The United States men’s national team will play their most challenging World Cup qualifier of this cycle Thursday night when the Americans visit Mexico and the Estadio Azteca for a 10 p.m. ET kickoff on Paramount+. The USMNT will go for their first ever WCQ win in Mexico, having failed to win any of their previous nine matches with an 0-6-3 record. While it isn’t time to hit the panic button, one point here could be golden for the Americans, who are nearly through to the Qatar for the 2022 World Cup.
The team is dealing with injuries, and with manager Gregg Berhalter expected to rely heavily on Christian Pulisic, it will take something special to get the win.
Here are three keys for the Americans entering the high-pressure contest:
1. Be more defensive in the middle
Not having Weston McKennie due to injury is a huge omission, and you could argue he is the team’s most important player because of what he offers in each third of the pitch. McKennie is a threat in attack, a defensive menace and has the quality to get the ball moving in the middle, so not having him must be addressed. How is he replaced? I would expect Kellyn Acosta to join Tyler Adams in the middle if Gregg Berhalter does what I think he should do — which is be a bit more defensive. Yes, it would impact attacking quality, but it is necessary in a match like this where so much pressure is on El Tri to prove something in attack. Having a bit more cover in the middle, with somebody who can work closely with Adams to defend and get the ball forward quickly is vital.
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2. Make it ugly at the back
The U.S. know they have the advantage defensively on set pieces, especially due to strength and height. And Mexico love to get going quickly, get down the wings and cause damage through crosses. To avoid that, expect a lot of defensive subs and quite a few yellow cards. Slowing down the pace with tactical fouls worked well for both Canada and Costa Rica against Mexico, and the U.S. would be wise to follow that game plan. It will be a busy night for those tasked with defending deep in their own half, and don’t be surprised to see Mexico get a whole bunch of set pieces from beyond 40 yards.
3. Draw fouls in attack
Where has the U.S. done the most damage against Mexico lately? Set pieces. First it was McKennie’s header goal in the Nations League final before Pulisic’s winning penalty. Then there was Miles Robinson’s header in extra time to win the Gold Cup. The U.S. has the height advantage and can strike on any corner or set piece. As a result, don’t be shocked to see several instances of the U.S. deliberately just trying to draw fouls but putting their back to a defender and going down rather easily. You may not like it, but it is a tactic. Berhalter knows that his towering centerbacks can be the difference here in attack, and he would be wise to instruct his team to try and earn those fouls time and time again. Mexico will be aggressive, as usual, and the opportunities will be there without a doubt.