Playtime is over for the USA in their attempt to qualify for the 2022 World Cup taking place in Quatar in barely over a year, as they will finally face archrivals Mexico on Friday night in Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium.
After six games of causing American fans, still traumatized by the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, to oscillate between hope, panic and relief, playtime is over for Gregg Berhalter’s squad as they welcome first-place Mexico to Ohio, for the most highly-anticipated match so far of this qualifying cycle.
The story of the team’s yo-yo performance through the first two three-game windows is likely already burned in the heads of anybody reading this article. Disappointing results against the likes of El Salvador, Canada and Panama have been offset by wins over Honduras, Jamaica and Costa Rica.
The result, as the final qualification round reaches its halfway point, is that the USA is in second place, three points and wide gulf of goal differential ahead of the fourth-place spot that would force them to enter into a playoff to reach Qatar, and currently in a strong position to advance to the final tournament.
Thursday’s date with Mexico, who have yet to lose but who have also failed to dominate, could either swing the signal back to a high of confidence, or potentially drop the team into a precarious position that will set off a nail-biting back end of the qualification schedule.
Gregg Berhalter’s squad has managed to get onto the plane to Cincinnati and through the initial preparations without any new injury concerns. “New” being the operative word since Barcelona starter Sergiño Dest and Borussia Dortmund starlet Giovanni Reyna weren’t even considered for the trip due to various injuries.
Still, the well-welcomed return of Christian Pulisic, who has played a late substitute role for Chelsea in their last two games after missing two months with an ankle injury, is a major boost to the team. The question is whether Berhalter will risk putting the Champions League winner onto the field from the start, where he will surely be a target for the strong Mexican defense, or save him as a late substitute.
While not exactly returning from injury, midfielder leader Weston McKennie has returned to form for his club team Juventus as of late, knocking in a pair of goals in recent weeks, and also finally relocating the fire and bite that made him one of the the surprises of Serie A last season.
The major question for Berhalter is how he will line up his attack. Apart from the questions over Pulisic’s role, he has a troublesome few options at forward, with 18 year-old Ricardo Pepi the only in-form candidate to for the spear of the attack. Pepi remains the mostly likely starter in front, perhaps paired with Lille forward Tim Weah, but he will have to contend with opposing defenders eager to show the dual-national that he chose the wrong team.
The game is a short 100 mile drive from Columbus Ohio, where many of the most memorable games between these two rivals have taken place. Berhalter’s team has indeed beaten the Mexicans in their two most recent meetings this summer – the finals of each of the Nations League and Gold Cup – but the visitors’ 2-1 win in Columbus almost exactly five years ago was the first blow in what was a qualification run that they are striving to tuck away into long-lost memories.
In the current campaign, the Mexicans are predictably atop the eight-team standings, having won four and drawn two, while scoring the most goals and conceding the fewest. Even though they are jointly leading the team scoring table with Candada, they have yet to find a dominant offensive force, with their ten goals having been scored by ten different players.
In comparison to a young USA squad, the team of the southern neighbors is filled with veterans; eleven of the 27 players called up are over the age of 30, with Andres Guardado and Guillermo Ochoa having been around long enough to see Landon Donovan and Benny Feilhaber secure the gold cup in the prehistoric times of 2007, before many readers of this article could legally buy beer.
One exception of note is perhaps the danger man that Berhalter’s back line will have to watch out for; 26 year-old Hirving Lozano, who has played a major attacking role for current Italian leaders Napoli.
The game gets underway at 9pm, Eastern US time in Cincinnati.