By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Jun 12, 2023) US Soccer Players – The latest installment of the United States – Mexico rivalry will take place Thursday in Las Vegas. On the line is passage to the Concacaf Nations League final. While we won’t see the USMNT and Mexico meet in World Cup Qualifying in the 2026 cycle, this Nations League match may be a prelude to the Gold Cup that begins later this month.
The United States are the defending Nations League winners, capturing the inaugural edition two years ago in an epic final against Mexico that was decided in extra time. The Americans defeated El Tri 3-2 with Christian Pulisic scoring the winning goal on a penalty kick in the 114th minute. The US would then go on to beat Mexico that same summer 1-0 in the Gold Cup final, once again in extra time. Like this semifinal, that game was played at Allegiant Stadium.
Since then, the USMNT has surpassed Mexico in terms of results. Along with those two trophies in 2021, the USMNT advanced out of the group stage at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar this past fall, reaching the round of 16. Meanwhile, Mexico, who regularly qualifies for the knockout round at the World Cup, went 1-1-1, exiting the tournament in the group stage. It marked a difficult period overall for Mexico after also failing to qualify for the just concluded Under-20 World Cup and next year’s Summer Olympics in Paris.
The US and Mexico enter this Nations League semifinal both hoping to start fresh. This match could be seen as the beginning of preparations for the next World Cup, given that both nations don’t have to go through the qualification process. Although it is a time to test players and tactics, one thing remains constant. This is a heated rivalry that always brings the best out of both sides.
“In addition to having big-game experience and top-level talent, what’s great about this group overall is the familiarity and understanding that’s been built together these last four years about our style and our culture,” interim coach B.J. Callaghan said of his roster that has eight of the players that were part of the 2021 side that won the Nations League. “We’re excited to integrate some of the newer faces as we set out to achieve our first goal of the summer in defending the Concacaf Nations League title.”
Those new faces include Folarin Balogun, a 21-year-old striker who was born in New York and had represented both the US and England at youth level. He recently chose to play for the USMNT, boosting an attack that already featured several strong young players such as Gio Reyna, Ricardo Pepi, Tim Weah, and Alex Zendejas.
“He’s going to make me better. I am going to make him better,” Pepi told reporters last week. “There’s a lot of competition for our (striker) spot.” USMNT goalkeeper Matt Turner agreed, calling Balogun, who scored 21 goals in Ligue 1 with Reims this past season, “a super competitive guy.”
“I think that fits in really well with the sort of people that we have in this locker room already,” Turner added. “He’s going to be a great addition and when you have competition that just elevates everyone’s game.”
For the US, the biggest challenge will be continuity and consistency, two things that aren’t easy at the international level. Against Mexico, the USMNT is 3-2-0 since the year 2020. The US last lost to Mexico 3-0 in a friendly played at MetLife Stadium in suburban New York in 2019.
Mexico, on the other hand, is in the midst of a rebuilding phase. The FMF appointed Diego Cocca coach this past February and the Nations League is the first set of games with a trophy on the line. Cocca’s mission is to revitalize El Tri’s fortunes and he knows the pressure that comes with it.
“I’m coach of the Mexican national team,” Cocca said at his first news conference as Mexico manager. “You have to win – even in pick-up games.”
Cocca’s roster also has some notable absences due to injury, including having to do without wingers Hirving Lozano and Jesus Corona. Those are two very big absences this summer for El Tri, but the team is loaded with some familiar faces. That includes veteran goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who, at age 38, is coming off a wonderful season at Serie A side Salernitana.
Overall, this is a younger Mexican side compared to what we saw last November at the World Cup. In attack, for example, Mexico is betting on Feyenoord’s Santiago Gimenez. The 22-year-old striker, fresh off winning the Eredivisie, was the most successful Mexico national team player in Europe this past season.
Mexico played two warm-ups in the leadup to the Nations League. El Tri defeated Guatemala 2-0 last Wednesday in Mazatlan, then the team, made up of Liga MX players, played Cameroon to a 2-2 draw Saturday night at San Diego’s Snapdragon Stadium. Mexico averted defeat after Pachuca’s Kevin Alvarez scored in stoppage time.
“The plan is to continue growing and improving,” Cocca said. “The aim of each game is to make the players feel more comfortable.”
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of the new book “The FIFA World Cup: A History of the Planet’s Biggest Sporting Event.”
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Photo by Shaun Clark – ISIPhotos.com