The United States Men’s National Team will face the biggest hurdle in their mission to defend the CONCACAF Nations League title, as they face archrivals Mexico in Thursday night’s semifinal in Las Vegas.
As fate and their recent history would have it, Mexico underperformed in the Nations League group stage, finishing as the worst of the four group winners, and putting them on a collision course with the Americans in the semifinal round.
Nevertheless, it is fair to expect that El Tri will be the toughest matchup of the remaining semifinalists – which includes Panama and Canada on the other side of the bracket – for BJ Callaghan’s squad, if anything due to the feisty history between the two teams.
The USMNT also come into the game in a major state of flux, with the already slow-rolling search for a new head coach further complicated by the replacement of interim coach Anthony Hudson with his assistant Callaghan for the two main competitions this summer.
To Callaghan’s credit, he has been a constant presence with the team since joining as an assistant in Gregg Berhalter’s staff in 2019, and has the luxury of most of the first-choice players for the Nations League finals in Vegas.
Mexico already filled their coaching vacancy in February with Argentine Diego Cocca, who has notched two wins compared to three draws in his first five games, albeit with a less than stellar record of five goals allowed.
Technically, the United States and Mexico last met in April, where they drew 1-1 in the initial Continental Clásico in Arizona, however as a money-grabbing friendly game consisting of typically fringe domestic players, that result has next to no bearing on expectations for Thursday’s meeting.
As usual, Mexico will be anchored in the defense by veteran trash-talker extraordinaire Guillermo Ochoa, who currently plays for Serie A club Salernitana. Apart from the 37 year-old, 137-times capped Ochoa, the team is comparatively inexperienced, with only three players – defender Jesús Gallardo, along with midfielders Edson Álvarez and Orbelín Pineda – having more than 50 national team appearances under their belt.
One to watch will be Mexican-American outside back Julián Araujo, who despite having appeared only six times so far with El Tri, is making his way through the Barcelona system following his transfer from LA Galaxy earlier this year.
Santiago Giménez will be the main threat up front; after winning the Eredivisie crown with Feyenoord this season on the back of 15 league goals, the 22 year-old is making the first of what will be many appearances in the rivalry against the US.
Apart from one critical piece in his midfield – team captain Tyler Adams – Callaghan has nearly all of the most prominent American players at his disposal, and will have the honor of ringing in the highly-anticipated era of Folarin Balogun.
The Brooklyn-born striker recently confirmed his switch to the US over fellow suitors England and Nigeria, and is expected to play a prominent role in the American setup henceforth. He scored 21 goals last season while on loan at Riems from parent club Arsenal and is a likely starter in the front three, alongside Christian Pulisic and one of the many wing options available to the Americans.
With Adams still out injured, the midfield three will likely consist of Weston McKennie, who is shaking off a difficult 2023 with Leeds, Yunus Musah, who is likely headed for the exit after Valencia’s disaster campaign, and potentially Celta Vigo’s Luca de la Torre.
Gio Reyna could also enter into the midfield as a central attacking option, or in a wide position up front, however his fate for club and country as of late seems to be as a deadly second-half substitute, which could be the ultimate difference-maker in what should be a tight contest against Mexico.
With Tim Ream out for the summer recovering from surgery, a likely all-MLS pairing of Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson will hold down the center, while Antonee Robinson is a lock starter on the left. The side does present a bit of risk for Callaghan, as the usual right-back starter Sergiño Dest has been inactive for several months after being shut out by AC Milan, and his understudy Joe Scally is still searching for consistency to match his considerable talent ceiling.
Regardless, this will be a point of attack for the likely left-sided Mexican starters Jesús Gallardo and Carlos Alberto Rodríguez.
The game will kick off at 7pm local time, 10pm Eastern time at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. The winner moves onto Sunday’s final against either Mexico or Panama, while the loser plays in the third-place game on the same day.