Wednesday September 9th, 2015

After the U.S. floundered against Brazil, its biggest rival and next competitive opponent put together a stellar performance in a 2-2 draw over Argentina on Tuesday. Despite coming up against the No. 1-ranked team in the world, with Lionel Messi, Carlos Tévez and Javier Mascherano all in the starting lineup, El Tri looked like it would defeat La Albiceleste until a last-minute equalizer.

Mexico took the lead after hardly more than a quarter-hour passed, as Javier Hernández put away the penalty earned by Raúl Jiménez in the 19th minute. The goal came somewhat against the run of play, as Argentina had much of the early momentum, but the de facto home side in Texas took over after scoring.

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Argentina eventually worked its way back into the game but couldn’t get past Moisés Muñoz in the Mexico goal before halftime. A series of impressive saves from the Club América goalkeeper left La Albiceleste goalless at the break and beyond.

Muñoz remained El Tri’s best player throughout the second half as well, making saves on Messi, Tévez and the whole cast of world-beaters facing him. Finally, the team in front of him scored the second goal in the 70th minute, as Miguel Layún found Héctor Herrera with a driven cross from the left flank.

Herrera smacked his shot into the net, but Argentina would score twice late to leave with a draw. Sergio Agüero scored first, after Ezequiel Lavezzi chased down a long ball and crossed along the ground for a tap-in in the 85th minute. Messi equalized, smoothly turning and firing from inside the penalty area, three minutes later.

Regardless, Mexico is now undefeated in 10 games, its last loss coming with a second-choice squad in the final group match at Copa América. Here are three thoughts on the match, El Tri’s last friendly before naming a new coach and taking on the U.S. in a playoff for the CONCACAF berth into the 2017 version of the Confederations Cup:

Mexico returns to 5-3-2 for first time since Herrera’s firing

On Tuesday, interim Mexico coach Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti put El Tri in its familiar 5-3-2 that former manager Miguel Herrera used to great effect at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The team put together probably its best performance since that tournament, and although formations generally don’t offer a reliable barometer of team style—they’re as useful as “telephone numbers,” as Pep Guardiola says—that isn’t completely a coincidence.

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​Ferretti’s preferred style at Tigres resembles what he implemented with the national team against Argentina. Rafa Márquez and José “Gallito” Vázquez acted as the anchors defensively, allowing their partners in central defense and midfield, respectively, to press runners in the spaces between lines. The common denominators between Ferretti and Herrera’s styles are those free men, who hold the team shape together.

In attack, the fluid midfield triangle supports an interchangable forward pairing, with wingbacks bombing down the flanks to add an extra element on both sides of the ball. It’s strange to see Ferretti coaching the last two remaining tune-ups before such an important match against the U.S.; any coaching points or selections he makes could be null and void by next week, since he’ll be gone by the time of the Rose Bowl game.

Still, his formation and style maintain Mexico’s national footballing identity nonetheless. Of course, like any other coach, Ferretti has several players he didn’t select based on his preference, but they should return in October, most notably Memo Ochoa—though Muñoz made a strong claim on the starting spot on Tuesday—and Giovani and Jonathan dos Santos. Oribe Peralta should also make his return if he recovers from the lower-back injury that kept him out of the friendlies against Trinidad and Tobago and Argentina.

Chicharito goal could kickstart his return to form, just in time for U.S. playoff

After missing two chances inside the first 10 minutes, Hernández put away the penalty to potentially give himself a much-needed confidence boost. It’s been a long end of the summer for Chicharito, as he hasn’t played yet for Bayer Leverkusen since his transfer from Manchester United, where he only made one appearance this season. He also spent the entirety of the 3-3 draw with Trinidad on the bench.

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He knew he needed a goal, and credit to Hernández for grabbing the ball immediately upon Mexico winning its first-half penalty and sticking it into the bottom right-hand corner. He showed no hesitation despite his last attempt going against him—and breeding the incredulous look between United manager Louis van Gaal and assistant Ryan Giggs that was shared worldwide on social media.

Chicharito is still far from sharp. His first touch let him down all night, and he seemed to be running through wet concrete on a two-on-one counterattack in the 59th minute. He ended up playing a poor pass behind strike partner Jiménez that left him only with space to miss wide. Still, he outsmarted center back Nicolás Otamendi in the box not 10 minutes later, though he was late to the header, and generally looked on the cusp of scoring for much of the game.

It’s just a matter of regaining more of that confidence, getting consistent training in Germany and perhaps making a couple appearances for Bayer, and Chicharito should be back to top form in short order. If it all falls into place, Hernández should be in the mix to start up top on Oct. 10 against the Americans, along with “Él Cepillo” Peralta, Giovani dos Santos and Carlos Vela.

Mexico in far better shape than the U.S. for their big matchup

One team played No. 1-ranked Argentina straight up, taking the game to La Albiceleste and nearly defeating it with exciting, attacking soccer. The other timidly lost by three goals to No. 5 Brazil, leaving its manager under pressure and creating more questions than answers with its performance.

To say Mexico looks better than the U.S. before their Oct. 10 playoff would be a major understatement. The vast improvement between the Trinidad match and Argentina win alone point to a ramping-up in preparedness that the U.S. just didn’t match this international window, regardless of the strength of El Tri’s lineup in its second match versus the first.

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Despite the revolving door of managers that Mexico has always had, the national identity on the field is still there. That’s something the U.S. has either lacked for a long time or never had in the first place, depending on with whom you speak. Uncertainty and insecurity are nothing new for Mexico, so culturally, it’s in a far more comfortable position than the U.S.

El Tri is in better shape on all fronts, also coming off the Gold Cup tournament win. It’s not that the team doesn’t have its shortcomings; Argentina threatened all game long, forcing excellent individual defensive play and goalkeeping interventions in desperation situations before breaking through twice in the last five minutes.

Still, Mexico looks to be on a different level than the U.S. and a clear favorite heading into the Oct. 10 playoff match in Los Angeles.

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