While Tuesday’s election might be stealing most of the headlines this week, Friday is also nearly a national holiday because it marks the beginning of the final stage of World Cup Qualifying for the United States Men’s National Team. There are currently six teams vying for the top three spots in this final round (often referred to as the “Hex”) in order to earn automatic qualification to the 2018 World Cup. Despite being overshadowed outside of Soccer Twitter, the opening match is against heated rivals Mexico on U.S. soil in Columbus, Ohio. For those who don’t know, the USMNT has a strange knack for winning dos a cero against Mexico in Columbus and it makes this game all the more special.
I was lucky enough to be at the last qualifying game in Columbus, where the U.S. secured their birth to the 2016 World Cup by beating Mexico behind goals from Landon Donovan and Eddie Johnson. I still get chills watching the highlights, remembering standing behind the goal singing with the rest of the home crowd “we are going to Brazil” as the game finished until we were all hoarse. Things have changed a lot for this team since that game on September 10, 2013, including all the highs and lows of the last three years. Now that Jurgen Klinsmann has released his roster for the match, I thought we would check in on where the team is and what to expect.
Howard is Consistency Personified
One thing that will be the same is Tim Howard manning the goal, back as the number one keeper. After sharing time with Brad Guzan over the last few competitive matches, Klinsmann has made it clear Howard is starting against Mexico and will likely retain that role until he shows a dip in form. Given his penalty saves against the LA Galaxy in the recent MLS Playoffs, he should be safely entrenched. It seems we are still pushing off the future, but both Evan Horvath and William Yarbrough are itching for their opportunity.
On the other side, it’s all change with none of Donovan, Johnson, or Clint Dempsey starting up top for the U.S. Donovan, despite coming out of retirement for the Galaxy, has long since been phased out by Klinsmann and Johnson retired from soccer last November after a fourteen year career. Dempsey would normally be in the squad but has been out for several months with an irregular heartbeat that both Seattle and the U.S. Soccer Federation are closely monitoring. Instead, leading the line will be Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore.
Wood was recently suspended for three games from his bottom feeder German club Hamburg for an unnecessary elbow and has not been finding the goal in any case. That said, at least he comes into camp well-rested. Meanwhile, Altidore has been on fire for Toronto F.C., scoring 15 goals in his last 20 games. The two are an effective duo up top and should challenge the Mexican back line. Originally slated to be backing them up was speedster Jordan Morris, who is having a great season for the Seattle Sounders, but he withdrew due to a hamstring issue and is being replaced by the Galaxy’s Alan Gordon. For the depth chart, this means Aron Johannsson, recently returned from his own injury, will be the first striker off the bench.
Bringing up the Rear
The backline in 2013 featured Omar Gonzalez, Fabian Johnson, Clarence Goodson, and DaMarcus Beasley. Half that quartet returns, with both Gonzalez and Johnson receiving call ups and Johnson likely to start in the left back position. The center back pairing will be changing again from recent matches, as Geoff Cameron stayed in England due to injury, leaving presumptive starter John Brooks partnerless. In Cameron’s place, one of Matt Besler, Gonzalez, or Steve Birnbaum is likely to get a chance. Safe money is Besler, who has continued to get playing time under Klinsmann and had been in fine form for his club.
On the right, DeAndre Yedlin should get the nod, although Timmy Chandler has found his way into camp after playing well in Germany in recent weeks. Yedlin has not been getting a lot of playing time in the English second division, but is a Jurgen favorite. One other interesting note about the defense is the call up of Cameron Carter-Vickers (“CCV”), an English-American dual national who would be cap-tied to the USMNT were he to play. CCV is currently on Tottenham’s roster and being recruited by the English national team as well. He has played significant minutes with the U.S. youth teams and has the potential to be a fantastic centerback partner for Brooks in the future.
Mix it Up in the Midfield
The real excitement for U.S. fans is in the midfield, where there could be a true changing of the guard. Klinsmann, during a recent interview on the Men in Blazers podcast, acknowledged that several of his preferred players will be too old by the time the next World Cup rolls around. This is good news! He realizes that Jermaine Jones cannot be our only solution at holding midfield forever! Bad news is, Jones is back in camp after his own recent return from injury and may well line up behind Michael Bradley.
There’s more hope on the outside, though, where boy-wonder Christian Pulisic should be starting over any other option. Pulisic has been playing consistently for a very talented Dortmund club in both domestic and Champions League play. Somehow, where many have stumbled, Pulisic is living up to the hype. Now he deserves to shine in what is the biggest game outside of World Cup play for the U.S. Not to overstate things, but Pulisic brings a level of energy, talent, vision, and courage to the field that normally only the best teams in the world enjoy. His development is still very much ongoing, but his ceiling is so high that it is hard not to get over excited.
On the other side of the field, Klinsmann could again elect for youth by inserting a newly revived Julian Green, who has found minutes for Bayern Munich and has impressed in the two most recent USMNT friendlies. In reality, Klinsmann is more likely to go with one of his old standbys, Alejandro Bedoya or Graham Zusi. Both are boring (and probably worse) attacking options, but they do offer better defensive cover.
The troubling aspect of the above line up is the absence of key playmaker Sacha Kljestan, who led the MLS in assists this season and, frankly, was a better facilitator than Bradley in recent USMNT games. There is, fortunately, an easy solution. By sliding Bradley back into his more normal deep lying role and putting Kljestan over him, the U.S. would field their strongest and most creative eleven. That hinges on Klinsmann’s willingness to leave Jones on the bench and that could quite easily go either direction. In the end, this is my guess at the lineup for Friday. You can create your own over at American Soccer Now.
Mexico and the Game Plan
On the other side of the field will be a very strong Mexico team that includes stars like goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, defender Rafa Marquez, midfielder Giovani dos Santos, and striker Javier Hernandez. Hernandez, in particular, should be on the U.S. radar given his form for Bayer Leverkusen in Germany. Chicharito has scored five times already in domestic play and is such a dangerous threat for a Mexican side that will be hungry to avoid another defeat in Columbus. On average, Mexico is the only other team in CONCACAF that consistently plays at a level where the U.S. should fear them and this squad is ripe with talent.
To beat Mexico again, the key will be to disrupt Chicharito and dos Santos early and often. Bradley should keep dos Santos from having time on the ball and the backline needs to be physical with Chicharito. On the other side, Altidore will need to present solid hold up play while Pulisic and Wood run in the channels. If Altidore can settle a few balls, lay them off to Kljestan and he can find a streaking Wood or Pulisic, the USMNT should be able to put a couple away. Our pace ought to be a real concern for Mexico, especially if Marquez is on the pitch. The biggest worry is the play of Yedlin, if he starts, against Andres Guadrado. Putting Bedoya on Guadrado’s side to shield Yedlin would go a long way in this game.
As if playing Mexico Friday wasn’t enough, the next game will see the USMNT face off against Costa Rica on Tuesday, November 15. Although these are hardly must win games, given the round robin format and the rest of the six teams being Honduras, Panama, and Trinidad and Tobago, a two win opening streak against our two main CONCACAF rivals would see the U.S. into great position. It would also allow Klinsmann to further integrate the other young talent he has brought into camp for the next qualifying games, including CCV and Lynden Gooch. Both will need playing time as they could be in line for big minutes by World Cup 2018. The next few months of qualifying are always exciting but starting off in Columbus against Mexico is especially so. My hope is Friday sees another Dos a Cero scoreline, with Pulisic notching a big goal under the bright lights.
Photo Credit: U.S. Soccer