Category Archives: USMNT

Bruce Arena’s USMNT Roster as of Today

With the Gold Cup over and as this over-the-top Michael Bay of a summer transfer window winds down to its absurd conclusion, it’s time to take stock of the USMNT depth chart. There were lots of words written about how the Gold Cup was needed to test out the deeper end of the player pool and find the right players to solidify the end of the USMNT’s bench. Some even went so far as to say that this objective was a higher priority than even winning the tournament.

While I’m not sure whether that was true or not, what is true is that the USMNT has only four official matches left between now and next June when FIFA World Cup 2018 kicks off in Moscow. And not only are those four matches vital, being that qualification for Russia is not secured, but they’re vital because there may not be much time left for experimenting.

With that in mind, perhaps it might be prudent (or at least amusing) to try and dive into the mind of one Mr. Bruce Arena and guess exactly which 23 players he likes the most right now.

One of my biggest pet peeves, especially from MLS fans, is that whenever a player is playing well there are natural calls for his inclusion into the Men’s National Team. However they do this without ever considering tactics, formations, or which players would have to be removed from the roster due to their inclusion. You can’t have 34 player on the USMNT. I always remember Jurgen Klinsmann now infamous platitude: “There are others ahead of him.” But it’s true. You can’t take them all. Cuts need to be made. And often times, cuts near the end of the bench are more about fit and need than talent which is why guys like Sacha Kljestan, Christian Roldan, Benny Feilhaber, Lee Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe, Juan Agudelo, CJ Sapong, Dom Dwyer, Sebastian Lletget and other guys MLS fan boys clamor for just don’t have a spot. In fact a lot of these guys aren’t really even close when you kind of map it all out like I did below. But I digress.

So without further ado, let’s predict who Bruce Arena might have penned (or merely penciled) in at the moment and then we’ll get into what my thoughts are.

The following picture is a diagram I designed to help flush out all the names in the player pool and how I think Bruce perceives them:

US Pool
Remember Julian Green?

Using this as my guide: I came up with the following roster:

us roster
Sebastian Lletget was my first man out.

Now let me explain how I got to these conclusions briefly before going player by player. I figure, after Klinsmann’s disaster in not having a backup for Jozy Altidore after his injury in 2014, I think Arena will attempt, for the most part, to take two of every position. For example, I think Dax McCarty will be on the roster simply to break in case of an emergency, i.e. a Michael Bradley injury. I’m not sure he’ll really have any other chance of starting alongside Bradley, save for a late 5-10 minute close-out. In that vein I arranged the roster in anticipation of Arena truly trying to build a roster rather than a collection of the 23 most talented football players in the country. This roster should be based on some variation of a 4-4-2 or possibly 4-2-3-1 (although as I’ll explain later, I wouldn’t be surprised if he whipped out the 5-3-2 again).

lineup

Forwards: I don’t think saying Jozy Altidore is a lock is any kind of stretch. The likelihood is somewhere around 99.4% that he’s starting the first game of the World Cup against whomever that is.

            Bobby Wood too should be fairly secure in his place. He’s played well for the States for a couple years now, whether off the bench or as part of a striker tandem. The only reason I didn’t lock him in is because when you’re playing in the Bundesliga your career can crater quickly with all the talent around you and there’s pressure to perform week in and week out. So long as he can start regularly he should be in.

As for what happens after those two is tricky. I think most of us still want Clint Dempsey to be involved even if it is as a super-sub. But for a 34 year old, with a heart condition on his medical history, 10 or 11 months is a long time and a lot can happen. I think Bruce should assemble his roster under the assumption that between now and next June Dempsey will dip in form or health simply out of due diligence.

If I had to guess, I’d imagine that Jordan Morris would be the last man in. Up until he scored the Gold Cup Final winner I had him as the first man out. Why? Because someone had to be. The way I see it, the biggest battles to be in or out of the squad are for those last forward/winger hybrid spots and they’re between Arriola, Morris, Zardes, and Lletget. I only see two at most of that four getting in. Maybe a third could get in if Dempsey is somehow out of the picture by next summer. I think guys like Rowe, Joe Corona, Dwyer, Agudelo, Chris Wondolowski, and Sapong are mostly out of the picture and they will be scrambling for a reserve spot with the last two in the first group. Remember you can only take 23.

But Morris’ versatility will help him, especially since we’re really thin when it comes to players who can play “out wide.” As of now, this roster really only has Fabian Johnson and Paul Arriola to supply width. While Nagbe and Bedoya may lineup in “winger” positions we all know that’s not who they are. By design much of the width will come from the fullback positions via DeAndre Yedlin.

The Dom Dwyer situation is harder to read. Being sent home early wasn’t good, but I could see him as the kind of guy Bruce calls for CONCACAF qualifiers and then leaves home for the big show. While his MLS production is excellent and while he probably is the 3rd best true striker in the US pool I still think he’s already done in terms of making the tournament roster. After that, it’s all really just a stab at a bunch of different albeit flawed candidates like Agudelo, Wondolowski, Aron Johannsson, Christian Ramirez, or whoever else.

The last question to ask is: Could Arena take a fifth forward? It’s definitely possible give our program’s predisposition for playing two strikers at a time. A hybrid forward/winger like Zardes could be useful in order to provide deep cover at two positions but I think he’s more in competition with the winger group.

Wingers: The reason I have Pulisic listed as a winger even though he will almost certainly play as a typical #10 is because in reality, for his Club Borussia Dortmund he’s a winger. The #10 role will require him to play further forward than he does at even his club because he’ll be expected to contribute goals not just assists. I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually wound up being more of a second striker in the end. Or maybe he will play as part of a three man midfield and Wood can start with Jozy. The possibilities are endless with him. Or maybe his talents may even permit the USMNT to play with Jozy Altidore a sole striker in order to get an extra midfielder in the center of the park which hopefully would prevent the USA from being once again overrun in the possession battle as we have been in the past with teams like Mexico, Ghana, Germany, Belgium, etc.

christian-pulisic-dortmund_1owiehz8v8uvzb2zvre10ez3
As an 18 year-old, Christian Pulisic is already the lynch pin to the USMNT offense.

As I alluded to earlier, this is by far the USMNT’s weakest position. It’s so weak in fact, that I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point Bruce Arena whipped out a 4-4-2 diamond or a 5-3-2 just to find a formation which best catered to the strengths of our best players.

In fact, two of the four wingers I predicted Arena will select and utilize aren’t really wingers at all: Darlington Nagbe and Alejandro Bedoya. Bedoya doesn’t even play as a winger for his club; he plays as a number 8, which is far more suited to his skill set and his tendency to hustle at both ends of the pitch. However, while Nagbe does play as a left midfielder for the Portland Timbers, you could easily find some very smart Timbers fans and MLS fans who don’t believe this is his best deployment. When Portland won the MLS Cup two seasons ago, they did so with Nagbe in the central of the park. But, Arena seems to agree with Caleb Porter that Nagbe is best suited as an inverted winger.

This point brings me to the only other full blown lock of the group: Fabian Johnson. Johnson is an excellent footballer playing at a consistent level in the German Bundesliga mostly as a wide left midfielder. While he is versatile and capable of playing a myriad of positions, I still have a sneaking suspicion he could wind up as a left back.

Why? Partly it is because I’m still not sold on Jorge Villafaña. It’s not the he’s a bad player, he’s a fine player and a good quality CONCACAF level player. But while he’s been a steady starter for Bruce Arena, I’m not convinced that his club career and his form will be steady over the next eleven months. He’s only made 35 appearances in all competitions over the past year and a half for Santos Laguna.

And partly it’s because I think Darlington Nagbe has made a nice little case for being one of the starting “wide” midfielders. Although I guess one solution to that issue could be to move Fabian Johnson to the RM or RW position in order to keep Nagbe wide. It’s not as if that RM position is anything closed to being locked down.

And lastly, I have DC United’s Paul Arriola as the final man in beating out the likes of Sebastian Lletget, Gyasi Zardes, Kelyn Rowe and Joe Corona (who really isn’t a winger anyway). It seems like Paul Arriola as much as anyone has improved his stock this summer between his game in Mexico City and the Gold Cup. He brings a youthful dynamic to the group and if needed can provide some width if it’s ever called for late in a game. In essence he’s Alejandro Bedoya’s back up who can pretty much do all or close to all of what he can do.

Who else could slide in? I guess Zardes with his LA Galaxy connections is always hovering around the selection and Jordan Morris is a nice fit because he can play two positions, but after that I’m not really sure. Could Bruce take 5 wingers? I doubt it as it isn’t a focal point of our tactics nor do we really have the depth at the position to justify it. Not to mention the fact that Pulisic is actually our best player at the position.

Midfielders: As has been the case for nearly 7 or 8 years now, Michael Bradley is the first name picked for the USMNT midfield whether positioned as a holding midfielder, a box-to-box guy, or even for a short time as a #10. These days he’s been regularly placed as as a #6 and the team has been essentially constructed around that deployment.

Because of this need to put Bradley into his favorite position, the USA often lines up in lesser known formations such as 4-4-2 diamond, 4-1-4-1, or the 4-1-3-2. While I’m not a fan of these they are oddly suited to the US personnel. The other common formation is the flat 4-4-2 which never seems to do Bradley any favors and in my recollection usually guarantees that the USA’s possession percentage will hover around 40%.

After Bradley it gets hazy quickly. As I said before I think Dax McCarty makes the roster simply as the poor man’s Michael Bradley. He’s the closest approximation to Michael Bradley when the Captain plays as a 6. In fact, at the MLS level, I really don’t see that much of a difference between McCarty and Bradley’s ability. Unfortunately for Dax his steady play has not yet translated to the international level. I think it could if he was able to play alongside Bradley in order to become this cycle’s Kyle Beckerman: a defensive minded player who gives Bradley more ability to help the team with all the good offensive things he does. But it doesn’t seem to be in the cards in Bruce Arena’s eyes. C’est la vie.

I think Kellyn Acosta is pretty close to being locked in. He’s a phenomenal MLS player and his upside will carry him farther than perhaps his performances alone would. I know the MLS crowd loves him and rightfully so, but I’m not sure I want him out there against France or even a Croatia in a World Cup group stage match. But I think as of today that may be Arena’s move.

The last man out for me was Sebastian Lletget-if he can get healthy and in form enough to get called into some matches-would be Sebastian Lletget. (I don’t know if it’s possible but maybe he could aim for a call up to the October World Cup Qualifiers against Panama and Trinidad & Tobago.) Again he may not be known as a top USMNT talent, but he has a couple things going for him. 1) Versatility. That’s always a good thing to have from a coach’s perspective. 2) Connection to Bruce Arena. Never hurts to have an “in.” 3) He was last seen scoring a goal in the 5’ minute of his USMNT debut. And like Buddy Holly or Ritchie Valens (Admit it millenials, you have no idea who either of these guys are!) you’re always more fondly remembered if you go out when you were at your peak. If he gives Bruce Arena any reason to take him he will. In fact, I had him in and Jordan Morris out all they way through the Gold Cup Final. But Arena’s trust to start Morris in the semi-final and final changed my mind.

There's no way a regular EPL player isn't a USMNT starter, right?
There’s no way a regular EPL player isn’t a USMNT starter, right?

The big wild-card here of course is Germerican Danny Williams. After several years in the Championship with Reading, Williams has made the big move to Huddersfield Town AFC in the Premier League. I don’t have him on this roster because I do buy a little into the conspiracy theory of Bruce Arena as an MLS-approved candidate. I think that for a player based abroad to get selected he’ll have to be so much better than MLS rival that it will be impossible to ignore. Otherwise, I don’t think Arena will pick them. Now, I can’t claim to have seen a ton of Danny Williams at Reading. But I do know that if he gets 25 or 30+ starts in the English Premier League it would be unprecedented not to take him. Did you ever think the USMNT would be in a place where it would be turning down the chance to call up an EPL regular? I certainly never did.

Actually, the bigger wild card here is Jermaine Jones. The dude will just not die. He turns 36 in November and has been injured almost the entirety of the season. But even Bruce Arena couldn’t quit him. I was stunned back in March when Bruce Arena called Jones into the squad for qualifiers against Honduras and Panama even though Arena knew Jones would be suspended for the first game due to yellow card accumulation. And then he started him in a flat 4-4-2 midfield alongside Michael Bradley in the second game despite the fact USMNT fans have been screaming for years that alignment doesn’t normally pan out in our favor (which it didn’t in that game). He may not be healthy now, but I’m not going to count this guy out until he’s six feet under.

Fullbacks: As of now, I think the only lock at either fullback position is DeAndre Yedlin. He’s got pace, he’s got World Cup experience and he’s coming off a good season for Newcastle United in the Championship. But while I hear every USMNT fan and pundit writing him in as the starting RB with permanent marker, there are a couple things to worry about. The first is that Newcastle is in the Premier League now and they’re a big club. If he can’t do a job or has even one bad game, he won’t get the next start. Also worrying is the fact that Newcastle signed 23 year-old Javier Manquillo from Atletico Madrid (on loan with rivals Sunderland last season) in the transfer window. Even starting out as Newcastle’s opening day RB will be a tough battle.

For now Jorge Villafaña seems a likely choice. But why did I place Jorge Villafaña on Bruce Arena’s roster even if I think he could be up for a rough year at club level? Because Bruce trusts him and will want a true left back on the roster. But that doesn’t mean that he has to play him when the time comes to face off against a World Class international team. I would think that Johnson and Nagbe is a much stronger left side than Villafaña and Johnson. I have a hunch at some point Bruce will have this come-to-Jesus moment. Or maybe he’ll simply use Johnson as a LWB after adopting some kind of three centerback formation.

After those two the player pool gets murky. Graham Zusi got the key starts at the Gold Cup over Championship veteran Eric Lichaj. But Graham Zusi will be a 31 year old winger with only a season and a half of RB under his belt by next summer. I was amazed that he was more trusted than lifelong and steady professional right back Lichaj. But if his job is just to be there in case something happens to Yedlin, he may make the roster. His versatility and late dead ball ability may be something Bruce Arena really likes as a tool on his bench.

This last fullback spot was the roster slot I spent the longest time trying to figure out. So hard in fact that I think Arena may just figure Fabian Johnson and Jorge Villafaña are all the cover he needs at leftback and he can take someone else like Lletget or Zardes instead. But assuming he takes two true leftbacks, I chose Greg Garza for a few reasons. Firstly he’s similar in style to Villafaña. Secondly, it wasn’t long ago before his injury when Garza during his days at Club Tijuana was the LB from Liga MX du jour. He’s an MLS All-Star level fullback and he might already be the best LB in MLS, American or foreign. Also, he’s 2 years younger than Villafaña. But if Villafaña has already secured a roster position and Arena wants a like-for-like backup for him then Garza is his man.

The last man out for me was DeMarcus Beasley. Talk about people who never die. Beasley will be 36 years-old next summer and despite “retiring” from the National Team already, I can’t imagine he would turn down the chance to go to a freakin’ fifth World Cup (He’d be only the 4th person to do it; or tied for fourth if the corpse of Rafa Marquez also makes it, though that seems likely now with his legal issues). Beasley was last seen playing for the USMNT as a LWB at the Azteca. Could he rise again? I will never doubt him.

And as I’ll discuss later, I think the second left back spot could be sacrificed. It could be sacrificed because Fabian Johnson will be the backup left back or because for a fifth centerback. That fifth centerback would likely Tim Ream who can also provide the “break in case of emergency” cover at LB as well.

Could Tim Ream benefit from a need to take 5 CBs?
Could Tim Ream benefit from a need to take 5 CBs?

Another major player for a fullback position is Timothy Chandler. Again, like Danny Williams, it’s funny to think that the USMNT is in an era where it could seriously consider not taking a player who is a week-in, week-out starter for a German Bundesliga club. But, his bad play in a USMNT shirt, his seeming disinterest in making some of the call-ups, and the fact that Yedlin is almost certainly the starter make his selection far more doubtful than I could’ve imagined.

Centerbacks: The centerback position was fairly straightforward. Ideally Bruce Arena wants to take four centerbacks. Preferably two right-footed and two left footed. Luckily the top four centerbacks seem to fit that mold. If we presume John (don’t call me Anthony) Brooks and Geoff Cameron are the starters, then Omar Gonzalez (a long-time Bruce Arena disciple) and the left-footed Matt Besler make the most sense because they have such experience and familiarity with the program. Despite the talent of the “Matts” Hedges and Miazga it was Besler and Gonzalez that Bruce trusted in the end.

The only other player I could see fighting his way in is Tim Ream. Beside the fact that he’s Besler’s only real rival as a left-footed CB, I think the Fulham man would be a smart addition (if perhaps necessary) addition to the roster if Bruce Arena does go with a three centerback formation. When a team goes with three centerbacks it makes taking five centerbacks mandatory. He may benefit the most from that after he played so well as a LCB in the away match against Mexico.

I know the “Matts” will make a push and I agree that they’re very promising I just don’t see how they leapfrog Besler and/or Gonzalez. Simply put: “There are others ahead of them.”

Goalkeepers: OK, I lied. Goalkeeper was the most straight forward position to select. I have a gut feeling; actually it’s more of a hunch that Tim Howard and Brad Guzan will be the #1 and #2 goalies.

After that I had kind of a three way scramble for the final spot between Ethan Horvath, Bill Hamid, and Jesse Gonzalez.

Horvath is 22 years old and all the Brian Sciaretta types seem to think highly of him. If Arena thinks he’s the next great goalkeeper, maybe he takes him. Gonzalez however is 15 days younger than Horvath and in my opinion is already a top three MLS ’keeper. After all the fuss USSoccer made to convert Jesse from El Tri to the USMNT maybe he should be the one.

But I think it will be Bill Hamid. He’s 26 and, believe it or not, he’s been a pro since 2009. You’re going to want someone Hamid’s age (26) to bridge the generation gap between Guzan and Horvath/Gonzalez. Plus I think when push comes to shove if you actually had to put someone in a game I think you’d prefer Bill to Ethan or Jesse.

Reserves: And as for Bruce Arena naming those seven reservists/injury replacements? If I had to predict Bruce’s 7 I think we might be looking at something like:

Tim Ream (Fulham): You always want that extra left-footed CB.

Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest): He’s veteran professional capable of playing LB and RB

Danny Williams (Hudderrsfield Town): It will be tough to ignore an EPL player even if he’s only a part time starter.

Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy): He’s a Bruce Arena favorite and in his 12’ USMNT minutes he already has a goal.

Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution): He’s kind of like a slightly more athletic and versatile Brad Davis. But not as Good.

Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy): His game kind of reminds me of an American soccer version of Danny Welbeck. He looks like he should be good, but isn’t good enough in front of net to play striker. But coachable and dedicated enough to get starts out wide.

Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes): C’mon, look into your heart; you know it to be true.

But that is a total stab in the dark.

WHAT WOULD I DO?

And with all that said, we now come to what I would do, if I were picking the USMNT roster. Here’s how I’d have it and why.

As I’ve continually reiterated throughout this overly lengthy analysis, there does exist a more than just a token chance that Bruce Arena does something funky. Look, if after only three days to practice he can implement and play a three centerback formation at the Azteca with mostly backups then he can do it in preparation of the World Cup. Yes he may be unwilling to implement it again down the final four game stretch of the Hexagonal, but once the October games are over, provided the USA qualifies, Bruce Arena will have nearly four months to plan and scheme.

Once he starts all his little plans and schemes he’s going to realize a few things. One that Omar Gonzalez is a better centerback than Bedoya is a RM or Kellyn Acosta is a CM. I also think he’s going to realize the best wide players on the pitch are Johnson and Yedlin. I also think both those players make for better wingbacks than fullbacks as both lack the defensive discipline for that at the international level. I’m also convinced that at some point Danny Williams is going to become impossible to ignore. I also think he’s going to realize that he wants Johnson and Nagbe on the pitch together to maximize our talent (ability to maintain possession). And I personally, I am really in favor of this. I really think this could be our eventual formation and lineup.

Could we wind up in a 5-3-2?
Could we wind up in a 5-3-2?

For those of you counting at home the league breakdown of the starting 11, it is: 4 MLS, 3 German Bundesliga, 3 EPL, 1 Liga MX.

For my fantasy roster as a whole it is: 13 MLS, 5 German Bundesliga,  3 EPL, 1 Championship, 1 Liga MX.

(Turns out my roster is far more MLS-centric than I figured it would be. But then again the USMNT is far more MLS-centric than it probably should be.)

So once you’ve admitted to yourself that three centerbacks are the way to go, and once you figure out your starting XI, then you can begin to mold the back end of the roster. So ideally you want a backup at every position. My bench would be almost a like-for-like replacement of every position save for Omar Gonzalez. You don’t need to bring six centerbacks, even if playing three at the back. That gave me the chance to bring an extra forward/midfielder who would ideally be Clint Dempsey… but you never know.

Yes, missing out on nice promising players like Arriola, Acosta, Morris, Hedges, or Miazga may seem cruel, but are those guys really going to be the difference between us winning a game we might not otherwise have won? No, I don’t think so. One other criticism I would anticipate is that the lack of youth on the team doesn’t keep the team “hungry” and “energized.” People will point out Arena’s failure at FIFA World Cup 2006 was largely due to the fact that he picked an old squad that aged overnight and was complacent.

While Sacha Kljestan and Benny Feilhaber aren’t spring chicken’s anymore, I don’t think you’d have to worry about complacency with either of them. Both would be totally energized at the prospect of playing in a World Cup-Kljestan for the first time.

Also some of the “older” players like Dax McCarty, Clint Dempsey, Graham Zusi would have their own reasons for being motivated. Dax because it’s his first trip, Zusi because he’s at a new position, and Dempsey because he’s Deuce and is as fiery as they come, especially now that he’s been doubted.

Guys like Danny Williams, Tim Ream, Darlington Nagbe would also all be first timers and motivated. And several young guys like Pulisic, Yedlin, Brooks, Wood, and Jesse Gonzalez would play integral roles pushing guys to maintain their energy levels.

As for the reserves I think these seven would be good:

Matt Hedges-Best young American CB in MLS.

Jorge Villafaña/Garza-Either would work for me as true LB.

Eric Lichaj-I like his experience.

Kellyn Acosta-He’s still a talent.

Paul Arriola-Love the energy, but he wouldn’t have a position in the 5-3-2.

Jordan Morris-If a striker goes down he’d be the next in line.

Dom Dwyer-Can never have to many out-and-out goal scorers.

Also aside from Acosta, who could serve a role on this roster, Morris nor Arriola are going to have a fit because of the lack of width. I guess Morris could play as a striker, but he’s not as good as solo striker as Jozy or Wood.

In the end, I do expect this three centerback formation to pop up again in an important spot for the USMNT. But no, I don’t expect my roster to be Bruce’s even if he does go back to 3 CBs. In fact his 3 CB formation might implement wingers as he used more of a 3-4-3 at the Azteca in March.

Anyway I hope we’ve had a good look at the depth of the player pool and what exactly the USMNT roster looks like at this particular moment in time. Again it’s easy to say someone deserves a look. It’s much harder to pick the 23 and start cutting people when you realize you have to make choices. Maybe we’ll update this after the two September qualifiers as we see Bruce integrate the European contingent for the big home match against Costa Rica in Harrison. Those two lineups will tell us a lot about what he learned during the Gold Cup.

I’ll be back in a few days to break this down from the Mexico National Team perspective. Vaya con Dios mis amigos.

Everything a USMNT Fan Should Know About El Tri

It’s like Jesus said: “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do not even the tax collectors do that?” (Man, tax collectors get the worst publicity) Anyone can learn the USMNT roster. Takes a real fan to learn your rivals!

This entry will help you do that. Read this post and you’ll know all there is to know about El Tri heading into the huge game on October 10th at the Rose Bowl.

As a fan of both Mexico and the United States (Call me blasphemous if you want, I don’t care.) I am often astounded (and incredibly frustrated) how little USMNT fans know of the Mexico team, the program, and really Liga MX and Mexican football in general (I mean Mexico’s National Team is this nation’s most popular sports team and have really good players! How much US soccer fans ignore the amount of free soccer on TV from a Top 10 league I’ll never know. But this is another post altogether). As someone who grew up as a diehard Yankee fan you can be certain that we always knew everything there was to know about that Red Sox roster. If there was a hot prospect in AAA the Sox fans were giddy about, we knew. Same rules should apply here in a rivalry as heated as U.S.A./Mexico. It’s amazing how long conversations regarding the USMNT’s match-up against El Tri can go without their opponent and how and what they do not be mentioned.

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You may loath the idea of your rivals celebrating, but a good opponent knows and understands their enemy.

Which is a shame. Because if this is supposed to be the great rivalry that fans proclaim, then don’t you want to know each and every one of those guys lining up against you? Can you have a serious discussion about formation when you don’t understand what your opponent will likely try to do?

But before we get to the individual players let’s try and get a snapshot of the team right now by asking and answering some basic questions.

1) What’s the current form of El Tri?

US Men’s National Team fans will never forget the way in which Mexico struggled to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. Nor will they ever allow El Tri’s fan base to forget the fact that they only played in Brazil via the miracle of San Zusi (Mexico really ought to build a holy shrine at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez). But the fact remains, Mexico played well at the World Cup, qualifying out of the group stage for the sixth consecutive World Cup (only Germany and Brazil have achieved that). They followed up the World Cup with some strong friendly performances versus the likes of Chile, Honduras, Panama, Ecuador, and even a road win versus the Dutch.

And with maybe a teeny tiny bit of luck, Mexico got into the Gold Cup Final. Which, you can’t take away from them, they did go on to win convincingly.

It was ugly. It was controversial. But in the end, Mexico are Gold Cup Champions.

Their last test versus Argentina was great for many reasons. The best positive to take from the game is that they reverted back to the same formation and spine used in the World Cup, even though it would not normally be their new coaches’ preferred tactics.

2) What do we need to know about their new interim coach, Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti?

Anyone who watched any of ESPN’s World Cup 2014 coverage, was probably aware that they were managed by Miguel “El Piojo” Herrera.  The former Club America boss instituted his preferred three centre-back system and gave the team its swagger back with his loose and fun coaching style. He, along with Jurgen Klinsmann, was one of only two World Cup coaches to be on Twitter.

But, his Copa America and Gold Cup teams struggled and the heavily cynical Mexican footballing press began to wear on him to the point where Herrera punched Christian Martinoli, a prominent commentator, at the Philadelphia airport.

(Side note: one thing I definitely don’t think USMNT fans understand is the current dynamic of the Mexico fan and how complicated it is. Mexicans in Mexico are, like their press, incredibly cynical. They believe that El Tri is a soft bunch of underachievers that are undermined by the corrupt FMF which is a reflection of the entire corrupt system of governance in Mexico. Whenever I ask a cousin or a Mexican friend how Mexico will do, they tell me Mexico is no good and almost always predict a bad loss. Mexican-Americans on the other hand, use El Tri to connect to their heritage and pump up the Mexican players, saying they are superior to American players so that they have something with which they can brag about and be proud of. You’ll never hear a Mexican-American predict a loss to the US, and even when they win, they’re confounded because on paper Mexico ought to be so much better.)

So, in the aftermath of the Philadelphia incident, out went Piojo and in came: Interim Manager-Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti-UANL Tigres, Mexican Liga MX: The man they call “Tuca” has been in Mexico so long people forget he’s Brazilian. He has been in Mexico continuously since he signed with Atlas of Guadalajara as a player in 1977! Even his Spanish accent is heavily northern Mexican.

The FMF has a lot of problems, but Ricardo Ferretti volunteered himself in the interim.

There’s no doubt about him at this point in his career. The 61 year old is known for two things: good defensive tactics and being a stern disciplinarian. But nobody really knew what to expect of him in his voluntary 4-game stint as Mexico manager (I’m not sure anyone’s positive about what he’ll do even now). But after leading Tigres on a great run to the Copa Libertadores Final, he was the best domestic choice.

And, as his personality might have suggested, he shocked (and irritated) people right from the get-go by not selecting the Dos Santos brothers or Guillermo Ochoa for the September friendlies. But he also pleasantly surprised fans by naming all three to Mexico’s provisional roster. He also further pleased fans by returning Mexico to the 5-3-2 for the Argentina match.

Long a fan of the more traditional 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 he showed a lot of flexibility in allowing El Tri to take the field in a formation with which the players were familiar and also allowed for the best XI possible players on the pitch. I think he was smart (and humble enough) to realize that he had a big game with the United States with only one game left to tinker. And after another wild draw with Trinidad and Tobago he realized defensive stability came first.

3) So what tactics can USMNT fans anticipate?

It’s not Tuca’s preferred alignment, but it makes sense based on Mexico’s personnel.

I expect Ferretti, for the sake of continuity (hear that Jurgen, players like continuity) to line Mexico up in the 5-3-2 on October 10th, even though it ensures his two star wingers from Tigres will be forced to the bench. The wrinkle will be the health of former captain Rafa Marquez and current captain Andres Guardado. Without them, and moreso without Marquez, it will be very tempting to play a 4-4-2. Guardado is a 50/50 proposition at this point and Marquez looks to be out.

Miguel Herrera had long been a proponent of a three centre-back formation which heavily relies on wingbacks. He used it to much success with Club America, winning the title that tied them with Guadalajara for most titles in Mexican league history.

What Herrera liked best about this formation, it would seem, is that it gave Mexico extra defensive cover with three centre-backs and five defenders, yet allows for more of a 3-5-2 flank-oriented attack when Mexico is in possession. And what really makes this formation work is Mexico’s two wingbacks from Herrera’s days at Club America: Miguel Layun and Paul Aguilar.

The other element of Mexico’s success with the 5-3-2 is that they’ve found an undisputed killer threesome in the center of midfield. Captain Andres Guardado of PSV Eindhoven, FC Porto man Hector Herrera, and defensive midfielder Jose Juan Vazquez of Club Leon play at a very high level. Guardado and Herrera are incredibly skilled with the ball at their feet, aggressive in possession, and deft passers with a sense of defensive responsibility. And at ages 29, 26, and 25 they’ll likely be the threesome through 2018 qualification.

At forward, Mexico has a litany of options in their two-striker setup. They can go with any combination of Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Carlos Vela, Raul Jimenez, Giovani Dos Santos, Oribe Peralta or Jose Manuel “Tecatito” Corona.

Goalkeeper is a position where El Tri will be solid if not spectacular. Guillermo Ochoa and Jose de Jesus Corona have long been Mexico’s 1 & 2 and are equals in talent to Brad Guzan. But Ochoa is currently a backup with his club and neither was named to the squad. But it looks like Club America’s reliable Moises Munoz is poised to start or possibly Alfredo Talavara, the starter when Mexico last won at the Rose Bowl.

4) Well, they sound pretty solid… so where is Mexico’s weakness?

Tras casi dos meses de inactividad por lesión, con una destacada actuación, el mexicano Rafael Márquez reapareció en la victoria de su equipo Hellas Verona. Foto: yucatan.com.mx
Really? Franklin & Marshall College sponsors Hellas Verona?

Currently, Mexico’s centre-backs are perceived to be their weakness. Which has at times been particularly glaring being that they are likely to require three. At the World Cup they started Hector Moreno, Rafa Marquez, and Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez who were at the time 26, 35, and 32 respectively. And while Moreno is in his prime and has had a solid European career, Mexico has had trouble trying to find long-term replacements for Rafa and Maza going back to 2010.

Rafa Marquez, long-time villain of Team USA fans, returned to the starting XI for the Argentina friendly and looked excellent, organizing the defense and playing several of his patented long balls.

Maza has not had a great season and picked up a knock before the last pair of friendlies and wasn’t named to the squad. His replacement will likely be Diego Reyes, who has long been thought the heir apparent to Marquez. But the talented 22 year-old was forgotten in Porto last season and has been unable to progress as expected and is currently on loan at Real Sociedad.

10_bradley
Bradley used the word “hate” in reference to this rivalry. Should lead to a great atmosphere.

5) So, how does the USA attack Mexico?

Well, Mexico should win possession against the United States. That’s a virtual lock. Their players are skilled with the ball at their feet and are super familiar with the system and their roles in it at this point.

At last summer’s World Cup, Mexico really only ever got into trouble when they were being attacked with speed cutting inside from the flanks (Neymar & Robben come to mind. Although who don’t they give problems too?). Even Croatia’s central midfield stacked with the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Danijel Prjancic, and Mateo Kovacic were completely dominated by Mexico’s midfield trio.

Mexico is far more vulnerable down the flanks. While Marquez can hardly run with any pace at all anymore, Reyes and Moreno have decent speed and should insulate Rafa’s big weakness. Moreno is also smart, strong, and he and Rafa know one another well. The key will be minimizing youthful mistakes from Reyes who with his thin frame is capable of being pushed around by bigger physical players. They won’t be caught out of position often. So what do you do? You hit them with speed, preferably on the flanks while Layun and Aguilar are caught up field.

Except there’s one problem: The USMNT has a lack of true wide midfielders. The absence of true wingers in the US pool has been evident for a while. Guys like Graham Zusi, Alejandro Bedoya, Gyasi Zardes, Fabian Johnson, Joe Corona, and DeAndre Yedlin are really not wide midfielders.

The deployment and usage (or non usage) of these two guys may be the key to the USMNT’s success.

The USMNT has always given Mexico problems when they play very ugly American-style ball. What that means is: physical, scrappy, hard-nosed and organized play, relying on counter-attacks, some set pieces and good goalkeeping. When you try to out finesse Mexico (like they did during the 2011 Gold Cup Final) that’s when you lose.

If it where up to me, I’d play Besler and Gonzalez with Fabian Johnson and Geoff Cameron at fullback. Shore up the right side with Cameron, who’s big, strong, and used to being poised under siege. At midfield, I’d play Michael Bradley in front of a true defensive minded midfielder like Kyle Beckerman (I’d prefer someone a bit more athletic, like Maurice Edu, who did a fine job at the Azteca in the hexagonal, but I understand who Jurgen likes and doesn’t like. Maybe Danny Williams could be the new Beckerman.) Jermaine Jones in my view is a disaster waiting to happen, when on his inevitable runs forward will vacate space in front of defense with just enough room for a guy like Herrera, Vela, or Guardado to wreak havoc (see 2011 Gold Cup Final). That was probably Jones’ worst game ever in a USA shirt. Just watch his positioning in those highlights. It’s atrocious. I think playing a flat 4-4-2 with a Bradley/Jones CM pairing is pure doom for the U.S. They would both be totally overwhelmed and outnumbered in midfield.

Instead I would play a diamond in midfield which would give the USA a foursome with which to clog up the midfield, thus preventing Herrera and Guardado from dictating the game.

Will we see Jozy? Or Werder Bremen’s Aron Johannsson?

Finally up front, I’d prefer to have speed for the counter attack but in the absence of speed go with strength and clinical finishing: Dempsey and Altidore. You may only get one or two good chances; you want the guys who can make them count. Then in the end, if Mexico is becoming frustrated, you bring in Yedlin and/or Zardes to speed up the flank attack and see if you can outrun those tired wingbacks.

6)         So, let’s get to the important part, who are the players we will likely see at the Rose Bowl wearing black and green come October and what do we need to know about them?

So finally, without further ado, here is a quick cheat sheet as to who exactly are likely to face off against the USMNT in Pasadena.

The presumption remains that Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti will stick with Miguel “Piojo” Herrera’s 5-3-2 for the sake of the team’s continuity like he did against Argentina. And I’d expect the starting XI to be: Chicharito & Vela at forward, Guardado and Herrera in front of Jose Juan Vazquez in central midfield, Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layun deployed at wingbacks, and a back three of Moreno, Reyes and a third center-back to be determined (likely Miguel Angel Herrera or Oswaldo Alanis) if Rafa Marquez is truly out. Moises Munoz or Alfredo Talavera is favored to be in goal over Guillermo Ochoa.

If due to Marquez’s injury, Ferretti decides to go with his preferred 4-4-2 (because Marquez as a libero is what really makes the 5-3-2 work), you can imagine that Javier Aquino will come in to play one of the two wing positions. But after that, the ideal XI becomes much more murky and that’s why I expect the 5-3-2 to be the call.

ST-Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez-Bayer Leverkusen, German Bundesliga: We’re all familiar the man nicknamed the Little Pea. The diminutive striker may not be the best player on Earth and most experts probably wouldn’t have them in their top 100 players in the world. Heck, for those that know Mexican football, he’s certainly not even Mexico’s best player. But when it comes to fame and popularity, there are fewer footballers with quite so many fans. In many respects he may be the most famous footballer in two different countries: Mexico and the United States.

Hernandez is the face of the Mexican game and MLS’ dream signing.

And while his talent to popularity ratio brings out the haters, it’s easy to forget that he’s actually pretty damn good. He will always be an elite level clinical finisher as we saw in last season’s UEFA Champions League quarterfinal. It’s just a matter of having a coach who believes in him and good service. He still has one of the best goal-to-minute ratios in Europe.

And while some deride him as simply a poacher, for me, he’s most dangerous when playing a team that prefers playing a high defensive line. Yes he’s known for his sense of space and timing, but for me, his ability to score goals like the one he scored versus France in South Africa that excite me. He missed one of those versus Argentina, but if he gets in rhythm between now and October with Leverkusen then Chicharito may finally nab that goal vs. the United States which he has yet to tally.

I think one of the reasons he’s failed to score on the Yanks is twofold: 1) while he’s shifty and a great leaper, he’s too short to score poaching goals against the USMNT. 2) USA almost never plays a high defensive line. It will be interesting to see if US plays it tight and to see if he will get frustrated or if he finally breaks through versus the Yanks.

FW-Carlos Vela-Real Sociedad, Spain’s La Liga: Along with Giovani Dos Santos, the mercurial Vela was supposed to headline Mexico’s “Golden Generation” after winning the Golden Ball at the 2005 U-17 World Cup as a 15 year-old. And, like Dos Santos, after signing with a Premier League Team (Arsenal) and subsequently wandering the European wilderness on loan, Vela finally become an elite player upon settling at Basque club Real Sociedad in 2012, helping the team advance to the Champions League in 2014.

Vela, despite earning the captaincy from David Moyes at Sociedad, has not been in form this season.

But the real story with Vela was his long three-year absence from El Tri. Details of the beef are murky. But it stemmed from a six-month suspension Vela received from the Mexican Football Federation for a party he threw in Mexico after a friendly. That was late 2010. But after one more appearance with El Tri in early 2011, Vela began refusing all-call ups to play for Mexico until only this past November for a pair of friendlies against the Netherlands and Belarus. And when he started beside Chicharito in that game, Mexico fans saw what they had been waiting three long years to see.

What exactly does Carlos Vela bring to El Tri? Pure dynamism and elite talent. He’s the one guy in a Mexico shirt (perhaps Gio too, to a certain extent) who can truly make something out of nothing. He’s the guy Miguel Herrera said is Mexico’s best footballer. On talent alone, he certainly is.

He’s a drifter. Vela has never quite been the ideal inverted right winger and he’s never quite been a striker and he’s never quite been a No. 10, but he can be all of those things within a single game. He is a good partner for Chicharito because he won’t occupy his space. Whereas Hernandez wants to be on a centerback’s shoulder, Vela wants to pick up the ball between the midfielders and the defenders or between a centerback and a fullback where he is capable of shooting from distance, attacking the defense, or passing. This gives center-backs the dilemma of having to come to him, which would leave Hernandez able to break free behind.

Jimenez’s physicality and effort could earn him a start over Carlos Vela.

ST-Raul Jimenez-Benfica, Primeira Liga: While I still think it would be hard not to pick a Vela/Hernandez forward-line, do not be surprised if Ferretti elects to replace Vela with Jimenez after his excellent performance against Argentina. Jimenez, is tall, physical, technical (watch this epic goal which saved Mexico’s bacon at the Azteca) and is Mexico’s best weapon at matching up in the aerial game. Growing up at Club America where the team always possessed a South American star striker, Jimenez learned quickly how to complement whoever he needed to as a second striker. He is definitely capable of playing a role and doing dirty work if asked to do so.

It’s going to be a hard decision for Ferretti to choose two of Vela/ Hernandez/Jimenez but Raul may be the best strategic matchup for El Tri in countering the US’s size and physicality.

ST/MF-Jesus Manuel “Tecatito” Corona-FC Porto, Primeira Liga: The twenty-two year old winger/striker hybrid is the player Mexico fans are most excited about right now. His coming out party on the international level was the Gold Cup Final where he earned his start of the tournament and recorded the winning goal. He is simply fearless. He takes on players, almost to a fault, always convinced he can beat his man. I am sure, that if he’s on the ball out wide and facing a converted center-back playing fullback, he’s going at him. Probably each and every time. He’s not a great passer yet, so crossing is not where he’ll hurt the USA. It’s his ability to head to the end line, turn in and create chaos in the box that’s his specialty.

Tecatito may be Mexico’s next big star.

He would’ve been a part of the recent friendlies but he stayed in Portugal to assimilate with his new team after just being transferred. It was a good idea as he debuted with a brace. I would expect Tecatito almost certainly will be used as a substitute during the US match.

El Tri fans were not happy with Gio’s move to MLS, still to be seen how it affects his standing with the team.

FW-Giovani Dos Santos-LA Galaxy, Major League Soccer: The son of a Brazilian footballer, the Mexican-born speedster has always been a player with whom a ton was expected. Finally, during an excellent 2013-2014 season with Villarreal, Dos Santos seemed to finally be living up to his potential. In that season he scored 11 goals and notched 8 assists as he led the newly promoted Villarreal to sixth place. Unfortunately last season saw him miss lots of time due to injury and his coach lost faith in him, leading the way to (GASP!) a transfer to MLS.

Dos Santos always has been a feast or famine player. At his best he’s roaming the pitch for the best positions to receive the ball and attacks defenders 1-on-1 ruthlessly. At his worst, he drifts side-to-side disinterested in defense and disengaged. Luckily for El Tri, the former has become more and more the norm. Luckily for the USA… it’s very likely that he won’t see the field after Ferretti left him out of the September friendlies, which means he won’t be able to do this.

With Jurgen Damm cut from the final roster, Javier Aquino is Mexico’s only true winger.

Wingers-Jurgen Damm*/Javier Aquino-UANL Tigres, Liga MX: As two of Tuca’s regular starting XI in Liga MX everyone assumes both wingers would slide right into El Tri’s starting XI, however as Tuca has reverted back to Herrera’s 5-3-2 formation for the sake of the squad, it is likely Damm and Aquino who will suffer as there’s no role for traditional wingers.

Aquino (25) who made a name for himself at the London Olympics hasplayed in Spain the last two seasons and been mediocre. Damm (22), one of Mexico’s top prospects, looked destined for Europe this summer (especially since he holds an EU passport. The US aren’t the only CONCACAF nation with Germans!) until Tigres opened the checkbook to enlist him and Aquino for Tigres’ run to the Copa Libertadores final. Both are incredibly fast (Damm in particular is one of the five fastest players in the world according to OPTA ) and along with Tecatito would be the most logical choice as offensive substitutions for Mexico, especially if the USA is ahead late.

There is nothing particularly nuanced about their games. They favor staying wide and like to use their speed to blow by people. And both are confident enough to take on defenders 1v1, Damm with youthful ignorance and Aquino with what Bill Simmons would call “irrational confidence.” (By the way the USMNT could use a couple irrational confidence guys. Dempsey and Jones seem to be the only ones with swag in the pool. Michael Bradley’s quiet confidence does not equate.)

(* didn’t make the final 23-man roster)

CM-Andres Guardado-PSV Eindhoven, Dutch Eredivise: The man nicknamed “Principito” (Little Prince) started a World Cup knockout round game against Argentina in 2006 aged 18 in the number 10 role. And while he never became the dynamic winger/creative maestro Mexicans hoped for as a young teen (this video, from 2013 is toward the end of Guardado’s career as a winger and you can see his tendency for hugging the touchline as a traditional winger was well ingrained. The best example of him as a left midfielder in a Mexico shirt probably came in the 2011 Gold Cup Final), he has had a distinguished European career. And now, the Tapatio, who turned 29 this week has become the Mexican captain succeeding Rafa Marquez.

There’s no doubt who has been Mexico’s most in-form player for the past year.

And Guardado has made a fine successor. Last year Guardado settled in nicely at PSV Eindhoven on loan after several years struggling out of position at Valencia. And for the first time since playing for Deportivo La Coruna in the Spanish second division, he’s a fixture for his club. He even earned Player of the Year honors from one major Dutch newspaper. In fact, this past March, the PSV fans, thankful for Guardado’s role in leading PSV to their first title in six years, put together a touching pre-game display for Guardado. They displayed a tifo thanking the Mexican and urging PSV and his parent club Valencia to make the loan move permanent.

What he provides in midfield is steadiness and technical ability. He plays well both in attack and in defense and will be a key in helping Mexico dominate possession. Funny enough prior to the World Cup, many Mexico fans wondered if he’d even make the roster. But a serious injury to Club Leon’s Luis Montes gave Guardado new life and his club and country form has been superb ever since.

Clearly Mexico’s best player in the Gold Cup, what he does excellently is dictate play. He runs so hard at the ball, winning it back (along with Herrera and Vazquez who also both run relentlessly) that he’s able to spur these mini-counterattacks from midfield (much like he did for PSV’s winning goal against Manchester United). If the US midfield has one those days where their first touch just isn’t good, it could be a long day for them. Mexico’s trio will scoop up those long touches and the ball will be heading toward Hernandez before anyone knows what’s going on. That’s why, if I’m a Mexico fan I want Jermaine Jones in the starting XI. He’s going to make forays forward, some of them wildly, and if and when the ball is lost he’s going to give his own backline more headaches than they can deal with. Herrera, Vela, or Jimenez or Guardado are going to charge into that vacated area and create scoring chances.

MF-Hector Herrera-FC Porto, Primeira Liga: Despite being overshadowed by the likes of Chicharito, Giovani Dos Santos and others, Herrera is possibly Mexico’s best footballer at the moment. The twenty-five year-old has quietly become the undisputed banner carrier for Mexicans abroad in Europe. Starting regularly as a central midfielder, Herrera was the only CONCACAF outfield player playing in the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League last season and was a key part of FC Porto’s run to the quarterfinals.

While off to a slow start this year, Herrera had the best club season of any Mexican in the 2014-15 season.

Herrera is a dangerous player because he has the exact same position and role with Mexico as he does at Porto. He plays on the right side of a narrow three-man midfield ahead of the CDM and looks to create for the forward line, and more increasingly of late, look for his own long range shots (he scored this great golazo in the Champions League last season). Herrera is tall, strong, technically gifted and will not be intimidated by the USA’s physicality after playing against Europe’s elite. He was incredibly underutilized by Mexico during their disastrous Hexagonal campaign much to the chagrin of Mexico fans.

After a rough Gold Cup which saw him benched for the final, he finally tallied his first goal for his National Team, in the Trinidad game and immediately followed it up with a second in the Argentina friendly. He is a player that must be paid attention to if you hope to disrupt Mexico.

CDM-Jose Juan “Gallito” Vazquez-Club Leon, Liga MX: “Gallito” was the break-out star of the Mexican team during the World Cup last summer. Vazquez, who had not been on the National team radar until Miguel Herrera took over and noticed he may have been the lynchpin to a Club Leon midfield that won back-to-back Liga MX titles. While Luis Montes and Carlos Pena won the plaudits playing roles similar to that of Guardado and Herrera, Herrera saw that it was Vazquez’s bulldog, and dare I say, Beckerman-esque defensive nature which allowed them to thrive.

“Gallito” Vazquez has been Mexico’s secret ingredient since the World Cup.

Even then, however, it seemed Herrera was going to start his Club America midfielder Juan Carlos Medina in the CDM role in Brazil. But, fate intervened, Medina was hurt in practice and Vazquez was handed the reigns and thrived, playing all three group games in Brazil. In fact, his injury leading up to the Gold Cup prevented him from being a factor at all in that tournament and I think his absence was a huge loss for El Tri. Granted, Jonathan Dos Santos, who replaced him, is far more talented, but is not as defensive minded. Ferretti’s desire to start Vazquez may be the reason Jonathan Dos Santos is unlikely to start.

Yes Gallito can be eager to test the goalkeeper from distance, but generally Vazquez’s game is simple. He guards the defense, runs arounds (the downside: sometimes, he can run himself out of games against well drilled and skilled midfields), wins balls and looks for Guardado and Herrera who will do the creative passing. His battle with a forward deployed Bradley could be the key to the whole game.

CM-Jonathan Dos Santos-Villarreal, Spain’s La Liga: I think Jurgen Klinsmann would’ve appreciated Jonathan Dos Santos. The younger brother of Gio, Jonathan spent five seasons fighting, scraping, clawing, to stay at FC Barcelona despite the fact many urged him to move on and earn regular minutes. It wasn’t until his brother’s team came calling that he finally agreed to concede that he wasn’t going to reach the first team in Catalonia.

His performance in the Gold Cup Final was superb. But he probably won’t start in Pasadena.

At Villareal last season he thrived, even as Gio struggled with injuries. Deployed all over the pitch, the self-proclaimed defensive midfielder is as talented a player as Mexico has. Think of him as Michael Bradley with skillz (yes, skills with a ‘Z’). His game is similar to Guardado’s in that he uses his energy to win balls and his skill to launch attacks. The best example of this was the Gold Cup Final against Jamaica. I was there in person and the way in which he kept attacking the ball and then properly moving the ball forward was the one thing I will always remember about that game.

The question will be, after Dos Santos was notoriously absent from the squad in the September friendlies, will Ferretti use him if Andres Guardado cannot go after this nasty ankle role he suffered at the hands of Chris Smalling.

LWB-Miguel Layun-FC Porto, Primeira Liga (on loan from Watford, Premier League): Not always the most popular player in the eyes of Mexico fans, the former Club America captain definitely has his skill set. Naturally right-footed, Layun can play several other positions as well and tends to cut inside in the final third where he is capable of ripping off golazos from 20-25 yards. He can truly be an extra midfielder in possession.

Watch here as he cuts inside to the right foot. He won’t be a dangerous crosser, though he can do it adequately with his left and showed versus Argentina he can counter with the best of them. But it won’t be a caught up-field fullback that will scare you with him. It’s a caught up-field right-sided central midfielder who will encourage him to sneak inside and forward and help Mexico control possession in the USA’s defensive third.

Layun & Aguilar’s ability to play as wingbacks are the key to Mexico’s success with the 5-3-2.

RWB-Paul Aguilar-Club America, Liga MX: I’ve already stated just how much Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layun make the 5-3-2 work. Mexico needs both of them on top of their game to succeed in this tournament. If for some reason Ferretti elects to go with only 2 centerbacks, I’d expect Aguilar to be replaced by Tigres’ Israel Jimenez, a more defensive minded fullback.

But Aguilar is the perfect wingback. He’s a speedy attack minded right winger disguised as a fullback. He makes great overlapping runs into the 18 on give-and-goes (great goal by the amazing Chucho Benitez in this video, R.I.P. I still rue never getting to see him, Enner Valencia, and Antonio Valencia together at the World Cup) with the midfield and can send in a heck of cross as well. And he, like Layun is capable of long range sniper rifle shots too.

FB-Israel Jimenez & Jose Torres-Nilo-UANL Tigres, Liga MX: The right back, who made his name by starting for the Mexico team which won the Olympics hasn’t really reached his potential. But he plays his club football for Tigres which means he’s already a reliable soldier for interim coach Tuca Ferretti. While he got the start in Mexico’s 2-2 draw with Argentina, he’s not ideally suited to a 5-3-2 if that is the formation. While he’s a capable fullback who just recently played in the Copa Libertadores Final, he’s just not a strong enough offensive player for that role. At least that’s my opinion, it may not be Ferretti’s however who clearly trusts him. But if the USA goes with a narrow diamond midfield, then Mexico will lose a lot by not having a right sided marauder to take advantage.

It’s interesting that of of the 4 players from Ferretti’s Tigres on the Mexico squad, none are likely to start.

Jose Torres-Nilo lost his position as Mexico’s LB to Layun during the 2014 World Cup Qualifying cycle, but he’s always hung around as an option. Like Jimenez, if Tuca chooses a 4-4-2, then the possibility of Torres-Nilo playing goes way up as he’s a more natural defensive player.

CB-Rafa Marquez-Hellas Verona, Italian Serie A: My goodness. What can I say about longtime USMNT villain Rafa Marquez that hasn’t already been said through gritted teeth? Although Marquez’s resume is excellent (2x UEFA Champions League winner, 2x Liga MX champion, only man to captain a team at four different World Cups), he really has never played great against the United States. Their physicality frustrates him and he’s prone to cards as it is. But this 5-3-2 formation has brought him new life. Flanked by a center back on either side, Marquez is able to play an almost Pirlo-esque role while using his experience to direct the defense. He has become the ultimate “libero” in his old age.

USMNT fans have seen Marquez around for a long, long time.

His long range passing is such a weapon and it diversifies Mexico’s attack. While the rest of the team can play the possession game, he can start counter attacks incredibly quickly with his direct play. It’s something that El Tri just can’t duplicate or replicate and why, like a zombie apocalypse, he just keeps coming.

As an anecdote I remember being incredibly nervous prior to the final group stage game against Croatia last summer. Mexico only needed a draw and Croatia a win, but armed with Modric, Racatic, and Mandzukic, the Croats were certainly dangerous. Then after a few minutes, I realized that no one on Croatia was pressing Marquez when he received the ball. It was right then I knew Mexico was going to win. I don’t know if it will be Bradley or Altidore’s job to chase Marquez off the ball, but if they don’t, expect to see 40-60 yard pinpoint passes sprayed all across the field, leaving the USA scrambling to recover.

And, don’t forget, he’s always dangerous on set pieces!

I think it’s safe to say Hector Moreno made a name for himself in the Champion’s League against Manchester United.

CB-Hector Moreno-PSV Eindhoven, Dutch Eredivise: Very quietly Moreno has been Mexico’s steadiest player abroad for several years. Starting with his time at AZ Alkmaar, and continuing through to his years at Espanyol, Moreno has been one of the first names on the team sheet since 2010 regardless of who is managing Mexico.

Prior to the World Cup, it was expected that the 27 year old would move on to a bigger club, possibly even one at a Champions League level. And while his unfortunate leg break in the Round of 16 derailed that, Spurs, Arsenal, and Juventus’ names resurfaced in summer transfer rumors for the centre-back… until he required foot surgery from an injury against Costa Rica while tuning up for the Gold Cup. But PSV, eager to show their stuff in Champions League bought him solely for that competition. If he plays well in the group stage, and I suspect he will, expect top 4 league interest in him once again.

There’s a lot to like about Hector Moreno’s game. A left-footed player, he was occasionally deployed at left-back in his younger days but is now truly a centerback. And while not the tallest (6’0”) and not the fastest, his soccer brain often places him in the right positions where neither is a detriment to him. I’d argue that his lack of flash is his best attribute. He is Mr. Reliable. I can’t even recall a time where he has made big gaffe, but he can certainly get his head to a ball on a corner. This is really the only compilation video of him I could find.

If there is one knock on him however is that he hasn’t seem capable of taking charge of the back line in Marquez’s absence. However that shouldn’t be an issue October 10, provided the 36 year old can stay glued together over the next month.

After stalling at Porto, Reyes has looked excellent thus far under David Moyes’ tutelage.

CB-Diego Reyes-Real Sociedad, Spain’s La Liga (on loan from FC Porto, Primeira Liga): Reyes, the 22 year-old FC Porto man will likely be a starter in a three-man backline, unless perhaps Tuca favors Tigres’ savvy veteran Arturo Rivas. Much has been expected of Diego Reyes in Mexico and he has long been thought the heir apparent to Marquez. At 18, he started for the Mexico U-23 squad which won Olympic Gold and was a star at Club America before earning the big overseas attention.

However his time at Porto was not good. While Hector Herrera has thrived in Portugal, Reyes has floundered. But Mexico for almost five years now has expected him to be the heir apparent to Marquez. He’s tall (6’3”), speedy, and skilled enough to play defensive midfield or even right back as well. Marquez was always able to give Mexico a dangerous counter-attack with his long ball accuracy and Reyes seems to be the only center-back in the pool with the capability of someday providing Mexico with that kind of danger from the back.

He’s looked great so far at Real Sociedad and played well versus Argentina. There are not a lot of highlights to show off since he left Mexico. This game versus Academia in the Portuguese Cup was his one bit of extended action last year and as you can see he’s shown flashes. He even earned a Champions League quarterfinal start at RB because of this performance, but he was embarrassingly pulled before halftime as Bayern Munich exploded with multiple goals in the first half. But in the end, I don’t think he’s any less of a prospect than John Brooks is.

He doesn’t have any big games for El Tri on his resume, but Munoz is undoubtedly a winner.

GK-Moises Munoz-Club America, Liga MX: By anyone’s measure Munoz is at best Mexico’s fourth best goalkeeper behind Malaga’s Guillermo Ochoa, Jesus Corona of Cruz Azul, and  Pachuca’s Alfredo Talavera. But the steady and reliable 35 year old likely earned the start versus the USA with his excellent showing versus Argentina in Dallas (though he did have the big error that allowed Argentina to get back in the game). As the elder statesman of Mexico’s goalkeeper pool and as the man who has guarded the net for Mexico’s biggest club over the last few seasons he’s exactly the kind of player a coach would like for a one game playoff. He’s going to bring leadership and he’s going to stay within the gameplan.

alfredo_talavera_2011_06_25
The 2011 Gold Cup Final is the last time Talavera played a key match for Mexico.

GK-Alfredo Talavera-Deportivo Toluca, Liga MX: When Mexico last won at the Rose Bowl in 2011 in the Gold Cup Final versus the USMNT, Talavera was in goal. That was really the last time he was in net for a meaningful game for El Tri. Talavera seems to suffer from just not being able to capitalize on his opportunities in the Mexico kit, such as the September friendly against Trinidad and Tobago. Which is unfortunate because he’s consistently been one of Liga MX’s top goalkeepers for years now. But I suspect if he’s in goal for Mexico on October 10, no one will be too concerned.

GK-Guillermo Ochoa*-Malaga, Spain’s La Liga: Although incredibly popular in Mexico, many fans of El Tri were surprised Ochoa got the start over Jesus Corona at the World Cup. In fact, he was about to have the unfortunate distinction of heading to his third straight World Cup without playing. Luckily for Ochoa, Jose de Jesus Corona picked up a knock during the warm up matches and Ochoa was able to wrestle the job away.

This has been Guillermo Ochoa’s last year and a half. It’s cost him his job with El Tri.

And despite making a big name for himself last summer and rumors connecting him to several big clubs, he eventually moved on a free transfer to Malaga. However, the choice of going to Malaga has been nothing short of disaster (he just reached 500 days without a La Liga start!) as Ochoa was never able to wrestle the starting job away from incumbent Carlos Kameni.

But Herrera believed in him. And while Ochoa may not be the biggest keeper, and while he may have his flaws, there’s no denying he may be one of the best pure reaction save keepers in the World when he’s sharp.

(*not selected to roster)

Could the internationally inexperience Miguel Angel Herrera play as Mexico’s important 3rd centerback?

CB-Miguel Herrera*-Pachuca, Liga MX & Oswaldo Alanis*-Guadalajara, Liga MX: Well, these two players have a grand total of 10 caps combined. And yet one of them could quite possibly start in perhaps Mexico’s biggest game of the year. The big difference between them is that one is left-footed and one is right-footed, which may be the deciding factor. While Hector Moreno is the more accomplished center-back by far over Diego Reyes, it is Reyes who is more familiar with the center role in the back three. Therefore don’t be surprised if Herrera gets the call to man the right center-back position. He is also more familiar with a back three. Mexico fans will definitely be uneasy about either of these guys despite the fact that they both performed well together in a November 2014 friendly in Amsterdam versus the Dutch. Moreso than seeing either of them in the starting XI, seeing the 4-4-2 may cause more angst among fans.

(* neither made final 23 man roster)

OK, well after all that, it’s time to make a prediction. So, will El Tri win it all?

I believe they will. I anticipate Mexico will control the tempo in midfield and their defense will play just well enough against the counter attack to get them through. I say final score: 2-1 Mexico.

Time for a New MLS All-Star Game Format

Has MLS moved on from needing European stars?
Has MLS moved on from needing European stars? It doesn’t seem so.

There’s been plenty of discussion recently about whether MLS is on the cusp of transitioning to “Version 3.0,” as if anyone knows what that really is.

And while the consensus seems to be that we’re not quite into the third era of MLS’ history, we are close. MLS, slowly, has begun fitting in better to the rest of the soccer world. Key elements like a Fall—Spring schedule (totally OK with this, a necessity right now) and promotion and relegation (which I hope to see someday, but not holding my breath) seem almost distant impossibilities. But, generally MLS is doing what it needs to do to be as pure a soccer product as it can. But, because our country has four major sports leagues with rich histories, they’ve each lost a bit of their own unique identity by borrowing ideas readily from one another. There has become, for better or worse, a set “way of doing things” in American Sports.

Thankfully MLS has been obliged to stay away from such things as timeouts, commercial breaks for no reason (an American sports broadcasting staple), and the notion that every game must end with a winning team and a losing team. But some American traditions have found their way into MLS, such as collegiate drafts (communist), playoffs (necessary), conferences (unfortunately semi-necessary), unbalanced schedules (a pure manifestation of evil), goofy team names (at least there’s no more Wizards, Burn, Fusion, or MetroStars to contend wit), and of course the All-Star game.

But, you know what? I love the MLS All-Star game. I love All-Star games. As a kid growing up I had a hard time grasping the subtleties of baseball, but I certainly didn’t have trouble grasping the idea of star powers. I was riveted by guys like Cal Ripken, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, Tony Gwynn, Ricky Henderson, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, and Greg Maddux. I would see these guys play during the All-Star game and I learned all about the league and baseball by following what these guys were doing and where they were doing it. Same went for basketball. And MLS should be no different. Kids can discover Bayern Munich on their own, they don’t need MLS to introduce them.

We know who these guys are, we don't need MLS to introduce us.
We know who these guys are, we don’t need MLS to introduce us.

For a growing sport in this saturated sports market, highlighting premier players is obviously vital for MLS. This goes double for the league that invented the concept of Designated Players and has always focused their marketing around stars. It makes sense therefore, to have a summer event which brings these players together and allows the casual fan to celebrate the top talent in the league.

And if there’s one thing MLS does have, it’s top talent, MLS has made sure of that ever since they brought in David Beckham.

But for me, the real question is whether the style of MLS’ All-Star Game is the most viable?

While pitting MLS’ best versus one of the World’s best teams is intriguing, I truly feel that the league and its players have outgrown the format of MLS All-Stars vs. touring European team in preseason. MLS can’t claim that it has a new depth of talent, yet at the same time, only name one team of 23 players as All-Stars. In fact, MLS names nine players as “inactive” All-Stars due to a clause in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. In a league of 19 teams, soon to be 21 teams, there are 437 players. Naming 35 All-Stars and having two teams of MLS All-Stars isn’t too many.

If beating a UEFA Champions League team in one-off friendly could earn MLS worldwide esteem, I’d be all for it. But it can’t. It’s a futile exercise in gaining credibility. Instead we need to show the United States that there’s more than just 30-year-old plus designated players.

It doesn’t allow for young players, the MLS lifers, or the American players to be promoted sufficiently. Instead, it simply trots out the Designated Players whom are already well known, or in World Cup years, USMNT players. Before we get into a discussion about what format should be implemented, or what players should be there, let’s look at who’s on the roster for next Wednesday’s game:

Will Torres, MLS' one Mexican of note, get to play enough over legends like Henry, Keane, and Donovan?
Will Torres, MLS’ one Mexican of note, get to play enough over legends like Henry, Keane, and Donovan?

Goalkeepers: Nick Rimando, Bill Hamid

Defenders: Matt Besler, Aurélien Collin, Omar Gonzalez (to be replaced by Sean Franklin), Chad Marshall (to be replaced by Bobby Boswell), Michael Parkhurst, DeAndre Yedlin

Midfielder: Osvaldo Alonso, Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley, Tim Cahill, Clint Dempsey, Will Johnson, Diego Valeri, Graham Zusi

Forwards: Jermain Defoe (to be replaced by Dom Dwyer), Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane (to be replaced by Maurice Edu), Obafemi Martins, Erick Torres, Bradley Wright-Phillips

Everyone is there. All the players MLS thinks you want to see. Which is all well and good, but the casual fan isn’t going to learn more about the league by being shown the same 20 players over and over.

The team is jam-packed with DPs. And with guys like Jermaine Jones, David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Kaka coming into the league next year, will there be room for anyone else but elder foreign statesman?

Despite twice making MLS' Best XI team, this is Marshall's first All-Star Game.
Despite twice making MLS’ Best XI team, this is Marshall’s first All-Star Game.

In this squad only Erick Torres (who, as the league’s only Mexican of note needs to be signed to an extension and kept in MLS), Will Johnson (who’s selection is based more on last season’s performance) are non-stars. That’s it. Two players. Thankfully due to injury (ie. Wanting to rest), players like Dom Dwyer, Bobby Boswell, and Sean Franklin will be showcased.

You might be able to add Chad Marshall to the list, who despite being named twice to the MLS Best XI list, is an All-Star Game debutant in his first season at one of the league’s signature franchises.

In short: this is not fair. Any All-Star game’s mission should be twofold: to promote the leagues stars, yes, but also to get the best players together to share their skills with one another. Even if it’s only for a couple days, someone like Torres or Dwyer can learn an immense amount from being able to talk to a Thierry Henry or Robbie Keane as equals.

All-MLS LIFER STARTING XI

There are so many great American MLS lifers who should’ve been highlighted throughout their careers. Here are some just off the top of my head. Most have already been All-Stars, but they still got buried beneath the praise heaped on the DPs.

Goalkeeper: Dan Kennedy– Nobody can say Nick Rimando hasn’t been given his due after being an All-Star for the fourth straight year. But poor Dan Kennedy has been toiling away at Chivas USA for years and will soon be their all-time leader in appearances. Yet, he doesn’t really get his due as a good keeper.

Left Back: Todd Dunivant– Since Dunivant’s second stint with the Galaxy began in 2009, the left back has been one of Bruce Arena’s most reliable players. Although he’s been injured this year, this is the kind of MLS lifer that needed to be given his due in the past. Being one of the best players on a team that won back-to-back championships should earn you some recognition.

Center-Back: Nat Borchers– Keeping guys like this away from Scandinavian leagues should be the exact kind of thing the MLS should seek to eliminate. MLS players should only be going to Norway, Sweden, or Denmark if they can’t handle the league. It shouldn’t be seen as a step up. We’ll forgive Borchers for a quick detour through the fjords and recognize he’s been one of the league’s best center-backs both in Denver and Salt Lake City.

Center-Back: Chad Marshall– As I mentioned earlier, left unrecognized in Colombus, Marshall had never before been an All-Star until he finally was recruited to settle down Seattle’s defense. And his effects have been felt immediately.

Right-Back: Jack Jewsbury– The one-time All-Star has already become a Timber through and through. And despite right back not being his best position, he plays there because that’s where he’s needed. Even when a guy like this makes an All-Star team he doesn’t get to play enough.

Left Midfield: Brad Davis– He’s so underrated it’s ridiculous. At 32, Brad Davis has had a great MLS careers and is still one of its most clutch performers. He’s one of the reasons that . In my opinion he’s going to be one of the top five careers of any American MLS players.

Central Midfield: Kyle Beckerman– The dreadlocked USMNT regular is the poster boy as to why we need to highlight more MLS players. It wasn’t until Beckerman was almost 32 and had 7 All-Star games to name that he caught the eye of Jurgen Klinsmann.

Central Midfield: Jeff Larentowicz– The redheaded Ivy-Leaguer put in two good years for the Rapids, one of which he earned an All-Star berth for. But he’s been a solid MLS lifer, the kind you can bring in to settle a midfield.

Right Midfield: Graham Zusi– Sporting’s newest DP might actually be underrated at this point. After an average World Cup which drummed up little to no interest abroad, fans seem to forget he’s an elite playmaker in this league. Despite becoming an All-Star game regular, players like Zusi deserve to start and play 60 minutes not make brief cameos as 23 All-Stars shuffle in and out of the game.

Forward: Mike Magee– Chicago is bad. But Mike Magee isn’t the problem. After years of being one of the “other guys” in LA, Mr. Magee showed us all how good he can really be when he won the MLS MVP last seaosn. Perhaps if the All-Star game had been more inclusive we would’ve noticed him earlier?

Forward: Chris Wondolowski– By now, everyone knows Wondo’s triumphant story of persistence. And these are the exact kinds of guys we need to make room for in the All-Star game: players who are late bloomers but have thrived in MLS.

OTHER FORMAT OPTIONS?

A player of Javier Morales' caliber should never miss an All-Star Game.
A player of Javier Morales’ caliber should never miss an All-Star Game.

There have been alternative All-Star game formats bandied about over the past several years such as MLS versus the USMNT. Beside the fact that it would be difficult logistically, that idea is now stale because the majority of the national team is in MLS (as it should be).

Could MLS develop an even stronger relationship with their rivals to the south by playing against a select team of Liga MX All-Stars? Intriguing idea certainly, but doesn’t cure the problem.

The bottom line is: more MLS players need to be highlighted. With this as the goal, the MLS would have three format options: a traditional Eastern Conference All-Stars v. Western Conference All-Stars matchup, a USA/Canada All-Stars v. World All-Stars (which would work considering around 55% of MLS starters are American), or an NHL style pick-up game format with big stars as “team captains”.

Certainly there’s no difficulty in arranging East versus West. Guys like Lee Nguyen, Benny Feilhaber, Javier Morales, Gonzalo Pineda, Frederico Higuain, would be rightfully given their props. Or perhaps one of New England or Colorado’s youngsters would be shown to the world.

The pick-up game format could be fun by giving MLS another signature event with the selection show and it could allow for a more casual atmosphere where a player’s personality can be highlighted, but in the end, it’s just too gimmicky.

But I’m really intrigued by the idea of a USA v. the World format. The NBA and MLB have flirted with the ideas in the past, but soccer really is the World’s game and the teams would really be equal. Here’s what a World XI for MLS might look like:

Higuain might have the most pure talent in MLS. I want to see him play amongst and against MLS' best.
Higuain might have the most pure talent in MLS. I want to see him play amongst and against MLS’ best.

Goalkeeper: Donovan Rickets

Center-Back: Aurelien Collin

Center-Back: Victor Bernardez

Center-Back: Jamison Olave

Left Midfield: Oscar Boniek Garcia

Defensive Midfield: Osvaldo Alonso

Central Midfield: Frederico Higuain

Central Midfield: Javier Morales

Right Midfield: Diego Valeri

Forward: Thierry Henry

Forward: Jermaine Defoe

You back that starting XI up with guys off the bench like: Robbie Keane, Jose Goncalves, Jaime Pinedo, Darlington Nagbe, Marco Di Vaio, Tim Cahill, Mauro Diaz, Cubo Torres, Steven Beitashour and all of a sudden the USA team is given a tough opponent.

What would that team look like? Just riffing, but how about:

I want to see how good the US talent in MLS really is. And I want to see these two together again.
I want to see how good the US talent in MLS really is. And I want to see these two together again.

Goalkeeper: Nick Rimando

Left Back: Chris Klute

Center Back: Matt Besler

Center Back: Omar Gonzalez

Right Back: DeAndre Yedlin

Left Midfield: Brad Davis

Center Back: Kyle Beckerman

Center Back: Michael Bradley

Right Midfield: Graham Zusi

Forward: Landon Donovan

Forward: Clint Dempsey

Add Chris Wondolowsi, Maurice Edu, Seth Sinovic, Bill Hamid, Benny Feilhaber, Will Johnson, and a few more from the team I previously mentioned and now MLS has everyone playing that you want: the high priced European DPs, the USMNT stars, with some MLS up-and-comers and lifers sprinkled in.

For me, this is what MLS needs to do. Embrace the “World’s Game” aspect of soccer. Give those fans who only watch US Soccer a chance to root for their team, albeit in a roundabout way. I would recommend selecting 17 All-Stars per side, thus creating two game day rosters.

I think the USA/Canada versus the World accomplishes the goal of being unique without being gimmicky. If MLS is serious about the non-DP signings in our league, then its time it backed it up with some actions.

It’s nice to show off Bayern Munich. But it’d be nicer to show off MLS’ product wouldn’t it?

Two Nations, One Shared Dilemma

They'd be reluctant to admit it, but El Tri and the USMNT have much in common.
They’d be reluctant to admit it, but El Tri and the USMNT have much in common.

They shouldn’t do it. There’s part of them that knows they shouldn’t do it, but they do it anyway. And what’s more? They really like doing it. American soccer fans are constantly measuring their national team against that of Mexico. But all of a sudden, Mexico and the United States soccer programs are more similar than they are dissimilar. And you can pretend it isn’t true. But it is.

So without further ado, I present to you my case:

There are plenty of similarities between Mexico and the United States soccer cultures at present. They are both certain that they’re the best team in the region and are held back by being in CONCACAF (with all due respect to Costa Rica that is generally true). Both nations are desperately hoping that the Copa America Centenario will lead to more regular competition amongst South American sides.

Both programs are convinced a bias exists against their players abroad. This internal perception is key to the identity of both nations. Many USMNT fans were truly proud of their team’s performance during the World Cup in Brazil. And while I may slightly disagree with the optimism they maintain about their team, you cannot dispute how huge an accomplishment it is for the United States to escape the group stage for the second straight World Cup for the first time ever.

ZusiBesler
Currently on top of the MLS World, Graham Zusi and Matt Besler have chosen to be lifers.

Yet, there has not been an appropriate level of interest in American players as a result. DeAndre Yedlin’s transfer buzz seems to have tapered off. Matt Besler after pondering over joining Premier League bottom-feeder Sunderland and Championship side Fulham instead elected to sign a Designated Player Contract with Sporting Kansas City along with his friend Graham Zusi, who wasn’t able to generate any interest abroad of his own. Perhaps this is due to the perception that the United States is a team that plays better than the sum of its parts. Or perhaps it is because an anti-American bias exists amongst European coaches.

But as long as the love for country supersedes the love for club in the United States, the USMNT will remain a formidable international squad. Even in Mexico, (and especially to those Mexicans in the USA), El Tri is still No. 1, no matter how deep one’s love for America or Chivas is rooted. In fact, most Liga MX fans still take immense pride in boasting how many of the players from their club team made the national team roster.

The best result to have come out of the United States’ performance in Brazil is there grew a perception that the United States is not to be underestimated. Other nations will always believe that they possess better talent than those wearing the Stars and Stripes, but they also know that playing the US Men’s National Team means a 90 minute dogfight, if not 120 minutes. They also know the USA will have a world class goalkeeper, that they’ll have an organized defense, that the squad will be loaded with speedy and physical athletes, and that they’ll be dangerous on set pieces. Not to mention their MLS contingent is going to be in season and far from over-tired like those who participated in UEFA Champions League.

El tri
The FMF can take some solace in the fact they are one of only three nations to escape the group stage in every World Cup since 1994.

Mexico on the other hand, has quietly been one of the World Cup’s best performers over the past 20 years. No, they haven’t advanced to the quarterfinals since they hosted the World Cup in 1986, but they have escaped the group stage in every World Cup in which they’ve participated going back to 1994. Only three nations in the World have progressed from their group in every Cup since ’94: Germany, Brazil and… Mexico. Scoff if you will at the lack of quarterfinal appearances, but there’s something to be said for always being able to get out of the random craziness that is the group stage.

But how have they accomplished that? Simple; it all stems from a lack of familiarity. Even now, despite a couple of high profile Mexicans in Europe, the majority of El Tri is called upon from Liga MX. El Tri has always been a tough team to scout because their players are a continent away. Yes, I’m sure all the coaches have tape on their opponents, but do you really think a European coach understands the Mexican soccer culture? International coaches have such limited time with their teams and have a hard enough time following their own players; you think they’re breaking down a Tigres v. Cruz Azul game to get a glimpse of Mexico’s left back? Heck no. And you can forget about them watching MLS because it’s not happening.

Even watching El Tri’s qualifying games, how much are you going to learn watching Mexico play against Central American teams parking the bus? While players for the Yanks are known for their athleticism and organization, Mexican teams are known for their relentless running and technical skill. Due to Mexico’s tactical isolation, El Tri is likely to play an unfamiliar style, often employing three center-backs. And as for fitness, Mexico is such a warm country situated at such high altitude, the summer weather and fitness issues prevalent during World Cups are nothing for a Liga MX player.

The young Mexican duo of Reyes and Herrera at FC Porto could open more doors for Mexicans in Europe.
The young duo of Reyes and Herrera at FC Porto could open more doors for Mexicans in Europe.

Sadly, despite Mexico being a soccer obsessed nation of 120+ million people with a rich footballing history, Mexico only has about a dozen players plying their trade in Europe at the moment. That is an almost absurdly low number. That’s less than even the American contingent in Europe. Meanwhile, nations of less than four million people like Uruguay donate dozens of players to Europe’s elite leagues while the North American duo of Mexico and the United States struggle to do so, despite playing well at international level.

The reasons for Mexico’s lack of players abroad are complex. But the main cause for lack of Mexicans abroad has always stemmed from the strength of the Mexican league. Liga MX has a lot of history and is economically strong with dollars coming in from Mexico and the United States. The league is more than capable of paying its stars competitive salaries. Recently though, there has been a crop of young Mexicans who seem eager to test themselves in Europe, with America star Raul Jimenez and Tigres striker Alan Pulido the most current cases. But Mexican teams still request high enough transfer fees for their players that it will derail a potential move. Often it behooves players to just stay in Mexico and be an important part of a team while working toward a spot with El Tri. Young up-and-comers like Pablo Barrera and Efrain Juarez had their careers side tracked or derailed completely by stints at West Ham and Celtic respectively. It took undoubted talents like Carlos Vela and Giovani dos Santos years of bouncing around on loan before settling down and thriving at Real Sociedad and Villareal. Rather than deal with a foreign culture, it’s better to stay in Mexico, close to home. Mexicans have rich traditions and don’t always adjust to European culture smoothly, especially if it’s a club that doesn’t assist transition of its players well. Why risk heading off to Europe where the threat will always linger that a new coach could put you deep on the bench? At 23 years old Javier Hernandez started the UEFA Champions League Final. In his four years at United, Chicharito is now on his third manager and it seems as if Louis van Gaal has even less use for his Mexican striker than David Moyes.

Dempsey and Bradley may have changed the American soccer culture by returning.
Dempsey and Bradley may have changed the American soccer culture by returning.

The development of MLS placing a premium on bringing key American players back home has changed the landscape of American soccer. First, it started small, with Maurice Edu, Michael Parkhurst, and Clarence Goodson returning as the three defenders sought spots on the World Cup squad. Then it reached a feverish climax with the arrival of USMNT Captain Clint Dempsey and later Michael Bradley. This week, DeMarcus Beasley to Houston Dynamo continued the homecoming of national team players, while rumors of Jermaine Jones and possibly even Jozy Altidore persist.

Jurgen Klinsmann has shouted out to anyone who will listen that he wants Americans going to Europe to claw and scrap for playing time. But at the same time, he’s favored American players who have performed well and shown leadership with their MLS squads like Besler and Zusi, Omar Gonzalez, Brad Davis, and Chris Wondolowski. Plus, despite Bradley and Dempsey returning to MLS to earn the dollars and minutes they deserve, Klinsmann still saw fit to promote the duo as leaders on the national team. I wholeheartedly disagree with Klinsmann that working abroad and fighting tooth and nail for every minute of playing time for a mid-level Premier League team is the only way to get better. And I’ll tell you why.

Despite claiming to bring style to the USMNT, Klinsmann may have reinforced the fact we already have one.
Despite claiming to bring style to the USMNT, Klinsmann may have reinforced the fact we already have one.

American soccer aficionados have long clamored for an “American style”. I might argue an American style already exists. Klinsmann, for all his tough talk about offensive minded football, reverted back to a style US fans were all too familiar with during the World Cup. We played organized defensive soccer in front of a world class goalkeeper. We also showed lots of hustle and grit, utilized our speed and strength and were dangerous off some set pieces. Sound familiar? Two times is a coincidence, but seven times is a trend.

The US and MLS, as we are constantly reminded, are still in their infancy. But even with money you can’t rush the stages of development; everything from player development to fan interest has to develop organically. Mexico, for all their history, still has yet to build a solid pipeline to Europe. Yet the US has found their soccer program at a similar stage of development all of a sudden. In my opinion this return of top level American talent to MLS is a good thing. It shows fans we can develop our own stars and don’t always need to import high priced 30-something EPL veterans to sell tickets. But more importantly it strengthens the quality of play on the field while giving our USMNT players confidence by keeping them in form as vital cogs for their MLS clubs. In Brazil players who have never played outside Mexico like Oribe Peralta, Paul Aguilar, and Jose Juan Vazquez believed they were winners when they stepped onto the pitch because in Liga MX they had been winner their whole lives.

GARBER
Despite US Soccer’s wishes, looks like Don Garber and MLS want to bring home more USMNT players.

I want to see MLS add a fourth DP spot for teams that already have one American or Canadian DP. I want to see Jozy Altidore, Sasha Kljestan, Jose Francisco Torres, Brek Shea, Alejandro Bedoya, and yes, even Jermaine Jones in MLS. Hell, I even Freddy Adu in MLS (I mean Serbia? Really?). In just a few years there will be 24 teams in the league and we’ll need… neigh, we’ll demand players of that caliber to keep the quality high and hopefully put butts in the seats. In MLS those guys can pump in goals, win games, and become leaders. I don’t know if the can do that at Sunderland, Stoke, Nantes, or Anderlecht. And it’s OK if they can’t.

The US Soccer team could afford to go through a phase where we have a little swagger and think we’re maybe a little better than we are (even if the soccer snobs try to rain on our parade).

The one thing MLS has going for it, and by proxy US Soccer, is that there’s far more tactical diversity in MLS than in Liga MX. There are plenty of Latin American and European minds in MLS. This will help bring in new ideas which our players can learn. Liga MX conversely, has always been overwhelmingly dominated by Mexican coaches, with the occasional Colombian or Argentine skipper. They are a nation, which in the isolation of CONCACAF, has become set in its ways and has never been forced to look inward. Perhaps if they had failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, as nearly happened, a much needed evaluation of the country’s practices may have taken place. But their performance in Brazil only showed that Mexico was about as good as we all had anticipated.

How good is the United States? I’ve asked that before. But the truth is it’s tougher to tell as MLS’ attraction for top level American players grows. And playing Mexico as much as it does and measuring itself against El Tri first and foremost doesn’t really bring any additional answers. But the United States can be the best version of itself. And, for now, that won’t be so bad.

Did We Learn Enough?

JK
Do Jurgen Klinsmann and Sunil Gulati have US Soccer on the right track?

Where does the United States Men’s National Team go from here?

That’s the question all USMNT fans want to know. It’s not just World Cup 2018 in Russia, but an array of international tournaments in the interim which we can all look forward to. These include tournaments such as a Gold Cups in 2015 & 2017 and a busy 2016 which will include the Olympics (if we qualify) and the Copa America Centenario. Add this to an array of youth tourneys and the Confederation’s Cup in 2017 (if the USA can qualify) and soccer fans who really only tune in for the USMNT will have plenty to watch.

In fact I truly believe these next four years can and will be the most important four year cycle in the history of the program, especially if the Copa America Centenario is a success. Coming off two straight World Cups where the USMNT got into the knockout stages the US needs to keep up the momentum and become a team everyone can bank will escape the group stages.

WHAT IS THE QUESTION, EXACTLY?

But before we move forward to analyse the future, the more important question will be: “What did we learn about the USMNT team during the World Cup?”

Sadly, the answer is very little. Although there are a lot of aspects of the team worthy of dissecting the truth of the matter is, the United States played with the same tactics as always. Namely that means: defensively, with some great goalkeeping, some good counter-attacking and set piece moments, and, of course, a little luck. The dynamic offensive play lasted about 38 seconds for the United States. After that, they pretty much clung on for dear life.

Belgium v USA: Round of 16 - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil
The World has always known that the USA has had great goalkeeping. Did they learn anything else about us in Brazil?

The one game that the United States did play well in (and more importantly, the only game in which the USMNT played proactively), was the second fixture versus Portugal. Sadly, that game ended in a gut wrenching tie at the final whistle; which I think was the most frustrating moment of the World Cup for several reasons beyond the mere loss of two points. The US wasn’t rewarded for its best half of soccer in decades. And at the end of the day, despite advancing out of the Group of Death, the USMNT still needed to look at another game’s score-line to progress during their final game.

The goal for the United States’ next World Cup should be to control its own destiny as it escapes from the group stage, not merely to survive it. But that’s a tall order. Because it’s been 24 years that the USMNT has been a World Cup regular and it’s still performing very similarly to how it did 24 years ago.

HOW GOOD ARE WE?

I’m not sure. Loads of fans and writers gave the USA good reviews for their performance in Brazil. For me, a 1-1-2 World Cup with a -1 goal differential shouldn’t earn praise, even if there were some positive developments to take away.

The US may have a couple nice players and may have survived the Group of Death but USMNT fans ought to take a step back before patting themselves on the back. In 2002 I was in England during the United States’ run to the World Cup quarterfinals and couldn’t stop reading articles where the European soccer writers were convinced the United States’ day of becoming a soccer super power was right around the corner. They sounded almost scared. The general tone was “Great, now the US is going to dominate the one sport it hadn’t kicked everyone’s butt in. Now we’ve got nothing. Only a matter of time before they’re cricket and rugby champions too.”

US midfielder Michael Bradley (L) and US
Our two best young players unfortunately were not able to display their talent fully during World Cup 2014

But the truth of the matter is quite different. It’s been 12 years since that World Cup in Japan and Korea and our results and our tactics are almost the same. In fact, this is our record in World Cups since we came back on the scene in 1990: 5 wins – 6 draws – 15 losses

There’s no sugar coating that. That number is ugly, fugly even. Mexico, who US fans constantly want to compare their team to, (which they should not for various reasons) has a record of 8-8-8 during those years and have advanced from the group stage each time. And yet Mexico is hardly mentioned as a top 15 international squad.

I know, I know. Things are totally different since 2002. Things have improved since we made that historic run to the quarterfinals, right? But you’d be wrong. Here’s the USMNT’s World Cup record in their last four World Cups: 4 wins – 5 draws – 7 losses with a -5 goal differential. Is that an elite team? Is that even a top 20 program?

THANKS FOR THE COMPLIMENTS, I THINK…?

The United States Men’s National Team has gotten lots of praise around the world for its performance in Brazil. The highest of praise has come from the U.K. where fans are convinced that their players don’t care. (Never mind that their fans paralyze the team with an anvil of negativity), The traits the USMNT has received praise for are their grit, determination, and passion for playing for country. But is that such a great thing? Is it overshadowing the actual talent on the roster? And more importantly, did we have talent on the roster? Jurgen Klinsmann put so much spotlight on himself, I’m not sure any of our players save for maybe DeAndre Yedlin was able to distinguish themselves with their talent. Even Matt Besler, now resigned as a Sporting Kansas City Designated Player, was only receiving interest from the likes of Sunderland and Fulham.

The two young players who USSoccer most wanted to show off: Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore had poor and injury truncated tournaments respectively. Fabian Johnson showed some bright flashes but also had some questionable moments and finished the tournament with an injury. Aron Johannsson played an ineffective first game and fellow Scandinavian Mikkel Diskerud didn’t see any action at all. Same for the talented right back Timothy Chandler.

For me the most disappointing thing is not only did we not learn anything strategically from the USMNT during the World Cup, but the team relied much more heavily on veterans than had been anticipated. There were seven 30+ year old players who played roles for the US squad during the World Cup.

JJ
How long will Jurgen Klinsmann stick with his boy Jermaine Jones?

Tim Howard – 35 years old

Jermaine Jones – 32 years old

Kyle Beckerman – 32 years old

Demarcus Beasley – 32 years old

Brad Davis – 32 years old

Chris Wondolowski – 31 years old

Clint Dempsey – 31 years old

How quickly Jurgen Klinsmann chooses to move on from these five veterans will say a lot about how committed he really is to transitioning to the next generation and instilling that offensive and technical style which he had so boldly promised. I truly wonder whether after three years at the helm he even believes the USA has the talent to pull off what he promised. The player selection and tactical decisions he made leading up to the world cup showed he was dubious about the talent, and especially the technical ability, of the top American players. He settled for a pragmatic approach. It got us out of the Group of Death, but did it improve the program?

There are ready made replacements for each of those aging stars, but will Klinsmann have too much loyalty to cast them aside and bring on the future? It’s one thing to approach the World Cup pragmatically and choose to advance ugly. But it’s another thing at the beginning of a four year cycle to build a team around a few 30-somethings. It’s time to say thank you and goodbye to Beckerman, Beasley, Davis, and even Jones. Although I do not believe Jurgen will do so as coldly as he ditched Landon Donovan. If national team coaches only have such limited time to work with their squads, every minute you give a player who will likely not play in Russia retards someone else’s growth.

It’s also worth noting that I’m not so sure that the British football writers understand the dynamic of the US National Team. For both the fans and the players USMNT performance is far more important than club performance. Not to mention it’s far more lucrative. Some of the USMNT players made more money in a month at the World Cup than they make as a yearly salary. Furthermore it’s National Team performance which opens the door to lucrative sponsorship contracts. And the team can play relaxed as the fans will always shower praise upon the players and their performances.

WHAT NOW?

Gil
Players like DeAndre Yedlin, Luis Gil, and Shane O’Neill will play a prevalent role in this World Cup cycle… hopefully.

The USMNT has a fixture date in September in Prague versus the Czech Republic. Will Jurgen choose to use it as an encore performance for his World Cup team? Or does he use the exhibition date as a chance to debut or re-debut some new faces. Will Yedlin get to start? Will Mix Diskerud and Tim Chandler get to see the light of day? Do we head right into the Julian Green era?

And tactically will Klinsmann try anything more adventurous? During a World Cup which was noted for its tactical innovation, especially the experimentation with three center-back formations, the Yanks played a rather bland 4-5-1 which put our two best players out of position. You just know that somewhere deep down in Jurgen’s brain he wants to play a 4-3-3. But does he feel he can pull it off?

I want to see Juan Agudelo and Terrence Boyd. Are we going to be able to see young guys like Luis Gil and Joe Corona who are able to bring more possession and technical ability into the midfield? Can MLS keep developing young players like Will Trapp and have them catch Klinsmann’s eye? The U-23 Olympic tournament may be the most important tournament for USSoccer in this cycle. Especially after the embarrassment of failing to qualify for the London Olympics, USSoccer needs to be able to show the fans that we’re progressing tactically and technically.

The bottom line is the World Cup is over. It was fun. But we may still be farther off than anticipated. We may be another generation of development away. But that’s OK as long as we keep holding our own and growing the sports’ popularity along the way.

One Nation, One Team? It’s a Little More Complicated.

One Nation, One Team. This is the US Team’s motto for the 2014 World Cup. But the truth of the nation and the team is a bit more complicated. A more accurate representation of the team would be:

USA: A Constitutional Union of Fifty States Spreading Their Seed Across the World, One Team.

That’s a bit more explanatory of what the United States and the Men’s National Team is. And this got me thinking… what if this were the motto for every other World Cup team? Certainly every nation has situations which are equally complex. So I composed a list.

So without further ado, here’s the list of World Cup Team Mottos, if they properly explained their situations.

Algeria: One Nation, One Team raised by the French Football Federation.

Argentina: One Nation except for a key archipelago in the south, One Team.

Australia: One Continent, One Team.

Belgium: Two regions: French speaking Wallonia and the Dutch speaking Flanders which wants to secede, One Team.

Bosnia-Herzogovina: Two Nations that used to be part of the bigger nation of Yugoslavia, One Team

Brazil: One Nation of 201 million people, and one key defection to the Spanish National Team.

Cameroon: One Country with a region that speaks English and another that speaks French which don’t particularly like each other, One Team.

Chile: One Nation which disputes the Patagonian Ice Field with Argentina (what?), One Team.

Columbia: One Nation except for the part where the USA started a revolution to build a canal, One Team.

Costa Rica: One Nation plus almost a million Nicaraguans, One Team.

Croatia: One Nation no longer part of Yugoslavia or Serbia, One Team.

Ecuador: One Nation, originally part of Gran Colombia with Venezuela, One Team.

England: One Quarter of One Nation; Four National Teams

France: One Nation with no French Algerians except Karim Benzema, One Team… usually.

Germany: One Nation since 1990, and thankfully still separate from Austria, One Team.

Ghana: The English Speaking half of the Akan People, One Team.

Greece: One Xenophobic nation; One pure team.

Honduras: One Nation with most of its population fleeing for the USA, One Team.

Iran: One Nation Which Should be Named Persia to Avoid Confusion with Iraq, One Team.

Italy: One Very Regionally Proud Nation, One Team.

Ivory Coast: The French Speaking Half of the Akan People, One Team.

Japan: Four Main Islands, over 6,000 smaller ones, One Team.

Mexico: One Nation Spread Across Two Countries, One team.

Netherlands: One Kingdom composed of Holland and six Caribbean Islands, One Team.

Nigeria: One Nation; half Christian, half Muslim, One Team

Portugal: One Nation sharing the Iberian Peninsula with a much better country at soccer, One Team.

Russia: One Nation plus the Crimean part of Ukraine, One Team.

South Korea: One Democratic Nation Split From its Communist North, Two Teams.

Spain: One Nation depending on who you ask, and two non-FIFA sanctioned National Teams.

Switzerland: One “Neutral” Nation with enough immigrants to make One Team.

Uruguay: One Nation, which historically should be part of Argentina.