USMNT roundtable: The big stories ahead of USA vs. Mexico

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With USA vs. Mexico just one day away, the ProSoccerTalk crew discuss plenty of the hot topics surrounding the U.S. national team with a big week ahead of them.

[ MORE: How was Pulisic created? ]

Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. side host Mexico in Columbus, Ohio and then travel to Costa Rica to kick off the final round of CONCACAF 2018 World Cup qualifying with two of the three toughest matches available.

Below myself, Nick Mendola, Kyle Bonn and Eric Scatamacchia wade in and give our thoughts on plenty of USMNT storylines ahead of Friday’s eagerly anticipated match in Ohio.

What is special about USA vs. Mexico? And what does seeing this game in Columbus mean to you?

Joe Prince-Wright: This rivalry is one which perhaps doesn’t get the respect it deserves across the globe. It is intense and both teams have done well in recent World Cup tournaments to suggest it is up there with the biggest and best in world soccer. The U.S. has closed the gap on Mexico considerably in recent years and that’s what makes this rivalry great. Each time it is played, we now don’t know which way it will go. As for Columbus, there’s just something romantic about the stadium being the unofficial home to this game. With its location and usually hosting Mexico in Columbus in the winter months, it all adds to the occasion. If the U.S. ever wanted to build a national team stadium to permanently host the USMNT, this city would be right near the top of the list.

Nick Mendola: What isn’t special about the U.S. And Mexico? El Tri was our big brother for such a long time, and he was a rude, mean big brother. To have such a run of superiority in home World Cup qualifiers, and to win at Azteca, has only served to heighten the rivalry. For those of us who like the Yanks as much as their favorite club team, the rivalry is, well, unrivaled. Columbus doesn’t matter as much to me, other than to say my experience at a USMNT-Mexico WCQ there was among, if not the best sporting experiences of my life. Pouring rain, trading icy cold Canadian beers for Mexican beverages, singing, shouting, and celebrating a massive Dos a Cero win? Unforgettable.

Kyle Bonn: USA vs. Mexico is special for obvious reasons, proximity, relative power in the region, etc. But as with all rivalries, time builds the best bonds. Yankees/Red Sox is so engrained in the fabric of baseball society because each has taken its lumps from the other over time. The Bears/Packers series is split 94-93. England and Australia have each won the Ashes 32 times. While USA vs. Mexico all-time isn’t that even with a 34-18-14 record in favor of Mexico, since 1977 the United States has won 18 while Mexico has won 16. Recent history has this one nearly deadlocked. It has it all: the venom of play, the glory of victory, the agony of defeat.

Eric Scatamacchia: There are many factors: the closeness geographically, the frequency of the matchup (whether its World Cup qualifying, Olympic qualifying, Gold Cups, World Cups, etc.) and of course the “extracurriculars” that often accompany this fixture. Columbus is a place that understands USA vs. Mexico. It’s a place fit to host a match that goes beyond the scoreboard as it has multiple times through the years. It doesn’t hurt that many of those matches have resulted in U.S. wins.

In terms of the game itself, is this the perfect match for the USMNT to kick off the Hexagonal round with?

Joe: It’s not ideal. Straight away there is plenty of pressure on the U.S. to deliver and after the friendly performances last month, plus a few injuries, Klinsmann may not welcome this game being first up.

Nick: In some ways, but to be honest I’d rather see an easier home win to set the stage. There will be a lot of pressure if the Yanks bungle their way through these first two challenges.

Kyle: Is it the perfect game? No, they probably wish they could ease in. But for a fan, it couldn’t begin any better. For either side to get one up on the other would be a massive beginning to the round.

Eric: It could be. You never want to start the Hexagonal round with a loss and it will undoubtedly be a tough task to earn the three points against a tough Mexico side, but a win could serve as a springboard to a successful (and hopefully straightforward) qualification for the World Cup.

Straight up: will we see another Dos a Cero?

Joe: No. I think a draw would be a good outcome for the USMNT. Uno-Uno?

Nick: No. If we do, I fear it will be the other way around. Mexico is stacked, and the United States’ best defensive pairing has been broken up with the injury to Geoff Cameron.

Kyle: I’m going to go with the statistical probability and say no.

Eric: Yes. The match is in the perfect location and the U.S. is in great form.

In the lead up to this game, Jurgen Klinsmann said Christian Pulisic’s “potential is limitless.” Do you think the Borussia Dortmund teenager is the real deal and is now the right time to start putting more pressure on him?

Joe: Yep, this kid is the real deal. He is unlike anything U.S. soccer has seen in a long time and his vision and ability to time runs is innate. Being nurtured at Dortmund, he’s already been in a highly pressurized situation and has flourished. I think he can take the weight of expectation on his shoulders. Fans need to be patient with him. Over time, he could go down as one of the greatest players the USMNT has ever had.

Nick: Real deal? Yes. Pressure? Not yet. Pulisic is earning the expectations of being at least Landon Donovan-level important to the United States program. But at 18, he’s still just a pleasant surprise whose stumbles should be readily forgiven.

Kyle: Absolutely he’s the real deal. Everyone from Americans to Germans are praising his advanced nature and his technical ability. Dortmund has brought him along at the perfect pace, and it would be wise for Jurgen Klinsmann to respect that process and not push him any more than he’s already being pushed. I think JK would agree, and that might be why you won’t see him shoved into full-time duty just yet. Don’t panic.

Eric: Pulisic has handled everything the U.S. (and Dortmund for that matter) has thrown at him. Klinsmann did not immediately throw the youngster into the fire, which served him well. Now is the time to start relying on Pulisic as one of the team’s main contributors. He has proven himself with every chance he has gotten for both club and country.

How do you think the U.S. copes without the influential Geoff Cameron in defense and who would you start alongside John Brooks?

Joe: Losing Cameron is a massive blow for Klinsmann. I think his partnership with Brooks was the main reason the U.S. went to the semifinals of the Copa America Centenario last summer and his form for Stoke has been excellent this season. I think Klinsmann goes with Gonzalez because of the balance issue with Brooks heavily left-footed, like Matt Besler, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Steve Birnbaum got the nod either. Make no mistake about it, Javier Hernandez will be licking his lips…

Nick: I don’t envy Jurgen Klinsmann’s choice between Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, and not in a good way. Gonzalez’s size and standing/familiarity in Liga MX give him an ever-so-slight edge in my book.

Kyle: Geoff Cameron is a huge loss to this team with such a difficult start to the Hex. However, with John Brooks in great form, the team will cope. It seems Omar Gonzalez is probably the best option alongside Brooks, although Klinsmann could easily go with Matt Besler or even Steve Birnbaum. I think it’s a bit early to throw Cameron Carter-Vickers to the wolves.

Eric: The U.S. has multiple capable center backs, but the loss of Cameron will hurt. None of the other U.S. center backs (Matt Besler, Steve Birnbaum, Omar Gonzalez) exhibit the combination of skills and experience that Cameron has while also serving as a great fit next to John Brooks. With that said, the best choice is Omar Gonzalez. Gonzalez has more experience than Birnbaum and is a better fit next to Brooks than Besler (both Brooks and Besler are left footed).

The central midfield area has been pretty settled in months. Do you go with Bradley, Jones, Bedoya, maybe Kljestan, or something different?

Joe: I would go for Bradley and Jones as holding midfielders and then three in front of them of Bedoya, Kljestan and Pulisic. That gives the U.S. plenty of solidity defensively and allows Bedoya and Pulisic to pour forward and support Altidore. The only issue I have is Jones wandering a little and leaving Bradley with too much defensive work to do.

Nick: Bradley and Jones for sure. Bedoya did not inspire during his final weeks in Philadelphia, and I’m hesitant to expect Kljestan to be as good against Mexico and Costa Rica as he was against T&T, Saint Vincent, and Cuba. It’ll probably be the four you mention, but I’d like to see more of a 4-2-2-2 with Jones, Bradley, Pulisic, and Zusi.

Kyle:  I think that four leaves the team weak on the left wing. Pulisic could start, but if Klinsmann wishes to ease him in, Graham Zusi is likely the pick of the roster. That won’t leave fans inspired, but Julian Green isn’t a winger, and it’s hard to see Stanko or Gooch starting US/Mexico.

Eric: I go with Bradley, Jones, Bedoya, Kljestan. Bradley, Jones and Bedoya have been valuable contributors for the U.S. for years. The moment will not be too big for any of them and Klinsmann will know what he is going to get from the trio. The inclusion of Kljestan (along with Christian Pulisic) provides an attacking sharpness from the midfield that the U.S. Soccer has not had, perhaps in its history. Kljestan’s vision and ability to float into open pockets of the defense are skills that the other U.S. midfielders do not have, at least at his level, and it is something that is needed on the field.

Of the current young crop in this squad Pulisic is the standout, but who do you expect to burst through next? You can include Julian Green if you want. Even though he’s already broken through and is back for a second wave…

Joe: Cameron Carter-Vickers is thought of very highly at Tottenham and I think he will break into the U.S. team in the next two years. Don’t forget, he’s still only 18. A powerful, ball-playing center back who has featured for Spurs’ first team this season, he and Brooks could be the long-term central defensive partnership if Cameron moves into midfield.

Nick: Lynden Gooch or Cameron Carter-Vickers, simply for the standing they’ve acquired from their respected (for the most part) Premier League coaches. I could say Ethan Horvath, who should be a true competitor for the No. 1 goalkeeping seat, but Tim Howard should have that locked down long enough for another young player to make his statement at a different spot on the field.

Kyle: I’m going off the rails here. I think it’s been way too long since we’ve heard from a good player like Aron Johannsson. He’s obviously already made his mark on the USMNT in the past, but with injuries thrashing his career the last two years, he’s due to burst back onto the scene. He’s not exactly “young” but at 25, he is by no means old.

Eric: My choice is Ethan Horvath because of the combination of need at the position and his skillset. Brad Guzan and Tim Howard are on their last legs as national team goalkeepers and the 21-year-old Horvath is my pick to fill that void. Horvath has just one cap with the full national team, but he has been in the top division in Norway since 2013 with Molde FK and has played in Champions League qualification and Europa League competition.

Okay, putting you on the spot. How many points does the U.S. get from its first two Hex games at home against Mexico and then away at Costa Rica?

Joe: 1 point. I think the U.S. will lose to Mexico and get a point on the road at Costa Rica.

Nick: Two.

Kyle: Two points would put them in fabulous position, as it would also hold the others to a draw in each match. Can’t complain there. I think that’s the goal. Three points would also be more than acceptable, but it would also mean a loss. Four points is an unquestioned success. Six would nearly have them one foot into Russia 2018.

Eric: 4 points: A win against Mexico (2-0) and a draw in Costa Rica (1-1).

Let’s say the U.S. only manages one point or less from these opening two games. Is Klinsmann on the brink if that happens?

Joe: I think the U.S. has been in much worse spots than this over the past five years since Klinsmann took charge. That said, it there are two humbling defeats then who knows… At this point, it’s tough to see U.S. Soccer not giving Klinsmann the entire final round of qualifying.

Nick: Only if it that lone point comes against Costa Rica. If Klinsmann gets a draw against Mexico, who should be favored even in Columbus, that should be enough to earn him more time in the Hex.

Kyle: No he’s not on the brink. He’s still in very good shape.

Eric: If that were to happen there would certainly be chatter, but for me Klinsmann would still be safe. These are two of the toughest matches the U.S. will face in the Hex, so a lack of results would not mean the sky is falling. It’s taken a long time for the team to get here, arguably too long, but after much experimentation Klinsmann has this team in potentially its best form in years with what seems to be a clear understanding of formation and system. There is no need for an overreaction after two difficult matches.

What are your overall expectations for the Hex? Does the U.S. finish top of the group on maximum points? Just scrape third? Have to settle for the playoff spot?

Joe: I actually think the U.S. will just scrape third-place in the group. Mexico and Costa Rica will be above them and if the U.S. start the group poorly they will be playing catch up to Trinidad and Tobago, plus Panama and Hondruas will always fancy their chances of  beating the USA at home. This could be a lot tighter than most expect.

Nick: The Yanks are the second-best team in the group entering play, and should finish according to that standard. Anything more is gravy, and third is acceptable. I’d circle 18-19 points as the target.

Kyle: This is CONCACAF, and there’s no predicting it. But, if we’re having to predict, I think the United States finishes second behind Mexico. They’re a strong team that will slip up, but so will the others.

Eric: The U.S. finishes at the top of the group. Klinsmann has (finally) settled on a formation that fits his players. The U.S. has its deepest talent pool in years and the team’s most important players are getting significant club minutes whether that is in the U.S. or abroad. The U.S. is riding a wave of confidence that will help them finish at the top of the Hex.