As much as the United States’ semi-final loss to Argentina, and Mexico’s infamous drubbing at the hands of Chile in the knockout rounds of the Copa America Centenario were indicative of the shortcomings of each team individually, a much more important message was sent to the footballing world this summer.
The two top dogs of the CONCACAF region had gone toe-to-toe with the two reigning giants of CONMEBOL. There was no contest. South America kicked North American ass. It was men against boys, a sorry statement in so many ways of the current state of affairs north of the Panama Canal. The score wasn’t 4-0. The score wasn’t 7-0. The score was 11-0.
Neither squad has played a competitive, full senior team match since the Copa America (the United States did play a third place consolation game against Colombia after the hammering at the hands of the Argentines, losing 1-0 to a Cafeteros side who had already defeated them 2-0 to begin the tournament).
They both take to the pitch this Friday and the following Tuesday, as they put the finishing touches on the fourth round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying. With the Hexagonal looming large, the final round of qualifying that, with the way things stand, is in no way a guarantee for Jurgen Klinsmann and his national team squad.
Mexico, in stark contrast, are sitting pretty atop Group 1 with a perfect twelve point total from four matches. El Tri have El Salvador away and Honduras at Estadio Azteca, both of those sides sure to be fueled by the fire of having everything to play for as they battle with Canada for the priceless second place spot. While Mexico have the group clinched and their place in the Hexagonal booked, the storyline that is Juan Carlos Osorio and his staff makes these games against the Central American sides seem far more important than they are in technicality.
Despite Osorio’s unblemished record going into the Copa America quarter-final vs. Chile, that defeat had thousands, if not millions of Mexican fans and journalists alike calling for the man’s head. While the storm has passed, the culture around El Tri is still one of relative gloom and sadness, Mexico’s early departure from the Olympics not doing that emotional weather pattern any favors.
In regards to Osorio, any sight of theoretical cloudiness will be met with a mob mentality of criticism. While it is highly doubtful that Osorio will be fired before the hex (with everything the federation went through to back him in the wake of the Copa exit), he is still a man on a very hot seat. Dominant wins in these upcoming matches are not going to make Mexican fans forget about Chile, but they will do wonders to see away the gloom, and brighten up the attitude around the Mexico camp.
It will be interesting to see what these games mean to Osorio as far as player selection goes, the Colombian born gaffer well known (all too well known, some would say) for his incessant tinkering with personnel.
It is not a young squad, this Mexican group. With only five players on the original 24-man under the age of 25 (FC Porto defender Diego Reyes, Atlas midfielder Candido Ramirez, Pachuca striker Hirving Lozano, Chivas forward Angel Zaldivar, and FC Porto forward Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, who is now out for the two matches as a late injury scratch), Osorio will be looking to his most experienced players to get El Tri back to winning ways.
Sadly for Osorio and Mexican fans, Chicharito Hernandez will miss at least the El Salvador match after injuring his hand, allegedly from falling down the stairs at his home. With no Chicharito or Tecatito, not only is Osorio missing two main sources of goals, but in the case of Corona, a certain stylistic flair that spreads through the entire squad when the player is on song.
With Rafael Marquez and Andres Guardado doing everything in their power to utilize their passion and leadership skills, and hold down the backline and midfield, look for Benfica’s Raul Jimenez to be a focal point of the Mexican attack in the two matches.
The U.S. currently sit in second out of four on seven points in Group 3, just one point above Guatemala who defeated Klinsmann’s boys back in March.
The Yanks face a flight to the southeastern reaches of the Caribbean and a match against lowly St Vincent & the Grenadines, the winless last place side that the Yanks battered 6-1 in St. Louis back in November (though we should remember that the team of mostly amateur players did take a shocking lead early in the match thanks to a goal from Seattle Sounders youngster Oalex Anderson, and played the Americans tough throughout the first half before capitulating after the restart), before they fly back to Jacksonville, Florida for a match against Trinidad & Tobago, the first place side in the group with ten points, who drew nil-nil with the U.S. in November of 2015, what seems ages ago.
T&T face a massive encounter at home at Hasely Crawford Stadium on Friday, important more so for their opposition, the match essentially a must win for Guatemala.
Klinsmann has an interesting mix of talent at his disposal, a 26-man squad that is diverse in age, international experience, and current club soccer homes. Look for some youngsters to get a chance to shine vs. St. Vncent & the Grenadines, the likes of FC Dallas defender Kellyn Acosta, Club Tijuana winger Paul Arriola, and 17 year-old Borussia Dortmund wonderkid Christian Pulisic. A win in that match, and the U.S. could be all but through. Things could still get tricky though, especially if Guatemala can pull of an upset against T&T, which would set up a wild last day of the qualifying round with three teams competing for two spots, and all sorts of whacky hypothetical scenarios.
Both the U.S. and Mexico are anxious to move past the Copa America, (the Mexicans a bit more so, for obvious reasons) and onto the vital task of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. With Costa Rica and Panama looking poised to advance from Group 2, the hex is shaping up, and we all remember how fun the last one was. The U.S. and Mexico want to go into that final round of qualifying with full heads of steam. In the next week, they each have two fine opportunities to gain that momentum.
CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying Schedule
Friday September 2nd
St. Vincent & the Grenadines vs. USA (12:30 PT)
Trinidad & Tobago vs. Guatemala (4:00 PT)
Haiti vs. Costa Rica (5:00 PT)
Panama vs. Jamaica (6:30 PT)
Honduras vs. Canada (2:06 PT)
El Salvador vs. Mexico (7:06 PT)
Tuesday September 6th
USA vs. Trinidad & Tobago (5:15 PT)
Guatemala vs. St. Vincent & the Grenadines (5:15 PT)
Costa Rica vs. Panama (6:30 PT)
Jamaica vs. Haiti (6:30 PT)
Mexico vs. Honduras (7:00 PT)
Canada vs. El Salvador (7:00 PT)