The United States took care of business with a 2-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago on Thursday, meaning that they are not in a calamitous World Cup qualifying situation.
That takes a little bit of the edge off as they head to Estadio Azteca for a clash with Mexico. Now, all that’s on the line is regional supremacy, the aura of El Tri’s vaunted home stadium, bragging rights and one of the most heated rivalries in world soccer.
No big deal.
The Americans have never won a World Cup qualifier at the Azteca. What are they keys to a historic win on Sunday (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1)?
Solidify the midfield
Bruce Arena has found some success using Michael Bradley as a lone central midfield, at least against inferior teams at home. They thrashed Honduras in March and beat T&T the other day, but there have been some holes in the midfield with that setup, even against weaker sides. They can’t expect to get away with such a weak midfield against a very good Mexico team.
The question for Arena becomes who he adds to the center of the park. When he went to Panama in March, he used Jermaine Jones alongside Bradley, but Jones isn’t with the team in Mexico. Geoff Cameron could step up from defense and provide a solid option, but in addition to solidifying the midfield defensively, the Americans also need to do better linking from the back line and Bradley to the attacking players. Kellyn Acosta provides both defensive work and quality passing, making him the ideal fit. But will Arena throw a 21-year-old out there for his first ever World Cup qualifying start at the Azteca?
Whatever Arena decides, the midfield needs some added punch.
The kids need to stay calm
Against Trinidad and Tobago, Christian Pulisic, Jorge Villafana and Darlington Nagbe were the Americans’ best players. What else did they have in common? They had less international experience than any other U.S. players. That clearly wasn’t a problem, but handling a home World Cup qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago is very different than staying calm against Mexico in front of 90,000 fans. Toss in someone like Kellyn Acosta, who might start, or Jordan Morris, who is an option off the bench, and the Americans will be counting on several inexperienced players handling everything that goes along with the U.S. vs. Mexico at the Azteca.
Flawless play from Tim Howard
Howard is not as good as he used to be. He’s still solid and the Americans have one of the better backstops in CONCACAF with him, but there are more mistakes than there used to be. He can’t have those against Mexico and he’ll probably need to come up with a few heroic saves like used to be the norm. The Americans’ greatest ever wins almost always include a couple great saves – Howard will need those on Sunday.
One of the Americans’ issues against Trinidad and Tobago was some shoddy finishing. Jozy Altidore misfired on a couple opportunities, while Bobby Wood hit one off the post and a couple other good chances went begging as well. The U.S. won’t get as many chances against Mexico and they need to make sure they finish the handful of chances they do get. Whether it’s Altidore or Wood up top, they need their striker to be ruthless in front of goal, to go along with their constant movement and ability to make some great passes. The all-around game will be important, but the finishing needs to be there from the front men too.
Good bench play
The U.S. have been training at altitude for two weeks. They’re as well-prepared for it as possible, and they’re used to playing in hot conditions. Still, the altitude, heat and smog of Mexico City will take their toll and the Americans need to play well from start to finish if they want to topple El Tri. That puts an especially big emphasis on whoever comes off the bench to provide fresh legs and make an impact, be that going forward or in defense. Bruce Arena has talked about how he thinks the speed and physicality of Jordan Morris is a real asset on the bench, but he’s just one of a handful of players who Arena can call on. Whoever he does tap to come in need to be more than just another body or even fresh legs. They need impacts from all three.