against Trinidad and Tobago on Thursday night, it will be Pulisic who the Americans will look to for the attacking danger that will keep Mexico honest and give his team a chance to get something out of the game. The U.S. can unbalance themselves looking for Pulisic, but there's no doubt they'll be trying to get their new superstar involved as much as possible.
NM: Carlos Vela has turned into Mexico's silent leader, one who doesn't have to shout in order to transmit his desire to win. When he has the ball and decides to take on opponents with his dribbling, everything around him freezes. In the last two games at Azteca, he's notched at least an assist, but against the U.S., he'll be eyeing to score a goal.
What will be the key one-on-one battle?
JD: The U.S. center-backs vs. Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez sounds about right. The Mexican's movement off the ball is legendary, and it will be down to the likely pairing of Geoff Cameron and John Brooks to track his runs. If the Americans lose Hernandez -- who didn't even play on Thursday against Honduras and should be well-rested -- getting any result may be impossible. Brooks in particular has to be sharper if Hernandez is going to be kept off the scoresheet.
NM: The battle between DeAndre Yedlin and Jesus Manuel "Tecatito" Corona will be influential in how the game turns out. If Yedlin participates a lot in the attack, it will make Tecatito drop back and defend, preventing him from creating a lot of dangerous plays in the final third. But if Yedlin stays back and allows Tecatito to persist in the attack, the Newcastle full-back will have a long night.
JD: It's still the Azteca, and it's still Mexico. As much as it might be tempting to think this U.S. team, with a maturing Christian Pulisic starring in a creative role, could shock El Tri in Mexico City, history says it likely won't happen. The battle will be fierce -- because it always is -- and I don't believe the Americans will make it easy for Mexico. But there's little reason to think it turns out as anything but a Mexico win. 2-0 Mexico.
NM: If Mexico is able to be efficient with the pass as it was against Honduras and also be effective in front of goal, six points in the Hexagonal before participating in the Confederations Cup will become a reality. 2-0 Mexico