There will be more than just a place in the 2017 Confederations Cup at stake when the United States and Mexico go head-to-head in front of a sold-put crowd of more than 90,000 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, on Saturday. After the U.S. lifted the Gold Cup in 2013 and Mexico claimed the trophy earlier this summer, the playoff will decide which country goes to Russia as Concacaf’s representative in the showpiece dress-rehearsal event a year ahead of the World Cup.
But with the match also bringing together the regions’ two great rivals, it is a contest that will define 2015 for both countries.
“These moments, this is what you live for,” USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann said, reports ESPN.
"These big games, you want your team to be able to prove themselves. I think it's probably the biggest game in many years," he added. "It's the clash between Mexico in the United States and there's no bigger game than between those two nations.”
There is certainly plenty on the line for Klinsmann. While he led the U.S. to friendly victories away at the Netherlands and Germany earlier this year, he came up desperately short in defense of the Gold Cup. A semifinal defeat to Jamaica and subsequent loss in the third-place playoff to Panama meant it was the Americans’ worst performance in the Concacaf championship since 2000. A humbling 4-1 defeat to Brazil in a friendly in Massachusetts last month did little to revive the standing of Klinsmann, who is now in his fifth year as coach.
While the pressure is now building on the former Germany international and coach, there is no sign that the U.S. is ready to embrace the sort of instability that has engulfed its chief rivals. El Tri went through four coaches during 2013 alone, before Miguel Herrera did enough to earn an extended stay in the hottest of hot seats. Yet, even after defying unconvincing performances to lead his country to Gold Cup glory in July, a subsequent physical altercation with a television commentator led to him being sent on his way.
As a result, Mexico now enters its biggest match of the year with an interim coach. Tigres boss Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti will be in charge before Juan Carlos Osorio takes over for the start of World Cup qualifying next month.
“I was totally surprised as human beings, as players, they really are the best of the best and I'm going with a big thank you and a great satisfaction independent of what happens tomorrow,” Ferretti said at his pre-match press conference on Friday. “This I will never forget in my life and hopefully tomorrow we can take things even better and we are all very happy.”
Sitting alongside Ferretti at the pre-match press conference was veteran Rafa Marquez, who has been a major injury doubt leading up to the game. The 36-year-old declared that he was 100 percent fit to take the field on Saturday. Forward Giovani dos Santos, though, who recently moved to southern California with the LA Galaxy, has been ruled out.
The U.S., meanwhile, has gone for an experienced squad, led by the likes of Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Jozy Altidore. It was that core of players that helped Klinsmann’s side top Concacaf’s qualifying group for the 2014 World Cup as Mexico struggled. Having also gone six matches unbeaten with its foes to the south, the U.S. has certainly turned the tables on its once-dominant rivals in recent years. Yet, after landing this year’s Gold Cup, Mexico now returns to the site of its last victory over the U.S. -- a thrilling 4-2 win in the 2011 Gold Cup final -- as it aims to reclaim top spot in the region.
Kickoff time: 9:30 p.m. EDT
TV channel: Fox Sports 1, Univision, Univision Deportes