With barely two days before kickoff in Mexico’s Azteca to begin their final three World Cup qualifiers, USMNT starting defender Walker Zimmerman sees more pressure on their hosts to atone for their trio of losses in 2021.
Zimmerman and his American teammates completed the hat-trick over their southern rivals last year, beating them three times in official competitions. Zimmerman only played in the last of those three, the dos-a-cero result in Cincinnati in November, however sees all three wins as sources of confidence for the team heading into Thursday’s night game.
“We can take some confidence from those games, just knowing that we’ve done it before, [and] we can do it again,” Zimmerman said to the press after arriving in the current USMNT camp in Houston, while still cautioning, “at the same time it’s qualification, [so] those games don’t matter anymore.”
“It’s about qualifying for the World Cup,” he continued, adding “it’s a very important game for both teams.”
With the always-grueling visit to Azteca being the most anticipated game of the qualifying cycle, and one of the most important when looking at the two teams’ current positions in the standings, he nevertheless doesn’t sense an air of nervousness amongst team and staff.
“I don’t think it’s nervousness, I think it’s excitement,” he judged of their mindset. “At this level, you want to play in big games, you want to have that responsibility, recognize the importance of it and embrace it. I think we have that kind of DNA amongst a lot of our players.”
The official home of the El Tri offers a myriad of challenges for visitors, ranging from the altitude, to air quality, and a notoriously hostile home crowd. The Nashville SC star is unfazed, and draws upon their recent arctic-blast win against Honduras in early-February as a model example of how to not only face the elements, but win under any condition.
“It’ll be a great challenge for us,” he conceded. “There’s not too much experience of playing in Azteca for a lot of the guys. Certainly we have a few who were there and involved last cycle, and we know it’s going to be a challenge.”
“Just in the same way that we prepared for that game [against Honduras] in Minnesota from a mental standpoint; I thought we approached that the right way and this is no different.”
Confidently emphasizing his point, he re-iterated, “It’ll be challenging, yes, [but] we’re up for that challenge.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll go out there with a good mindset and push through the elements, continue to encourage one another as we make our way through the game, and and come away with the result.”
Of course the 11 players wearing the Stars and Stripes are only half of the equation, as they will face a Mexican motivated to atone for their multiple humiliations at the hands of the Americans in 2021.
Zimmerman does hold Thursday’s opponents in high regard, but feels as though the onus will be squarely on them to prove themselves in front of their home crowd.
“Certainly they have a lot of talent,” he diplomatically assessed. “You definitely have to respect their strengths, know what their strengths are, and and try to eliminate them as best as you can.”
“Based on that first performance [in Cincinnati], they probably walked away unsatisfied with their attack. We can expect them to be definitely up for this game, trying to prove something against us, and we’ve got to be ready to match that.”
Reflecting on the recent 2-0 victory, where he played the full game in the defense, the 25-times capped international recognized that the team’s dominance was a result of them pulling all of the right strings.
“I thought we did a very good job that first game,” he mused. “They broke through one or two times and created big chances, but Zack [Steffen] stood up big.”
“I thought we did a lot of really good things with our ability to step up, not give them time, good 1v1 defending and [being] strong in duels. It’s going to take all those things again, and more, to make sure we can shut them down.”
An additional weapon that was not available to Zimmerman and his teammates in November is 19 year-old Borussia Dortmund attacker Gio Reyna, who was still in the midst of recovering from a muscle injury at the time. Reyna’s return for this window excites the Georgia-born defender, and is a factor he thinks could be critical throughout all three upcoming games.
“We’re thrilled to have Gio back back and involved in qualifiers,” he grinned. “Obviously he’s been out for a little while, but I know just from speaking with him, and even from his game on the weekend, [that] he is he’s super excited to be back, [and] to be involved on this team.”
“It’s all of our goal to qualify for the World Cup, so I think knowing him [and] knowing the kind of guy that he is, he’s chomping at the bit to make a big impact in these three games.”
“We’re going to need it. He’s the kind of guy who can change a game, and so having him available in any capacity is a boost for our team.”
The USMNT will kick off against El Tri in Azteca on Thursday night, 9pm local time.