The Hexagonal will get off to a blockbuster start after the schedule for the final round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying threw up an early meeting between the region’s dominant rivals. In two months’ time, the United States will host Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, a venue where it has reigned supreme over its fierce foe.
The U.S. has beaten Mexico 2-0 in Columbus in the last four World Cup qualifying cycles. That record surely played a significant part in Jurgen Klinsmann and his players being so keen to beat Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday, ensuring top spot in its group and a schedule that kicked off with the visit of Mexico.
It is not just the record that will see the U.S. enter the match in high spirits. While Klinsmann’s side had far from the smoothest run through the semifinal round group stage and its progression to the Hexagonal remained in doubt until the final match, it finished with a flourish. The opposition may not have been the strongest, but in scoring 10 goals without reply in victories over St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago, the U.S. helped banish the memory of its meek Copa America Centenario exit. The two performances also offered plenty to encourage going forward.
Sacha Kljestan made his return after a two-and-a-half year exile from the national team and with his performances only added to the mystery of why his excellent showings for the New York Red Bulls had been ignored for so long. Up front, meanwhile, even if Clint Dempsey’s absence with an irregular heartbeat stretches on, Klinsmann now has real options.
As well as Bobby Wood, who became a key cog in the Copa America, Jozy Altidore has returned to fitness and evidently to form. Altidore, who has also been firing for Toronto FC, struck three goals across the two matches to become the United States’ all-time leading scorer in World Cup qualifiers.
But the real highlight from the two matches was unquestionably Christian Pulisic. Klinsmann has stressed his intention to take a patient approach with the 17-year-old, but his two performances over the past week may well have pushed him into the starting lineup for the visit of Mexico.
After scoring twice off the bench against St. Vincent and the Grenadines he was at the heart of everything positive about the U.S. in the win over Trinidad and Tobago, displaying a flair and technical ability that immediately set him apart from his teammates.
An added bonus of Pulisic is that the Borussia Dortmund attacking midfielder is one of the few Americans playing at a high level in Europe. Over the past couple of years, it has been Mexico that has had many more players operating in Europe’s top leagues, a demonstration of an exciting generation of talent.
And yet Mexico’s continued instability and propensity to veer from highs to spectacular lows means, as things stand, it will be the United States that enters November’s matchup in better shape.
Prior to this summer, it had been a golden few months for Mexico. The 2015 Gold Cup titles was followed up with victory over the U.S. in a Confederations Cup playoff and a perfect start to Juan Carlos Osorio’s reign. Yet his first, and still only, defeat, left a wound that it remains doubtful he is capable of healing.
Amid its 7-0 loss to Chile in the Copa America Centenario, Mexico still qualified for the Hexagonal with the most impressive record. Yet a goalless draw with Honduras at the Estadio Azteca on Tuesday brought cries of “Osorio out.”
With three of the six teams going onto Russia and a fourth going onto a playoff, there is plenty of margin for error in the Hexagonal. The same, though, cannot be said for Osorio.
Osorio now has two months to help transform the fragile mental state of his players; a weakness that played such a big part in that defeat to Chile and the team’s desperate struggles to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. The good news for the Mexico coach is that the talent is still there.
The draw with Honduras could certainly be excused given that Osorio was without Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Jesus “Tecatito” Corona and Oribe Peralta. And that’s not even mentioning Carlos Vela and Giovani dos Santos, both of whim Osorio opted not to call up. With players further back in the team, like Hector Herrera, Andres Guardado and Hector Moreno, all of whom will be playing in the UEFA Champions League this season, Mexico has plenty of quality.
In terms of raw ability, it would be hard to argue that Mexico is not still some way ahead of the United States. However, in Pulisic and Hamburg striker Bobby Wood, there is finally evidence of a new, gifted generation emerging. And right now the U.S. also has the advantage of momentum and stability, surely making it favorite to make it five straight wins in Columbus.
USA vs Mexico Match Info
Date: Nov. 11, 2016
Location: Mapfre Stadium, Columbus, Ohio