The pressure is on both the United States and Mexico as the two historic rivals prepare to get the final round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying underway with an eagerly anticipated clash in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday.
His position still far from secure following a humiliating 7-0 loss to Chile in the quarterfinals of this summer’s Copa America Centenario, a defeat, especially a convincing one, could mean curtains for Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio. While the personal stakes are not nearly so high for Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. coach will know that a bad result at Mapfre Stadium could leave the team in an early qualifying hole. After the visit of Mexico, the U.S. will travel to Costa Rica on Tuesday, a place where it has lost on its last eight visits and never come out on top.
It is a much more positive record that the U.S. takes into its opening game of the Hexagonal, however. The Americans have opted to play Mexico in Columbus, a place where Mexican support is low, for the last four World Cup qualifying cycles. On each occasion, the U.S. has come out on top, every time by a score line of 2-0.
“Dos a Cero” has become a common refrain from U.S. fans and Mexico is desperate to bring it to an end. And to do so, it is clear that Osorio believes what happens between the players’ ears is at least as important as any tactical decision he may make. Ahead of the game, Osorio has had Spanish sports psychologist Imanol Ibarrondo working with his squad.
"Firstly, [Osorio] has asked us to get rid of that thought that we always come here and lose 2-0; we have to change that mentality," Tigres winger Jurgen Damm said on Tuesday. "That's why [Ibarrondo] has come to help us."
"I think the Mexico national team has all the footballing and human potential to overcome this situation. We have to get rid of the pressure and focus on the principle objective, which is to get through the Hexagonal in the best way."
In a strong hint that he is seeking players with experience operating at a high level under foreign, pressurized environments, Osorio has named 13 players currently based in Europe in his 25-man squad. Among that list is Carlos Vela, who has not played for his country since Osorio’s opening game in charge a year ago. Joining Vela is Giovani dos Santos, another big name who has not always been a favorite of the current Mexico coach.
There remains a place, too, for veteran Rafa Márquez. Now aged 37, the former Barcelona and New York Red Bulls man has been a fixture in the United States-Mexico rivalry for almost two decades, including when being sent off in a 2-0 Mexico loss against the U.S. in the last 16 of the 2002 World Cup.
The U.S. has nobody on its roster to match hat extraordinary experience but there is still set to be a familiar core to Klinsmann’s side. On the back of some key saves for the Colorado Rapids as they beat the LA Galaxy in the Major League Soccer Playoffs on Sunday, Tim Howard could well regain his spot in goal from Brad Guzan.
Meanwhile, Michael Bradley will captain the team, likely alongside Jermaine Jones in midfield while the in-form Jozy Altidore is set to lead the front line.
Prediction: Since that record defeat to Chile, Mexico has conceded just two goals in four matches and Osorio is likely to want his team to be solid and hard to break down on Friday. But it remains to be seen if El Tri can overcome the mental fragility that has been so often in evidence in Columbus and was so apparent in the mauling at the hands of Chile. And, with the U.S. having key players like Altidore, Bradley and Howard in form, it could again come out on top.
Predicted Score: USA 2-1 Mexico
D: Yedlin, Brooks, Besler, Johnson
M: Bedoya, Bradley, Jones, Pulisic
F: Wood, Altidore
D: Duenas, Reyes, Moreno, Layun
M: Herrera, Marquez, Guardado
F: Corona, Hernandez, Dos Santos
Kickoff Time: 8.01 p.m. EDT