Is it Saturday yet? You know, the day in which the U.S. and Mexican U-23 sides can clinch Olympic berths.
Oh, and the two senior sides will determine which rival is going to the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia.
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Yeah, it’s a big one. And we’ve got three big battles (and two bonus things to keep an eye on) as the Rose Bowl plays host to a critical CONCACAF Cup playoff.
- U.S. centerbacks vs. Mexico’s strikers: The fact that we don’t know who Jurgen Klinsmann will use as his pairing against Mexico tells you all you need to know about their plight. Ventura Alvarado has had more than growing pains while representing his country, but Klinsmann remains faithful to the Mexican-based back. Could a match-up with El Tri bring out the steady best in him? Matt Besler was a revelation at the 2014 World Cup but fell out of favor with Klinsmann. Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream are steady as it goes, but that seems too easy for the experimenting coach.
Meanwhile, Mexico is without L.A. Galaxy star Giovani Dos Santos, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the horses to run by the Yanks. Oribe Peralta doesn’t have a great record against the States but seems to have that “clutch” gene for big games. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez will be aching to make his presence felt, too. Their third is a victory the U.S. must win given its big battle in the middle.
- Monster midfielders: It’s very difficult to look past El Tri’s midfield unit, with a pair of Porto regulars steadied by PSV’s brilliant Andres Guardado (below), who has six goals in 7 caps this year. Guardado is given more offensive opportunity with Mexico than his club, and he responds well. There may be no better player on the pitch than Guardado excepting, well…
Whether Guardado or Michael Bradley comes out of this match a bigger presence likely determines who wins this one. That’s not to say a tricky bounce or controversial call won’t lay out the final score, but the U.S. captain will be at his box-to-box best. He’ll also be hoping to make his imprint as skipper after American failings at the Gold Cup and a disappointing World Cup (personally, though not for lack of distance covered).
- Fabian forward? How will Klinsmann deploy Fabian Johnson, who is arguably the best player on the U.S. roster and the perfect role model for DeAndre Yedlin? Johnson is fine as wide back with the freedom to advance, but he simply shines as a quasi-wing for Borussia Monchengladbach.
How does Klinsmann favor Johnson against Mexico in the what is arguably the biggest non-World Cup game of their international careers? That’ll make a huge dent in the game’s outcome, as Fabian deployed favorably and in-form is a question of which Mexico doesn’t have a good answer.
BONUS 1: Brad Guzan is getting the keys to the 18, one of the clear mistakes in my book. Yes, Guzan is younger, but Tim Howard‘s big game resume is key, and how many people have ever — on even footing — claimed that Guzan is a better shot-stopper. I’ve no beef with Aston Villa’s keeper, but to say he’s better than a historical U.S. hero is tough to fathom.
BONUS 2: Domestic honks/Klinsmann haters like to point to his MLS omissions as Klinsmann’s Euro-snobbery of the highest order. Well, especially at striker, here’s their chance to dance. Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Chris Wondolowski and Gyasi Zardes are your four out-and-out attackers, with Aron Johannsson left home at Werder Bremen. John Brooks is hurt, while Bobby Wood and Alfredo Morales are hanging back in Germany, too.
This is an extreme over-simplification given that a minimum of 11 combined starters will hail from European clubs, but an interesting subplot is this equation:
Twelve MLS (plus two Liga MX) players on the U.S.
+ 12 Liga MX players on Mexico