With the World Cup finally upon us (God, I love the World Cup!), I wanted to talk a bit about my love for Mexican football. I am not the perfect Mexican, I understand that, I’ve always understood that (But then again, what Chicano is?). I was born here, my Spanish is somewhere between average and poor depending how long it’s been since my last trip abroad, my surname is Penney, I’m 6’3”, I don’t have any Mexican-American friends, I’m a registered Republican, my visits to Mexico have become more and more infrequent, and growing up in the Northeast Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican culture dominated the New York metro Hispanic landscape (And they still do).
My connection to Mexican culture and my Mexican heritage has come mainly from two sources: My mother’s food is the first (or if we were visiting Guadalajara: Mama Cuca’s or Juanis’ food). Frijoles, chilequiles, chiles rellenos, tacos de crema, ropa vieja, tortas ahogadas, ceviche, and many more dishes than I care to count. And I am extremely grateful that I am now cooking many of these dishes myself.
But the other major way I’ve connected with my Mexican self is through the national team. Every four years, I get to watch twenty-three wonderful players in green Mexico kits take part in what I think is the greatest sporting spectacle on earth: The FIFA World Cup. In my life I have been cognizant of six World Cups: 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014. Despite my fandom of football waxing and waning throughout my life, my love for all things El Tri has always burned bright. In each of these years I have vivid memories of watching Mexico. Many of these memories were exhilarating with equally as many heart wrenching.
I remember, despite being only 10 years-old, how confused I was to see Mexico lose to Bulgaria on penalties in ’94. I’ve definitely blanked out losing to Germany on an ’87th minute winner in ‘98. But I’ll never forget Mexico’s back-to-back comebacks from 0-2 down against perennial European powers Belgium and Holland.
In 2002 we famously lost to the United States after a superb group stage performance. I’m still not over it. And I don’t want to talk about it.
In 2006, I remember watching the first two group stage matches in Guadalajara while visiting family. I remember going to get ice cream at halftime of the Iran game and the city seeming a ghost town. We could have robbed half the city’s banks and no one would have known.
And I’ll never forget how good I felt watching Mexico play Argentina to extra time in the Round of 16 only to get my heart broken once again, this time by a Maxi Rodriguez wonder strike.
In 2010 I watched the games from Dublin pubs and I marveled at the kids of the “golden generation” running around making defending World Cup runner-up France look slow. I’ll never forget seeing Chicharito’s giddy face after he maneuvered around Hugo Lloris for his first World Cup goal.
The 2014 tournament will always be about “Piojo” Herrera, Memo Ochoa, and #NoEraPenal (It wasn’t a penalty!).
But why has this team had such a deep and beloved place in my heart? Honestly, I’m not 100% sure. Maybe it was my way of seeing Mexicans in their best light, when I often didn’t get a chance to. Maybe it was a part of being part of something bigger-namely, the rich and beautiful cultural heritage of Mexico-even if I wasn’t connected to it on a day-to-day basis. (And make no mistake; fútbol is as much a part of Mexico’s heritage as the Maya or Mariachi.) I didn’t grow up in Texas or Southern California where Mexican, Mexican-American, and American culture intertwine almost seamlessly. I didn’t get to see successful Mexican American attorneys, doctors, architects day-in and day-out. So perhaps because of that I clutched to the one source of pride I saw front and center every four years.
My passion for El Tri isn’t political. It isn’t overcompensation. It isn’t a statement I’m trying to make for others. It’s personal. And it’s pure. It’s about feel. In fact, I’m probably about as big an America apologist as you’ll find. Nationalism isn’t a sin. It’s a virtue. I believe that. But while America is my country, México y Chivas “son mis equipos”. I feel it in my blood.
I honestly have to say, I can’t ever remember even considering being a USMNT fan. It never really even crossed my mind. Rooting for Mexico against the United States, I never felt guilty about it, it just felt natural. (That being said, as a soccer evangelist in a nation of American sports fans, I found myself crushed at the US’s failure to qualify. I will deeply miss the festive atmosphere which often accompanies US games. But c’est la vie.)
The beauty with which Mexicans play the game is much more aesthetically pleasing than the rough and ragged American way of playing. Even in high school I always knew there was something wrong and robotic about the way the game was played. Football is half sport, but it’s also half art. It’s entertainment. It’s meant to please and amaze. Mexican football has always been about pleasure, just watch Liga MX for proof. When I think of what Mexican football is, something like Cuauhtémoc Blanco’s cuauhtemiña comes to mind-a superb display of brashness and flair. I think I always saw in the Mexico team characteristics which I hoped existed within me. As if perhaps my just being half-Mexican would give me the ability to rely on these traits if desired.
And if entertainment is the purpose of football, then the World Cup has always been the games grandest stage. Or perhaps calling it an altar would be more apropos. While UEFA Champions League may be the brain of the game, the World Cup is its heart. No sponsors on the kits and no ability to import players on huge transfer fees. It is simple. Country vs. Country. Style vs. Style. Mexico, or not, I will soak in as many games as is humanly possible and I would encourage all USMNT fans to do the same. For four weeks we get to lay back and marvel at the world’s best and most famous athletes this side of Madison Square Garden. I’m just as excited to watch Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, James, Kane, Ozil, Iniesta, Mane, Salah, and Suarez as anything else. It truly is football Christmas.
With that being said, do I want Mexico to win? Yes. Do I think they will? No, probably not. But we must aspire to win. Mexican-American culture is first and foremost about aspiration. But while I connect through my blood, I must recognize that it is Mexico’s team first, before it is the Mexican American team. Although I do hope that perhaps one day, either El Tri or the USMNT will create an Oscar De La Hoya type figure that can transcend both sides of the Rio Grande equally. Perhaps Jonathan Gonzalez is that figure. Perhaps it will be an as of yet unknown American player. Either way I eagerly await that player.
But for now, I look at the roster Juan Carlos Osorio has assembled for Russia and I see that it represents so much about what Mexico is today. The spine of the team is part of a “golden generation” which has shown so much promise, much like the country they represent. They are far more international than any Mexican team that’s come before, with seventeen of the players having played in Europe during their careers. Three of the players are making huge money in the United States-like so many Mexicans dream to do. Yet, like Mexico, despite the talent the team has, it has never truly achieved its potential. Some of that may be misplaced machismo. Some of it is federation mismanagement. And for good measure our team captain Rafa Marquez has been sanctioned by the U.S. Justice Department for alleged ties to drug trafficking. Unfortunately, it shows that even in our beloved game of football, we can’t always escape some of the harsh truths about the problems Mexico, as a nation, faces. But all of these things are what make the team the perfect reflection of the country they play for-for better or worse. Yet the program creeps closer and closer to what it can be with every passing year. For six tournaments now, Mexico has stumbled in the exact same place: the Round of 16, always failing to take Mexico into that elite eight they’ve been knocking on the door of for so long. I think that anything beyond that “quinto partido” will be transcendent. But if that’s where the tournament ends this summer once again, I’ll be OK with that too because I know I’ll have enjoyed the ride. I always do. And then I’ll do what everyone else does: watch the remainder of the World Cup games with delight.
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:
Using this as my guide: I came up with the following roster:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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 finisheras 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 hereas 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.