“We’re going to come out with a win there.”
It may have been a throwaway comment at the end of a postgame interview by the precocious Christian Pulisic after a two-goal game. But it could also have been a sneak peak into the confidence of the U.S. Men’s National Team locker room.
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Heading into the USMNT’s rematch with Mexico at the Estadio Azteca, the U.S. will have to beat not only the hottest team in CONCACAF but also history. The U.S. has never won a World Cup qualifier at the Azteca and they’ve only recorded two draws, the last one famously in the run up to the 2014 World Cup.
Following the defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica that spelled the end of Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure as USMNT manager, the U.S. has rebounded to pick up two wins and a draw on the road at Panama, with Clint Dempsey, Christian Pulisic and Michael Bradley all playing big roles.
Another draw or better at Mexico would nearly ensure the U.S. qualifies for the World Cup, barring a catastrophic collapse.
Ahead of Sunday’s crucial qualifier, here’s a look at three key battles to watch:
Michael Bradley vs. Giovani Dos Santos/Carlos Vela/Jesus Corona
In the first matchup against Mexico, Bradley and Jermaine Jones, who isn’t in the current USMNT squad had to go over to the sideline to implore Klinsmann to change systems as Mexico was overrunning the U.S. in midfield through the first 25 minutes.
In that 3-5-2 formation, the U.S. didn’t have enough protection in the middle of the park and Mexico’s attacking midfielders found plenty of time and space to run and interchange. Against Trinidad and Tobago, Bradley played as a lone pivot behind Pulisic, Darlington Nagbe and Fabian Johnson, but it’s likely the formation will change slightly as Mexico could easily outnumber Bradley in that zone of the field.
Michael Bradley, and potentially a player like Nagbe or Pulisic, in addition to setting the tempo for the U.S. attack will have to keep track of Mexico’s attackers as they look to create space ahead of the U.S. backline.
Christian Pulisic vs. Andres Guardado/Hector Herrera
While Guardado was held out of Mexico’s 3-0 romp of Honduras on Thursday, the veteran midfielder is expected to return to the lineup when Mexico hosts the U.S.
His task, along with his central midfield partner, possibly Hector Herrera, will be keeping track of Pulisic, who has floated around midfield, picking up the ball between the lines and running at and past defenders. That will be more difficult in the thin air of Mexico City but there’s no doubt he’ll try it once or twice, especially early on.
The U.S. will go as Pulisic goes, as shown by his three goals in his last two USMNT games.
Jorge Villafaña, DeAndre Yedlin vs. Mexico attacking midfielders
This may not be the battle to watch in the first half, but watch in the second half if Hirving Lozano comes on.
The pacy Pachuca winger injected great pace into the game in the second half as Mexico scored its second and third goals against Honduras. After 60 minutes of running up and down the flanks, will Villafaña and Yedlin have the stamina to keep up against a fresh young attacker?