EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Friday’s friendly at MetLife Stadium between the U.S. and Mexico doesn’t come with a ton of emotional baggage or themes of revenge. The historic animosity between longtime rivals is present, but both sides will be looking to get something a bit more meaningful out of their latest friendly.
ESPN’s Tom Marshall and Noah Davis preview the match from both perspectives.
U.S. point of view: Biggest test yet for the “kids”
The point of sport is to win, of course, but perhaps it’s also to learn. That’s especially true for a national team, who plays endless friendlies that present learning opportunities intermingled with the qualifiers and tournaments in which victory is always the ultimate objective. When the USMNT takes the field against Mexico on Friday, a rematch in name if not in reality off the back of El Tri‘s 1-0 Gold Cup final win in July, U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter will be seeking forward momentum more than balls in the back of the net.
“A very consistent theme since we’ve been together is to just keep progressing,” he said in the lead-up to the game. “We got to a certain point in the Gold Cup. We want to analyze where we got to, and now can we build on that in this next game, in this next phase?”
– Berhalter: Dest will start vs. Mexico
– O’Hanlon: Dest is proof of U.S. progress in developing talent
Continuing to build on “that,” the style and philosophy Berhalter brought to the team after his December 2018 hire would be a welcome sight for American fans who watched the squad flounder in an awkward limbo for a half-decade. Early returns have been decent if not spectacular, most notably a strong Gold Cup in which the Americans dominated until they didn’t and never looked overmatched.
Against Mexico (and Uruguay in St. Louis on Tuesday), Berhalter has close to a full-strength roster — Tyler Adams, DeAndre Yedlin, Tim Weah and Matt Miazga are missing due to injury — and 180 minutes to test ideas, theories and combinations. “Every player on the team is a puzzle piece,” said defender Aaron Long, one of the last year’s biggest success stories.
The most important puzzle piece is where Christian Pulisic best fits. It’s not a new conundrum. Both Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena tried — and succeeded/failed in equal measure — to figure out where to play the American’s most dynamic attacker. Berhalter’s choice about Pulisic will dictate a great deal of the rest of the formation. The Chelsea acquisition is listed as a forward on the latest roster, as opposed to the midfield role he occupied in the pre-Gold Cup releases. This might mean that the coach sees his young star playing farther up the field, likely out on a wing with Josh Sargent in the middle, or it might mean that Pulisic will play farther back and that an “F” or an “M” next to his name means little.
It’s also a chance to continue integrating the next generation into the national team.
“The youth wave for the U.S. is coming,” FC Dallas defender Reggie Cannon said. “I feel like I’m having gray hairs in the back of my head at 21. I don’t know why. But I’m always excited about this youth.”
The fact is simple: a roster comprised of American players 24 and under would be the favorite to beat a starting XI of guys 25 and up. Making this transition as seamlessly as possible needs to be a priority. Mexico and Uruguay, two quality but beatable sides, present wonderful opportunities to find out who of the newer crew can hang in Berhalter’s proactive style.
The coach understands this. He knows how valuable the games, and the trainings are for the future prospects. For example, there’s a shot for Atlanta United FC center-back Miles Robinson. “It’s a chance for us to get an up-close look at him,” Berhalter said. “We know he has the physical talent. We know he’s a competitor. We know he’s had a great season so far for Atlanta. It’s nice to get him in our environment and see how he can adapt to our style of play.” It’s high praise for the 22-year-old, and Berhalter could offer similar sentiments about at least a half dozen players in camp.
2022 World Cup qualifying begins in roughly a year. The process, as always, continues.
— Noah Davis
Mexico point of view: Stay perfect under Martino
A victory for Mexico over the United States in a noncompetitive game would exorcise the stat that El Tri hasn’t defeated the Stars and Stripes in a friendly since 1999. Also at stake is Mexico head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s undefeated record in his first 10 games in charge.
Obviously, the Gold Cup final was the big one for the rivalry and a victory for the U.S. wouldn’t change that or bring much in the way of revenge. In fact, it would possibly fuel the perception — at least for El Tri fans — that Mexico tends to be the team that wins when it matters. The stats in games since 2000 may be 14 wins, eight losses and six draws but in official competition, Mexico has won eight of the past 15 games (8-6-1).
Mexico does head into this game as a significant favorite. Martino has 31 players in camp and the return of Hector Herrera, Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, Javier Hernandez, Hirving Lozano and Miguel Layun means that El Tri is much stronger than it was during the Gold Cup. The victory over the U.S. in the final came without arguably Mexico’s best two players (Herrera, Lozano) and the national team’s all-time top scorer (Hernandez). Martino himself said “we will be better” after the Gold Cup final and referenced those absentees.
The big question mark is which starting XI Martino will put out on Friday given the number of players in his squad and a game against Argentina coming up on Tuesday in San Antonio. More than the result, Martino will be looking closely at what those returning players can bring.
Martino is thought to be delighted with the progress of the younger players, particularly at how they have adopted his methods. The thinking is that Mexico will play the group stage of the CONCACAF Nations League (Bermuda, Panama) with the younger group, with a few of the more experienced players sprinkled in. Therefore, these games against the U.S. and Argentina will be used by Martino to figure out which players of the Europe-based players will be best suited for CONCACAF Nations league action.
For example, there seems to be little point in bringing both Raul Jimenez and Hernandez to play away against Bermuda given that one is guaranteed to be on the bench in Martino’s 4-3-3 system. (It’ll probably be one of Andres Guardado or Erick Gutierrez.) Equally, the Pulisic vs. Lozano angle — mainly pushed in the Spanish-language media — may not have any legs given both aren’t exactly the most brash personalities willing to trash-talk, but it will nevertheless be of interest to see two of CONCACAF’s best attacking on the same field and on opposite teams. Having such quality has to be good for the rivalry, especially given both are now playing for European clubs that are expected to be fighting for titles.
Lastly, this should be an entertaining game. Mexico has usually been the protagonist in this rivalry in terms of having the ball and taking the game to the U.S., something that’s continued under Martino’s aggressive style, but with Berhalter as coach, it seems like Stars and Stripes are now looking to play more front-foot soccer, meaning there should be plenty of space for the attacking talents on both teams to shine.
— Tom Marshall