The most anticipated game of the World Cup qualifying cycle has arrived, and the United States will try to make history when they visit Azteca on Thursday night to take on arch-rivals Mexico.
What has become a traditional highlight for American fans every four years arrived approximately one year later this time around due to pandemic-disrupted scheduling, however carries no less weight than so many previous editions that have come before.
Aside from the obvious bias of this game being the one just a few hours away, this is, in some ways set to be the most pivotal and long-remembered visit of the USMNT to Mexico city, at least for the next eight years.
Aside from the fact that neither the US nor Mexico will run the qualification gauntlet prior to the 2026 World Cup, which they will jointly host with Canada, this game has heavy implications for both teams.
Both are tied on 21 points in the CONCACAF standings with three games remaining, the US holding an advantage in goal differential. However, whichever team loses, should the game not end as a draw, will open themselves up to a nervy and potentially disastrous final two games.
This is particularly precarious for Gregg Berhalter and his squad, as the two teams that are fighting to rise into the top three spots for automatic qualification, Panama and Costa Rica, are their final two opponents after Mexico. A worst-case scenario could see the team falter a second straight time at the finish line, although the betting man would likely favor them to still claim at worst the fourth-place spot destined for a play-off against (almost certainly) New Zealand.
Mexico has less pressure in that regard, as they will face Honduras and El Salvador in their final two games, and should have no trouble getting results against a pair of teams that for all intents and purposes will be nowhere near Qatar later this year.
Beyond the immediate impact on their qualification hopes, both teams have something to prove in this game, taking into account recent results.
To put it mildly, the Americans utterly dominated Mexico in 2021 in a manner so clinically humiliating to their opposition that one couldn’t be surprised if they heard that Gregg Berhalter had been secretly holding training sessions in Berlin’s famed Kit Kat Klub.
However, unlike rich businessmen who willingly pay for sessions with a trained dominatrix, the Mexican team were by no means willing recipients of their abuse, and will be looking to prove that their submissive behavior of 2021 was only a momentary – albeit yearlong – lapse, and not the permanent addition of a Red, White and Blue ball-gag to their official uniform.
Conversely, Gregg Berhalter’s young guns are eager to prove, for a fourth straight time, that they are finally ahead of Mexico (even if now behind Canada) in the new CONCACAF pecking order. A first-ever win in Azteca in a World Cup qualifier would certainly be a historically defining moment, even if the team’s captain is less willing to admit the obvious truth.
But of course, the 22 players on the field will ultimately decide the outcome over the course of the 90-plus minutes of playing time.
The major news for Gregg Berhalter’s team in the final weeks leading up to this international break has been, with a pair of exceptions, who is missing due to injuries.
Weston McKennie, Brenden Aaronson, Sergiño Dest, Zack Steffen, Matt Turner and Giovanni Reyna all went down to injuries in recent weeks, while Chris Richards didn’t recover from his knock in the last qualifying window in time to participate here.
Luckily, Reyna recovered from his latest setback quickly, and will be ready to take whichever role he is entrusted with in Azteca. Similarly, Steffen recovered in time, and is in contention to be in the starting role between the sticks.
In fact, from his lineup that posted the most recent dos-a-cero in Cincinnati in November, only McKennie and Aaronson are unavailable for Berhalter. Although, with Reyna and Christian Pulisic now available and arguably in-form, Jordan Pefok perhaps the best option to take the center forward role in place of misfiring Ricardo Pepi, and Luca de la Torre showing metronome-like consistency with Heracles Almelo as of late, some surprises could be in order.
Mexico also have injury concerns, although less severe than the Americans, and are perhaps a godsend for helping them let go of a past that was never as glorious as they naively thought it was entitled to be.
Namely, 35 year-old team captain Andrés Guardado is out with a thigh injury for their final three qualifying games. While he will certainly be back, even if with a walker, for a likely trip to Qatar, his absence could finally force head coach Tata Martino and their federation as a whole to look for new leadership beyond a captain that has never given the team any meaningful success outside of CONCACAF competitions.
Additionally, forward Rogelio Funes Mori and defender Julio César Domínguez are also absent due to injury. Funes Mori will be a blow to the team as he had become a preferred starting option at forward.
The 34 year-old Domínguez has been hardly more than an as-necessary stopgap in the defense, and could be another addition-by-subtraction as it will force Martino to look beyond players that are approaching his own age.
The game kicks off at 9pm Central Time on Thursday night in Mexico’s Azteca, where the USMNT has never won a World Cup qualifying game.