Soccer in the States: U.S. Men’s National Team gears up for crucial Mexico match

Looking at the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying calendar, Nov. 12 is the first date that really jumps out if you’re a United States Men’s National Team fan. Who else could it be but Mexico? The already fiery rivalry between these two teams will be amped up by the huge stakes that come with qualifying for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup, and it’s safe to say it will be must-watch soccer, even for neutral fans. Here’s why:

This particular game might end up being the most important fixture the USMNT will play by the end of the qualifying campaign because the U.S. will have the home-field advantage against their best competition, by far, in Mexico. 

Mexico tops the Octagon with 14 points from six games, and the U.S. sits in second place with 11. To get a feel for how close the two teams are, let me pose a hypothetical. Even just a one-goal U.S. win would tie the teams on points, goal difference and goals for. This would give way to the third tiebreaker, head-to-head points, in which the U.S. would have the advantage.

In less complex words, the U.S. doesn’t need to get a pretty win over Mexico — no matter how scrappy, just about any victory will do. If you’re new around here, that’s kind of a theme for the U.S. 

Braggadociously but truthfully, the USMNT has owned Mexico in 2021. El Tri suffered defeats in both the Nations League and the Gold Cup finals at the hands of the U.S. Those defeats are definitely going to rile their team up, making this a revenge game for Mexico. The fact of the matter is, as awesome as the two summer trophies for the USMNT were, this is the game that matters the most. 

The one aspect of this game that provides the slightest margin for error for the U.S. is that this international break only features two games: first Mexico then on the road against Jamaica. Even if the USMNT can’t get a positive result against its rivals, there’s room to recover against a Jamaican team that sits in sixth place. 

But it’s not just the context that makes this game so intriguing, it’s what actually happens on the pitch. 

If you’ve ever watched a U.S.-Mexico game, you know that no matter the stakes, the game is feisty. It’s physical, the fans get involved (sometimes too involved) and the referee is almost always handing out cards left and right. 

I’ve always felt that the more physicality in the game, the more the USMNT team tends to sink. Don’t get me wrong, the team has a few strong players, such as defenders John Brooks and Miles Robinson and midfielder Weston McKennie, but aside from them, I’m not confident that the U.S. can bring the heat. The U.S. has plenty of skillful players, but the skill tends to be negated when defenders are stuck in and purposefully fouling to stop attacking play.

In these games, tactics are often overshadowed by the physical play, but it doesn’t make them any less important. USMNT Manager Gregg Berhalter isn’t exactly a tactical mastermind, but when it matters the most, he has gotten results against El Tri. 

It’s hard to look at Berhalter’s team and assign it a distinct tactical ideology, but his system usually works best when the team’s best players have the ball and can create opportunities to score. Mexico happens to do a really good job at preventing specific players from receiving the ball. In the Nations League final, winger Christian Pulisic was shut out of the game for the most part, as the U.S. midfield couldn’t find him in advanced positions. 

Given that Pulisic is now coming off of an ankle injury that sidelined him for almost two months, I don’t see how things will be any different this time around. Mexico Manager Gerardo Martino knows exactly what his team needs to do to succeed, and a draw on the road to maintain first place wouldn’t be a bad result for El Tri either.

Hopefully I’ve now sold you on at least giving this game a watch. But enough with the preview. It’s time to get bold with predictions.  

Mexico isn’t going to roll over, but the U.S. will have a boost from the home crowd that should keep the team afloat. My score prediction is 1-1, with goals from U.S. forward Ricardo Pepi and Mexico midfielder Jesús Corona (assuming both of them start the game). 

The game is still just over a week away — a lot can and probably will change before then. The beauty of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying lies in the unpredictability of the games. With the stakes higher than ever, this U.S. vs. Mexico match has all the ingredients of an all-time great matchup. 

Adam Jasper is a sophomore providing updates on the U.S. Men’s National Team and its road to qualifying for the World Cup as well as general soccer news. He is also a sports editor at the Daily Trojan. His column “Soccer in the States,” runs every other Thursday.