USMNT balancing separate goals in friendly against Mexico

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It’s a friendly, but is it really?

The United States meets its biggest rival for the first time since falling in the Gold Cup final as Mexico waltzes in to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ at 9pm ET.

Gregg Berhalter is gearing up the squad with high-powered friendlies against Mexico and Uruguay to get ready for CONCACAF Nations League matches against Cuba and Canada to come in October. While there is still some talent to be evaluated, the team is now in winning mentality, hoping to develop further cohesion after falling just short in the summer tournament.

As far as evaluating talent goes, all eyes will be on 18-year-old Sergino Dest, who is still choosing between the United States and Netherlands, after Berhalter confirmed the youngster will get the start against Mexico at one of the full-back positions. Full-back is a position of extreme need for the USMNT and has been for years, and Dest’s potential commitment is a massive priority for the federation, hoping to develop him long-term for a potential partnership with DeAndre Yedlin.

With Yedlin currently injured, Dest will get the start as Berhalter looks to sway the youngster on picking the country he represented at the youth level, impressing this summer at the U-20 World Cup. He can’t be cap-tied in a friendly, but he can get a feel for the biggest rivalry the United States has to offer.

On the other hand, squad cohesion is just as important as evaluating talent at this stage of the cycle, and Behalter will look to work his best players in to build a rapport. With that in mind, the starting center-back partnership on Friday could potentially be a window into Berhalter’s vision for the future. The boss has chosen Red Bulls starter Aaron Long on multiple occasions of late, and Berhalter could choose him to partner with Matt Miazga yet again. However, John Brooks is back in the fold and in good form after missing the summer foray with an injury, and he could challenge for a spot along the back line. Developing that defensive partnership will be critical as the United States looks to perform at a high level in competitive matches and build towards a return to the World Cup in 2022.

Mexico, meanwhile, comes in looking to move on from the Gold Cup success, with a pair of their own high-powered friendlies this international window. After a battle with the United States comes a meeting with Lionel Messi-less Argentina, using those two bigtime matchups to prepare for Bermuda and Panama in October’s Nations League play.

Still, Mexico’s focus is on the USMNT, evident as head coach Tata Martino – who is coming off a Major League Soccer championship with Atlanta United – took shots at the United States before the match.

While Mexico has seen success on the field recently – Martino has won all 10 of the matches he has led for Mexico thus far – plenty of questions remain for his squad. Martino said in his press conference Thursday that Jesus “Tecatito” Corona will play as a winger in the United States match, but with the 26-year-old moving to full-back with his club side Porto, the possibility for a positional switch with the national team as well remains down the road.

Finally, the weather will be a big factor. There are heavy rains in the forecast for northern New Jersey, and both sides may consider the conditions before risking high-value players like Corona, Christian Pulisic, or Raul Jimenez.

There will be plenty of ingredients mixed in to produce Friday night’s match. The need to evaluate talent with Nations League play closing in, the necessity of playing starters together to develop cohesion, the rivalry between neighboring sides, and the consideration of weather all will play a factor in who plays for how long and at what position. At the end of the day, it’s a friendly, but against these two opponents, is that ever truly the case?