This week, the focus of almost the entire free world and perhaps even the not-so-free world was on the US election and now the world will be stuck with Donald Trump for the next four years. Columbus was one of the crucial battlegrounds. For the soccer faithful, however, the life or death contest that will take place in Columbus wasn’t on Tuesday, but rather on Friday.
That is when the USMNT take on our noisy neighbors, Mexico, to kick off the Hex.
For the uninitiated, the Hex (short for Hexagonal) is the final round of CONCACAF qualification for the World Cup. The six teams who qualified for the final stage (Panama, Honduras, Costa Rica, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago and USA) square off in a home and away round robin. The top three qualify automatically, while the fourth advances to a playoff. Every game is critical, because the first tie-breaker is head to head results, not goal difference.
Most outsiders would be surprised to know that the USMNT have qualified in top spot since 2006. You would think that would make us favorites going into the Hex, but the truth is anything but. One could claim that there is a two-level split, with Mexico, Costa Rica and the US on the top level, Panama and T&T clearly in the bottom level, with Honduras straddling the divide. In reality, the Hex is more like a gathering of a dysfunctional family.
Usually, Mexico go in as the favorites, albeit based on pedigree rather than accomplishment. Costa Rica and the US fume as the siblings who have once again been passed over. Once the tournament actually starts, schizophrenia seems to take over.
The top teams inexplicably drop points at the minnows and the waters remain muddied till the last round. This is usually considered great for “the neutrals”, except it is highly doubtful if any neutrals care. Meanwhile, the faithful are left to scream for the coaches’ heads and, in Mexico, even for government inquiries.
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (Middlesbrough), Ethan Horvath (Molde), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), William Yarbrough (Leon)
Defenders: Matt Besler (Sporting KC), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle)
Midfielders: Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Lynden Gooch (Sunderland), Julian Green (Bayern Munich), Jermaine Jones (Colorado Rapids), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Caleb Stanko (Freiburg), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Aron Johannsson (Werder Bremen), Alan Gordon (Los Angeles Galaxy), Bobby Wood (Hamburger SV).
While Klinsmann alternated between Guzan and Howard in the early rounds, I am sure he will pick Howard to start. While Guzan has been warming the bench at ‘Boro, Howard just turned in an outstanding performance in the MLS playoffs. Besides, his consistency gives the backline the reassurance it needs to push forward when the chance arises. Alas, a position that probably had the most depth now falls off steeply after Howard and Guzan.
Geoff Cameron’s absence through injury poses the biggest question mark for the US. In a strange way, while central defense has been a perennial problem for the US since, oh, maybe 2002, there are now several players of comparable lower talent so that the drop isn’t precipitous. Who will partner Brooks? Will Klinsmann go with the experienced Besler, bet on Gonzalez’ experience in Mexican football, or take a gamble on Carter-Vickers? I am guessing Besler.
The flanks are now the weakest points in the defense. Johnson plays out of position, which is always a risk on the back foot. Yedlin has also been a bit vulnerable on defense, though he is able to recover often due to his speed. On the plus side, both pose a threat going forward. Orozco and Chandler both represent a steep drop in already weak areas.
Relatively speaking, we have an embarrassment of riches in the midfield. Defensively, Jones is still the pick of the crop and if he can reproduce his form from this summer, we should be in great shape. Bradley would be the other defensive pick, though he has been prone to giving the ball away in our half, so Klinsmann ought to consider other options. Perhaps Stanko or Gooch as a two-way player, with Jones instructed to stay home.
On the attacking side, Klinsmann will likely go with Bedoya on the right. He tracks back well on defense, which may offset the weakness on that flank. The big question mark would be who he picks to play behind Altidore. Will it be Bobby Wood as a slightly withdrawn forward, or will it be Kljestan as a true No. 10? Or will he play both, with Wood on the left? If he plays both, Pulisic will be relegated to the bench.
The one starting spot that is a lock is Altidore up front. For some strange reason, while Jozy has been a complete flop in England, he has always done well for the US. A goal every other game is an excellent average for most strikers and, believe it or not, that is what Jozy has.
The loss of Clint Dempsey is another big one besides Cameron. Not the greatest striker, but he always seemed to score in the big games. For those puzzled by the inclusion of 35-year-old Alan Gordon, he can be useful if we are protecting a lead. He can hold up the ball well and can take up room on corner kicks at either end.
The biggest worry for me is the schedule. We start at home against arch rivals, Mexico. Mexico are much easier to handle a bit further into the Hex. They have shown a tendency to drop a few points to the minnows; self-doubt sets in, the natives panic and they are left ripe for the plucking, preferably first at Mexico in about the 3rd or 4th game and a return fixture towards the end.
Both the US and Mexico come in on reasonably good streaks, so confidence should be high on both sides. The US, in particular, will be buoyed by the semi-final appearance at the Copa America. Mexico may still carry the scars of their 7-0 mauling by Chile, while the US can rationalize the corresponding 4-0 loss to Argentina on the suspensions of Jones and Wood, who were both in top form --- perhaps a slight edge for the US.
In some sense, the US will perennially be fighting an uphill battle against Mexico and all the other teams in the Hex. Soccer is the top sport in all the other countries, with the possible exception of T and T, where cricket dominates. In the US, our best athletes grow up dreaming of making it to the NFL, NBA, Major League baseball, or even the NHL, before they think of soccer.
Although our performances in the World Cup and the retirement paradise afforded by the MLS to aging soccer stars has drawn more youngsters to the game, we are lucky to have an influx of expats to augment our ranks. After all, blood is thicker than water.
This has helped close the talent gap with Mexico, but it is likely that Mexico will still dominate possession and possibly create more chances than the US. Our success has always hinged upon dogged defense, outstanding goalkeeping and a lethal counterattack. Two aspects have benefited the US – we have the height to control most aerial attacks and we always seem to have speed that can kill the Mexicans.
On the defensive side, our vulnerabilities have been with speedy wingers attacking our flanks, not a very strong suit for the Mexicans. Chicharito Hernandez does have speed, but he operates down the middle and, typically, by himself. If he moves to the flank, he has to hold up play till the others move forward. The US should not be vulnerable over the top, since it is highly unlikely we will play a high line. Besides, the central defenders are quick and Yedlin can cover ground very fast.
There are some other intangibles at play. Columbus, in particular, has been a fortress for the US and a burial ground for the Mexicans. Shifting the home fixtures to the heartland was the smartest thing the US Federation have done. In the past, games used to be played in venues like LA or New York, where immigrants often turned them into away fixtures.
The other benefit is to have our opponents deal with some cold weather, the colder the better. It offsets the heat at most of our away fixtures. Psychologically, one hopes the “dos a cero” stays in play in their heads; it definitely will if the US score first.
Taking on the Rest
A US loss in the first game would be a huge problem, because the next game is away to Costa Rica. Costa Rica are probably the most organized side defensively and I wasn’t fooled by our flattering 4-0 win in the Copa America this summer – they had plenty of chances that they failed to put away.
Starting 0 and 2 is a very real and bleak prospect. On the front foot, they have the kind of speed that can bother us. This was in evidence in the Copa, with Rodney Wallace, in particular, creating several chances. Up front is a familiar face for this Gunner fan – Joel Campbell.
While I have referred to “minnows”, many of the points I described about our matchup against Mexico applies equally to Panama and Honduras. While our record against them is good, the contests are always close – so close that even the home games are not guaranteed wins.
Perhaps the only team against whom we should readily win both games is T&T. One danger they pose is blinding speed at all positions. Since these are games where we will control possession, we can get caught playing a high line.
Klinsmann is challenged most by our defensive deficiencies. This forces him to play many players out of position, something that is often criticized as tinkering. Cameron (when he is healthy again) is the best central defender we have, though his position for Stoke is midfield or at fullback.
Johnson is forced to play on the opposite flank, simply because there is no one else. The most tragic sacrifice is playing Pulisic on the left instead of the right. Klinsmann needs Bedoya’s defensive abilities to shore up Yedlin down the right.
He has a wealth of attacking talent in midfield, but the defensive side is still in the hands of Jones and Bradley. Jones is great and Bradley could be, if he concentrated more, but they are both aging. Darlington Nagbe would be next in line, but ruled himself out by missing the last round of friendlies due to personal reasons. One hopes he can work himself back into the side.
Thus far, Klinsmann’s practice has been to play the youngsters in the friendlies. But return to his veterans for the real games. However, I think the form of some of the youngsters really poses a problem. Green has been lively and has been scoring.
Gooch has been playing well for Sunderland and has shown well for the US. On the other hand, Kljestan seems to have been reborn and can’t be ignored. As some would say, this is a good problem to have.
I can’t close without a separate paragraph devoted to Pulisic. This kid can play. I have seen him taking on such formidable defenses as Real Madrid and Bayern Munich and rip through them. This is what his predecessor with the protégé moniker, Landon Donovan, would like to be when he grows up.
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The only problem is that Klinsmann plays him down the left, where he is good, instead of down the right, where he is devastating. Come on, Klinsy, take a gamble and let us take the game by the throat, instead of waiting on scraps.
Dos a cero! USA! USA!! USA!!!