Should Mexico play for a win or a draw against the U.S. tonight?
Esteemed colleague Grant Wahl opined over the weekend that Mexico, despite its massive struggles and internal discord throughout the final round of World Cup qualifying, would indeed make it to Brazil next summer and show well there.
It’s not an outlandish take on the surface, especially the part about the Cup performance. Mexico often handles top-level teams from other regions better than the U.S. does, there is more than enough talent on the roster, and teams’ form can change significantly over the course of half a year. Throw in the randomness of a World Cup draw, and you certainly can make a case for potential Mexican success in 2014.
Somewhat shockingly, given the relative forgiveness of CONCACAF qualifying, the bigger of those two issues is whether Mexico will make it there at all. And heading into tonight’s massive showdown with the U.S. in Columbus, Ohio, the most important subquestion is whether Mexico is OK with a playoff spot or not, because that may dictate its approach to this match.
With three rounds remaining, El Tri find themselves on just eight points and in fourth place, two points out of the last auto-qualification behind the Honduras side that just beat them at Azteca, and a single point ahead of Panama for the playoff spot against New Zealand. Honduras hosts Panama tonight, as well, and that result will be massive for Mexico. The issue for Mexico is that match kicks off an hour after their match, so there’s no way Mexico can plan for a certain result there as they get updates from Tegucigalpa. El Tri will have to decide in advance what they want to do -- go for the win at the possibly greater risk of a loss, or more conservatively aim for what could be a really crucial point down the road.
Making the not-so-bold assumption that Jamaica isn’t going to win its final three matches and get properly into the mix, getting a point at the U.S. would be enormous for the Mexicans. (Note: Mexico wants Costa Rica to be qualified by the final match, when El Tri is in San Jose, so we’ll ignore the Ticos in this equation and give them one of the auto berths.)
Honduras has a bit of a habit of losing home matches games in this position, so a Panama win isn’t unthinkable, and that’s the disaster scenario for Mexico if they get a point tonight. They’d be pushed into fifth place with two matches left and Panama then can come to Azteca and play for a draw, which every other team in the Hex has at least been able to get. Then Panama hosts a likely qualified U.S. team in the final match, and suddenly Honduras may be the team Mexico is trying to catch for the playoff spot. The issue there is Honduras hosts Costa Rica (maybe already qualified after tonight) and then goes to Jamaica in the finale. Mexico would be under enormous pressure to beat Panama at home, or El Tri very well could end up in fifth place.
In the two more likely scenarios, Mexico is in solid shape to at least get on the #RoadToWellington. All they would have to do is beat Panama at home to clinch a playoff, and they still could catch someone to get into the top three.
Given those scenarios, should Mexico really go for the win at a stadium where they have never scored in three prior qualifiers, losing all three #dosacero?
In the first combo, Mexico would then be in position to clinch a playoff with a draw at home to Panama. Similar applies to the HON/PAN draw scenario, unless there’s a sizable swing of goals in the final match day that switches the goal difference tiebreaker. If Panama also wins tonight, Mexico would control its own fate for auto-qualification.
(As an aside, a Mexico win makes things a lot more uncomfortable for the U.S., which is why although this is a huge rivalry match at home and may lead to qualification tonight with a win, it’s not a must-win match for the U.S. It’s a “must not lose” match.)
Is the benefit of a win in the most likely scenarios worth Mexico increasing its potential for a loss?
A loss and a Honduras win puts Mexico five points out of third with two matches left. It’s not impossible to catch Honduras, but they’d need a lot of help. Mexico could at least clinch a playoff spot by beating Panama at home on Match Day 9. Scenarios where Panama gets at least a point tonight make things a lot dicier for Mexico, and significantly exposes them to the risk of being eliminated altogether.
Given all this, it will be very interesting to see how Mexico sets up against the U.S. under its new manager on short prep. The Mexican federation will have to have crunched these numbers, too, so the way Mexico approaches this match will tell you a great deal about what they’re trying to prioritize. The biggest "agent of change" for Mexico is to win the match. That would greatly increase their chances of auto qualification, and may be "worth" the additional risk of eating a loss and the larger chance of missing out altogether.
Pride, rivalry and perception play a part in matches like this, but Mexico is at a point where the big picture must be paramount. We'll get an initial indication of El Tri's prioritization from kickoff, but things could get even more compelling if the match is still tied with 15-20 minutes left. Of course, with Mexico's current state of chaos, execution of the plan may be dicier than deciding on one. It's one thing to target a result in Columbus. It's another to get one for the first time.