PASADENA, Calif. – The U.S. national team enters Saturday evening’s Confederations Cup playoff against Mexico on a four-year unbeaten run against its archrival.
“It’s a little sway of results. I think we’ve gotten the better of them the past so many times and I hope we keep that going,” midfielder Graham Zusi said. “We can’t look at these past five games and think we’re going to be safe.”
It’s six games, Graham. The U.S. is 3-0-3 against El Tri since losing the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup final here at the Rose Bowl.
“Six, sorry,” he said. “Shows how much I care about the past.”
That past has been relatively kind. Through four-plus years of ups, downs, fits and starts, the most consistent thing about coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure has been the Americans’ superiority over Mexico. The U.S. went 1-0-1 during World Cup qualification in 2013 and the year before, it earned the program’s first win at the Death Star that was the Estadio Azteca.
“Since Jurgen’s come in, things have been good,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “We’ve had a positive outlook. We’re confident. But we know how good they are as well. You say we have the edge. I think we have the edge. But we have to prove it.”
It’s a nice run of success over a very good team and the rivalry’s longest such string since Mexico enjoyed a 4-0-4 spell in the late 1990s. But Klinsmann and his players said prior to Friday’s training session, their last before taking the field against Mexico, that they had no explanation for it. No secret has been found, no weakness detected, no foolproof tactical plan devised that can be exploited or replicated on Saturday, they claimed. They’ll just have to hope their run continues for at least one more day.
“There’s no reason for [the streak],” Klinsmann said. “There’s a lot of respect for Mexico, always. How we approach them, how we analyze them, there’s admiration for them, for their individual players, for their program, for what they’ve done over so many years and for this rivalry. And every time you get to another clash, which happens tomorrow night, you start at 0-0 again. You have no idea how it will end, and that’s the exciting part about football. You can’t predict.”
A search for patterns over the past few USA-Mexico matchups yields a couple of trends that may influence Klinsmann’s lineup. Captain Michael Bradley typically has played behind two attackers, which seems likely on Saturday with both Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore available and healthy. There’s been a stay-at-home defensive midfielder deployed in front of the back four in each of the past four USA-Mexico games. On three occasions it was Kyle Beckerman, who’s in camp and likely to see action. Clogging the middle and stunting Mexico's buildup is key.
There are more pressing questions at other positions, however. Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, a potential starter thanks to his ability to pinch in, track the opposition and then combine quickly and skillfully when the ball turns over, will miss the playoff with what Klinsmann described as a “fever” (forward Bobby Wood replaced him on the active roster). Defender Omar Gonzalez, an effective starter in each of the past four USA-Mexico tilts, wasn’t called up, leaving the U.S. to field a center-back tandem that has never been paired against El Tri. Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron, Ventura Alvarado and Michael Orozco are among the options.
“You guys always hear me say, one of the strengths of our team has been the ability of different guys to step in on different days and really come through,” Bradley said. “The mentality, the spirit, the commitment from every guy to compete for the guy next to him, those are things that have carried us on big days and in tough moments. I have total—we all have total faith that whoever steps in tomorrow, whoever plays in any spot is going to step on the field ready to go.”
Mexico and its interim coach, Ricardo Ferretti, face a couple of selection headaches as well. Andrés Guardado (ankle) and Rafa Márquez (groin) appear to have recovered from their injuries and are ready to play. But midfield anchor José Juan Vázquez (hamstring) is out, leaving a void in front of El Tri’s back four. Giovani dos Santos will miss the game as well. Up front, Ferretti will have to choose from among Oribe Peralta, Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández, Raúl Jiménez and Carlos Vela. Rumors of a switch to a 4-3-3 formation from the 5-3-2 Mexico has primarily played have spread this week.
There are decisions to be made, but no mysteries.
“Both teams know each other so well,” Klinsmann said. “They’re two teams that match up 50/50 … It’s down to the moment. It’s down to their spirit and their willingness to be disciplined and to suffer for each other and give everything they have.”
It will be blazing hot, and the Rose Bowl crowd will be big (some 90,000) and loud. The stakes are high and the weeks of buzz and build-up has left both teams eager to get going.
“It’s about time for kickoff, huh,” Klinsmann joked during his Friday press conference.
Despite a miserable fourth-place finish at this summer’s Gold Cup, which forced the U.S. into this playoff for the Confederations Cup ticket, there’s reason for the Klinsmann and Co. to feel confident. The manager said that he embraces the pressure and hoped his players enjoy the moment, maintain their composure and feed off the energy. Mexico is familiar and brings out the best in the U.S. That’s fortunate, because it will take the Americans’ best to win on Saturday. Unbeaten streaks can inspire, but they also can end.
“Big games take care of themselves,” Howard said. “You don’t have to worry about the energy. You don’t have to worry about being prepared. You just go out and find the flow of the game. I think we’re excited.”
Said Zusi, “[The streak] is something you can’t look at and say we’re going to be fine because we’re on the up in this rivalry. We’re taking it a game at a time and we know what kind of threat Mexico can pose. They’re a very good team and so it doesn’t change our mentality going into this one.”