Friday's rivalry bout in Columbus will be the first exposure to the USA-Mexico spectacle for the next generation of U.S. players.
The latest installment of the USA-Mexico rivalry takes place Friday night, when the CONCACAF foes open the World Cup qualifying Hexagonal against one another in Columbus. Stream the match live via FOX Sports GO at 7:45 p.m. ET.
Jurgen Klinsmann never has been reluctant to rely on youth. He did so at the 2006 World Cup in his native Germany, where he managed a squad including a tournament-high eight players aged 22 or younger (for comparison’s sake, finalists Italy and France had one combined). And he stuck with that philosophy eight years later, when he trusted in the likes of DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks and Julian Green at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Klinsmann prizes athleticism and fearlessness, and if he sees those qualities in a player, age is secondary. So while the U.S. squad that has gathered in Columbus to prepare for Friday’s World Cup qualifier against Mexico has its share of veterans, it also features nine players age 23 or younger (it would’ve been 10 had Jordan Morris not bowed out with a hamstring injury). The scene at Mapfre Stadium, site of four consecutive 2-0 wins, will be new to many as well. Only 11 men on Klinsmann’s squad have qualifying experience against El Tri.
“There’s a lot of movement happening. Younger players, I think they start to become more confident and start to become more mature in what they’re doing,” Klinsmann said while unveiling his team. “There is a lot of competition now happening within our roster and that’s why we’re going to start [Monday] with training sessions that will be very intense and very demanding because everybody wants to be so badly on the field when you play Mexico.”
The youngest of all will be under the brightest spotlight. Christian Pulisic’s rise continues unabated, and at this point there really is no reason not to start the Borussia Dortmund attacker on Friday. He’s established himself in the crucible of the Bundesliga and Champions League, possesses rare technique and soccer sense and now has nine caps to his name. He hasn’t experienced USA-Mexico, but nothing in his brief professional past suggests he won’t rise to the occasion.
“This player’s potential is limitless,” Klinsmann told FIFA.com. “I’ve always said you need to write your own story and he’s doing it right now. I think it’s rare in America for a player to be so developed at such an early age. But in Europe if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. He’s taken things in his own hands. He’s the piece of the puzzle we were hoping for this year and he’s a great example to other young players about how to go for it—to play at the highest level and prove yourself.”
Klinsmann elaborated on Pulisic’s potential impact on Sunday.
“It changes the dynamic in our team,” the manager said. “Christian can play left, can play right, he can play in the middle—that’s what he’s doing for Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, which is huge. So [left back] Fabian [Johnson] and Christian now, they develop a real good relationship and they develop a partnership there where they know where each other is running, they’ve got an understanding of creating attacking patterns, so this is big for us. This is real quality you want to see.”
Less will be expected from the other younger/newer players, but Klinsmann said it’s important to have them aboard. Getting a taste of the rivalry, both on the day and in the preparation beforehand, creates comfort down the road.
“That’s why we go into these 10 days with 26 players, even if we can only use 23 at the end of the day on the roster, because just this experience to go through these 10 days, through training sessions and then obviously the two games is huge,” Klinsmann said, also referring to the Nov. 15 qualifier in Costa Rica.
The newest of all is 18-year-old Tottenham Hotspur defender Cameron Carter-Vickers, who was raised in England but has an American father (a former professional basketball player). Carter-Vickers has played for U.S. youth teams but is uncapped at the senior level and still could switch allegiance. Cap-tying him this month may not be in the cards, but Carter-Vickers doesn’t sound like someone who’s not committed.
“Jurgen called me to let me know that I was going to be in the squad. I was over the moon,” he told Tottenham’s website. “It’ll be great to be around the team and see what it’s like to be around a big game like that. Through the youth ranks, I’ve never played against Mexico, and since I’ve been with the USA it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do.”
Sunderland midfielder Lynden Gooch, 20, isn’t cap-tied either and is eligibile to play for England and Ireland. The California native has started to get some minutes with the Black Cats, and when called in by Klinsmann for last month’s friendlies in Cuba and Washington, he made the sort of impact the manager wants to see.
“The way he kind of came on against New Zealand [in D.C.] was very promising. He has no fear at all. He’s going at people, so this is great to see,” Klinsmann said.
“I’m happy to be here,” Gooch told reporters in Columbus. “It’s only my second camp but I want to make sure I do enough because at the end of the day, I want to play. I want to be involved [against Mexico]. It’s a massive game … To play would be a great honor.”
Green, 21, has never played in qualifier but has that World Cup goal on his resume and forced his way back into the U.S. picture by making Bayern Munich’s senior squad and scoring against Cuba and New Zealand last month. Midfielder Caleb Stanko, 23, earned his first senior cap in September against Trinidad & Tobago. With Kyle Beckerman out injured and Danny Williams and Perry Kitchen left behind, Stanko will get an opportunity to climb the defensive midfield depth chart. Morris, ironically, was replaced by a 35-year-old forward with even less international experience—LA Galaxy veteran Alan Gordon. Big games won’t be new to Gordon, but USA-Mexico will be.
For each of the 15 men yet to face Mexico in a qualifier, from Gordon to Gooch, there will be reminders throughout the week of how important and intense this fixture can be. Defender Omar Gonzalez, who starred in the 2013 Columbus qualifier, said Klinsmann “set the tone [Monday] in his first speech, just saying that from the first training today it’s going to be intense.”
Matt Besler admitted that he was “probably naive” when he made his qualifying debut in 2013 at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. “Now I know about the history. I know the rivalry and exactly what it takes," he said.
Besler and the other vets will have this week to share those experiences with the first-timers. With Klinsmann, you never know who might wind up on the field.
“I would just say that every single play matters,” Besler said when asked what advice he’d impart. “Whether it’s a throw-in or a goal kick or a corner kick, every single play matters. You have to be tuned in at all times and you have to give everything you possibly have every second of the match.”