By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 12, 2021) US Soccer Players – There’s a lot that is new this time in the latest edition of a complicated rivalry. After five straight USMNT vs Mexico qualifiers in Columbus, the match-up moves down the road to Cincinnati. A stadium and MLS team that didn’t exist during the last World Cup qualifying cycle now welcomes the biggest game in Concacaf.
Nothing that US Soccer can control was left to chance. Like Columbus before it, the expectation is a partisan crowd in a small stadium. A significant majority of the 26,000 expected to fill TQL Stadium will be there to support the USMNT. They’ll need all the energy from the crowd that they can get in an attempt to rekindle the magic of the Dos a Cero era.
USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter understands the size of the task ahead and appreciates the pressure of the rivalry. He has also taken notice of Mexico’s unwillingness to grant the Americans a full measure of respect.
“When you hear things coming out from their camp that we want to be them or that we’re looking at some mirror that’s Mexico and we want to see ourselves, it shows that we have a long way to go to get the respect of Mexico,” Berhalter said on a media call Thursday.
Berhalter’s comment referred to a statement by Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa who suggested that the United States wants to “copy” Mexico. Age might be a factor in both Ochoa’s comment and Berhalter’s reaction. That’s because something else that’s new to the rivalry at the qualifying stages is most of the US team.
The USMNT reboot brought with it a wave of new and exceedingly young talent. Berhalter’s time in charge has been about building up that new generation of players while at the same time striving to create a coherent playing identity.
“We’re not going to be able to make up for Mexico’s experience, we know that,” Berhalter said. “They have an average age of something like 29 years old and we’ll be somewhere closer to 22, 23 years old. What we try to do is give these guys the experience over the last couple of years. We’ve played Mexico four times in the last two years and we’ve learned from that game.”
Among those four matches against Mexico in the last two years are two in 2021: The Americans’ 3-2 triumph over Mexico in the Nations League final in June and the 1-0 victory in the Gold Cup final on August 1.
“The two victories in the summer I guess didn’t do a lot to get [respect].” he said. “We’re going to have to do it tomorrow by our play on the field.”
The United States will tackle that challenge without two top attacking players available and a third starting on the bench. There’s no choice with Christian Pulisic’s injury situation. He only recently returned to his club side, playing few minutes since spraining his ankle against Honduras on September 8. While Chelsea coach Thomas Tuchel felt the need to publicly remind the US technical staff about Pulisic, Berhalter was already well aware of the limitations. If the Americans are chasing a goal late in the match, it’s difficult to imagine Pulisic won’t get a chance to make an impact off the bench.
With injuries keeping Gio Reyna and Sergino Dest out of the squad, Berhalter will need command performances from other attacking options. That includes Brendan Aaronson, the player who sparked the attack in October.
Berhalter’s absences in the attack could be less problematic considering the issues Mexico has at the back. News broke Thursday that first choice Mexico center back Hector Moreno is touch-and-go for the match, adding a third name to a set of missing defenders that already included Cesar Montes (injured) and Nestor Araujo (suspended).
El Tri coach Tata Martino’s options include a pair of Liga MX veterans and a talented 23-year-old in Johan Vasquez. Vasquez just broke into the starting lineup with Genoa in Serie A, but has just two caps for the national team. Like Berhalter, Martino may have no choice but to trust a young player.
Much of the USMNT is new to this level in the rivalry with Mexico, but no player embodies that rivalry more than the man expected to start at center forward in Cincinnati.
Ricardo Pepi’s journey from El Paso to the first-choice striker for the USMNT is remarkable even without his decision to play for the country of his birth over this country of his heritage. At 18-years-old, Pepi already looks like a possible answer to the USMNT’s issues at his position.
After scoring goals against Honduras and Jamaica, Pepi arrives at the biggest moment of his young career. He may not have to score for the USMNT to win the game, but he’s certain to play a central role in the attack. It’s what he wanted and why he’s here, helping to turn the US youth movement into an advantage.
No one qualifies for the World Cup on Friday night. There will be seven games left to go following USA vs Mexico including a trip to Estadio Azteca in March. Still, the stakes of this game are different. It’s more than a chance for three points. It always is.
More From Jason Davis:
- The MLS coaching carousel at the end of the regular season
- Decision Day does its job in 2021
- Phoenix and Tampa play for a Championship do-over
- Once again, FC Cincinnati finishes in last-place
Photo by John Dorton – ISIPhotos.com