Saturday, August 8, 2009

An early take an USA-Mexico

Because I'll probably be MIA for the next week, here are my pre-game thoughts on USA-Mexico.

By now I'm sure you know that the US squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifier has been announced. To refresh, here is the team:

Goalkeepers: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan.
Defenders: Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Jonathan Spector, Jay DeMerit, Steve Cherundolo, Jonathan Bornstein, Chad Marshall.
Midfielders: Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber, Ricardo Clark, Stuart Holden, Jose Francisco Torres.
Forwards: Landon Donovan, Brian Ching, Jozy Altidore, Charlie Davies, Conor Casey.

No shockers at all, save for maybe Conor Casey being the final striker. Only 18 players can dress, so he may not even be in uniform. Who else may not dress is a little more questionable. I would pick from the quartet of Torres, Holden, Bornstein or Marshall. I would keep Holden, but Torres being based in Mexico could help his chances because Bradley may view him as being more prepared for the pressure of a Mexico road qualifier than Holden. Then again, Marshall's inclusion could very well depend on how Bob Bradley aligns the defense. If he puts Bocanegra on the left, will he simply shift him to the center in case of injury to DeMerit or Gooch? And would he insert Bornstein on the left or my preferred alternative of shifting Spector to the left and inserting Cherundolo on the right if that emergency happened?

There are two other questions to be asked of the starting lineup. First, Bradley-Clark or Bradley-Feilhaber in the middle? Feilhaber is on great form already this season, helping AGF Aarhus to a 2-0-1 start that includes scoring a game winning goal and getting the assist on the fastest opening goal in Danish Superliga history. Another thing to keep in mind is Houston will have played this past Thursday and again Sunday prior to the qualifier, meaning Ricardo Clark could possibly have played 190 minutes in the six days preceding the game at Estadio Azteca. Will he show fatigue playing in the Mexico City altitude, heat, and smog? Very possible.

Second, with his full choice of strikers, does Bradley go with Altidore-Davies or does he use Ching, who always seems to get these starts? Remember, he only wasn't used in the Confederations Cup because of injury. He has to use Altidore-Davies, right? Right!? In fact, he basically has to start the same team as the one that faced Spain, right?!

I think that Bradley does in fact start Clark and the Altidore-Davies tandem, and the US will have to withstand an early onslaught from a Mexican team that will be high in confidence and hoping to ride the coattails of the Gold Cup final. If Clark slows, Feilhaber comes on after 60 minutes or whatever. I also think as the game wears on, Holden/Torres and Ching are the subs to introduce some skill at holding possession.

As for the Mexican team, their squad draws heavily from their team at the Gold Cup. Unfortunately for El Tri, Jay Heaps, Heath Pearce, and Logan Pause will get no closer to the field Wed than looking at their HDTVs. An added blow to the Mexicans is losing captain Rafa Marquez, who injured himself in preseason training with Barcelona. On the other hand, could that be a blessing in disguise, given Marquez's penchant for getting frustrated with the US and receiving red cards?

If you didn't check it out, I've already gone over the history of games at Estadio Azteca, and provided some thoughts there.

I think the biggest thing will be the US approach. The team discovered something about themselves at the Confederations Cup. They take criticism and underdog status to heart. They truly believe they have the ability to beat any team anytime, and they want to prove it. They also realized that if they attack, not recklessly, but carefully yet freely, they can control the tempo and strike out against the best of sides. And they have a die-as-a-group mentality that will let them hold on in the face of serious onslaught (let's not forget that they were tired and shorthanded against Brazil, not to mention Mexico is no Brazil). Landon Donovan has realized that he'll always be one of the best players on the field, certainly the best US field player, and I think he's going to show it on the field Wednesday. He always does against Mexico. Clint Dempsey aired things out with Bradley and seems to have his swagger back. Altidore and Davies discovered a partnership that plays excellently off their strength, athleticism and speed. And Feilhaber is finally bringing that new dimension to the field that the US needs to vary its attack.

As for specific match ups, the key players for Mexico are probably youngsters Giovanni Dos Santos and Carlos Vela. They will look to apply their quickness and flair against the US centerbacks, who are a group not known for their afterburners. In the past Nery Castillo has given players fits down the wings, and his speed could give Bocanegra trouble if he plays, but I won't try to predict who will start for Mexico. Pavel Pardo has been a constant in Mexico's midfield, but he was omitted from the squad, so in a way this will be a new look Mexican team, one that is a little younger and more predicated on speed in the attack, particularly through wings, whereas Pardo always brought poise and experience in the middle. Bocanegra and Spector will need to be on top of their game.

On the other end, Altidore will be a handfull for any of the El Tri defenders, especially with Marquez out. Osorio, Salcido, and Magallon will be stretched by Davies smart runs and Altidore will need to plant himself in good positions, forcing the Mexicans to deal with his size and strength, while Donovan and Dempsey pinch in and attack from the midfield. This is where Pardo could be missed by Mexico, as he provided the calming protection in front of Mexico's back line. If Donovan and Spector can keep providing good service, like they did during the Confederations Cup, the US could capitalize on an offensively minded Mexican team.

So what do I think will happen? I think Mexico tries to start quickly, but within ten minutes Dos Santos will misfire (typical) and the US will slowly gain a foothold. Sometime midway or two thirds into the first half, the US is either going to scare the living crap out of the Mexican crowd or silence them outright. I think the introduction of Feilhaber will change the game and I think the US scores off a set piece, maybe Dempsey or Bocanegra, to stun Mexico. The frustration and tension of the Mexicans will be palpable on the field and in the stands as they realize that World Cup qualification is being put in danger, by those hated Yanks no less. It's not impossible Mexico could find an equalizer, but Tim Howard will prove that he should be mentioned in the same breath as Casillas, Buffon, and Cesar. Final: USA 1-Mexico 0.

Anyone else already this excited for August 12?

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