If you told me at any point before 2013 that the United States would have to beat Mexico in a home World Cup qualifier without Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and a second choice central defense pairing, there's a good chance my scoreline predictions would resemble the 2009 Gold Cup Final.
But then again, this is not the same regional powerhouse Mexico side that the USA is used to playing. This is a Mexico side that, while still dangerous, just doesn't score goals. Back in March, the US went down to Azteca, parked the bus, absorbed 19 shots by Mexico, and walked away with a point from a 0-0 draw. But unlike the reverse fixture, where the US was playing for a draw with a makeshift backline, today a draw isn't good enough
I don't expect Jurgen Klinsmann to park the bus today, he wants three points. The question is, what lineup is he going to put out to give his side the best chance at winning.
Gone is the injured Michael Bradley, John Anthony Brooks was released back to his club in Germany (so why was he called in to camp in the first place?) and Geoff Cameron, Jozy Altidore and Matt Belser are suspended for yellow card accumulation, although Belser's phantom foul on Joel Campbell caused a bit of a stir yesterday.
Called into the squad for tonight's game are defender Clarence Goodson and midfielders Joe Corona, Brad Davis and Jose Francisco Torres. As far as replacing the three players in Klinsmann's preferred 4-2-3-1, that's another story.
It's difficult to think that the Michael Orozco Fiscal experiment at right back will continue, so that means the entire right side of the defense will be changed from the Costa Rica game. And the US isn't exactly deep at defensively to begin with, so it's not as simple as just starting Michael Parkhurst and Goodson at right and center back respectfully.
People much smarter than me tactically have suggested Jermaine Jones slide back to center defense and have Fabian Johnson play right back. This to me would likely signify a switch to a 4-4-2, which I'm not against for this game. A left-to-right midfield of Landon Donovan, Mix Diskerud/Ale Bedoya, Clint Dempsey and Graham Zusi doesn't sound terrible on paper. Throw Eddie Johnson and Aron Johannsson up top and there are way worse lineups that Klinsmann can put out on the field.
You can always switch back to the 4-2-3-1 later, sacrificing the Iceman for the defender to push Jones up to the holding midfield. Kyle Beckerman is also available on the bench and could get a possible start in Klinsmann's preferred formation. The options available to Klinsmann might not be the best available, but his talent pool is deep enough that overcoming so many lineup changes is not only possible, but likely a probable scenario. And remember, Landon Donovan was still on sabbatical in March, so he wasn't at Azteca.
I would expect more of the same from the USA, most of the attack will come down the left where DaMarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson have done so well. Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan were practically invisible offensively against Costa Rica, something that needs to be adjusted tactically. With at least Eddie Johnson up front at striker, he should still be trying to hold up the ball to get more players involved in the attack. That hold up element was also lacking as the US preferred to send long balls up the field. Klinsmann's had a few days to think things over, and Costa Rica was one of the first times in a while that his lineup completely fell flat. Twice in a row wouldn't be catastrophic to the USA's qualifying hopes, but all the confidence of that 12-game winning streak would be gone in about five days.
So besides replacing your best player, one of your starting centerbacks, your right back and your striker, there aren't any worries for the US right?
Wrong, Mexico is still really good, they're just having a rough time on the field. Despite the dissension in their ranks and a new coach who must make his debut in the hollowed grounds of Crew Stadium in Columbus, Mexico is still just as talented as anyone in CONCACAF. Yes, El Tri have struggled to hold on to fourth place and a playoff spit in The Hex, and a loss to the US today could see them fall out a potential World Cup berth. Mexico is not going to just lay down and roll over because the United States has won three straight qualifiers in Columbus.
Javier Hernandez and Giovani dos Santos are as talented a striker pairing in the region, despite Chicharito not getting the start vs. Honduras, and against a makeshift backline from the US, they should be able to find some space. The US had an awful start defensively against Costa Rica, and with lineup changes guaranteed, if I were Mexico, I would take chances early and often. Jesus Corona is a pretty good keeper, the backline has been fairly decent throughout the qualifiers, it's the offense and the consistency that has been lacking.
The biggest issue for Mexico now is leadership. They certainly aren't getting it on the field, embattled head coach Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre was fired after the loss to Honduras and interim coach Luis Fernando Tena might only be a stopgap for the USA match. Tena did win an Olympic gold medal in London, but asking him to win his debut with the senior side against the USA in Columbus is a completely unfair job interview.
Besides that fact that the USA and Mexico are bitter geographical rivals, best two teams in CONCACAF, both teams need three points tonight. The US to defend home field and take pressure off their last two qualifiers and Mexico to avoid falling further behind in the standings. Mexico's remaining schedule is incredibly tough, with Panama at home (the team they're trying to hold of for 4th) and then at Costa Rica to end the qualifying round. The US has a much easier road, with Jamaica at home and then traveling to Panama, hopefully with a qualifying spot already secured.
Either way, this game is a huge opportunity for each team. And with 9,000 supporters and the Outlaws leading the show, the atmosphere in Columbus is going to be electric.
14,000 at Crew Stadium, Columbus, Ohio is greater than 105,000 at Estadio Azteca, Mexico City, Mexico.
May the chants of "We Are Going To Brazil" ring out long into the night.
More from The Bent Musket:
- The 3rd Yellow - Revs vs. Impact Part 1 - Goalkeepers, Red Cards and Denial of a Goalscoring Opportunity
- Brazil vs. Portugal 2013 Preview: Neymar and Friends Converge on Gillette Stadium
- Post-Game Hangover ('Really, Really Mad' Edition): Reflections on Impact @ Revs
- Revolution 2-4 Impact: Red Card, Penalties, Di Vaio Too Much for New England
- Revolution vs. Impact 2013: Lineups and Live Game Thread