With a 2014 World Cup berth at stake tonight, it's very surprising to look at the CONCACAF standings and see Mexico sitting in fourth place, five points behind the United States.
For a recent period of time, the United States team was one notch below Mexico in terms of international quality and success, especially in head-to-head matches. Since the United States' 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup Final collapse to Mexico, the rivalry has actually swung in their favor.
You could chalk that up to the coaching change made by the USSF who brought in Jurgen Klinsmann for Bob Bradley. His tactics, philosophy and faith in his players has been rewarded and justified in the improvements and progress the team has made in the last two-plus years.
You might even chalk it up to the influx of dual citizenship players, specifically German-Americans, who have chosen to play for Klinsmann and the United States since his introduction as coach. There is no denying the increased quality of talent that players like Jermaine Jones, Timmy Chandler, Fabian Johnson and more recently, Aron Johannsson, Mix Diskerud and John Anthony Brooks have brought to the American side.
There has also been a rise in the quality of MLS play that has allowed players like Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Graham Zusi, Eddie Johnson and Brad Evans a chance to shine in their opportunities under Klinsmann as well.
Their individual influences have been noticeable and integral pieces to the growth this team has shown in recent months.
Since Klinsmann has taken over the team, the pendulum has swung far in favor of the United States in their rivalry with Mexico.
However, for tonight's crucial game, they must still tread lightly.
Mexico is in disarray amidst the firing of their former coach, Chepo de la Torre, hours after a home loss to Honduras last Friday. The defeat at Estadio Azteca is only the second registered home defeat in their team's history, so something is definitely amiss. With a loss tonight and other possible results, their chances to qualify may be very bleak for their remaining two games.
Make no mistake about it, Mexico is a desperate team needing a draw at the very least.
And we must not forget, they still possess a few extremely dangerous players in Andres Guardado, Javier Hernandez and Giovani Dos Santos. On a given night where motivation is high, like tonight, they can certainly cause problems, especially against a back line as uncomfortable as the United States' current one.
In a change from Friday's lineup, tonight's starting lineup for Mexico should feature those three players if they want every chance to move up in the CONCACAF standings. The lineup for the United States should be very similar to the one from Friday except for a minimum of two changes due to accumulation of yellow cards for Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron.
According to Tim Howard's report to Sports Illustrated's Brian Straus on Friday, there is an indication that the back line might remain the same except for a "straight swap" of possibly Goodson for Besler.
I would expect that to be the case, but I would like to see Michael Parkhurst in place of Michael Orozco Fiscal. Orozco Fiscal looked outgunned on Friday against Costa Rica and while Parkhurst may not be the biggest upgrade, he knows the position of outside right full-back better and is also more handy in attack.
As for Geoff Cameron's spot, the intrigue is there for whether Klinsmann will go defensive or offensive.
He brought in Kyle Beckerman who is surely more defensive minded, but as we saw in the Gold Cup, he can have a moment or two of brilliance in the final third as well. He also has Mix Diskerud at his disposal, who has shown the ability to make difficult passes on offense and play more creatively. His defensive ability is not as good as Beckerman's, but he is no slouch himself. I would like to see Diskerud get the nod.
The big question is whether Klinsmann will alter his four attacking players. I would like to see him slide Clint Dempsey back to the underlying forward or attacking midfield spot and move Landon Donovan out wide to either wing position, preferably the left to keep Zusi's inviting crosses and diligent defensive tracking in the game.
With that, we could finally see Aron Johannsson in a crucial role for an important game. He would not get a better look at how storied and maniacal this rivalry is than in this game tonight. To Klinsmann, that pressure may be too much in his mind for him and prefer to put Eddie Johnson up top.
In some instances, less experience and awareness of the moment can allow players to play more freely and without fear. If Johannsson gets the starting nod, I could certainly see this being the case for him.
In the loss to Costa Rica, the United States did miss Michael Bradley to initiate the attacks, but they were still able to create offense from the talent and experience of key players like Donovan, Dempsey and Jozy Altidore. If the offense is a bit luckier tonight, Mexico's defense may be in for a long game with another cunning performance from Donovan and Dempsey.
While many may see Mexico in shambles and think this should be a relatively easy victory at home for the United States, we must remain aware of the dangerous quality they possess and how desperate they are for points. Couple that with the loss of several crucial players like Besler, Cameron and most importantly, Bradley, and we may have a very close and exciting match on our hands tonight.
My prediction: 3-2 United States.
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