On August 15, the United States beat Mexico at Estadio Azteca in the most bizarre way possible. A pair of youngsters who have yet to fulfill their full potential combined with the biggest fan whipping boy of the Jurgen Klinsmann era to score one of the most famous goals in U.S. soccer history.
That was a friendly, in which neither the United States or Mexico had their best teams available. Because the game was scheduled just before the start of most domestic seasons in Europe, a number of prominent Europe-based players were left home for both teams. Some key domestic players were left out as well. Both teams fielded B-plus squads, Mexico failed to finish their chances, and the United States took the one excellent chance they created.
When the two teams meet at Estadio Azteca on Tuesday, for the first time since that U.S. victory, they'll be playing under completely different circumstances. Both teams have their best available players, and the U.S. are missing more first-choice or potentially first-choice players than El Tri. The U.S. are coming off a much-needed victory, taking the pressure off of them to get a result at Azteca. Meanwhile, Mexico have drawn their first two matches in the Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying and are desperate for a win.
Unlike that game in August, they won't be taking this one lightly, but El Tri no longer seems invincible at the Azteca.
The United States will be missing Jermaine Jones, who picked up a knock against Costa Rica. He's been one of the most dependable players of the Jurgen Klinsmann era, and will be seriously missed. Without him, Klinsmann will either have to use a more limited defensive midfielder or change his tactics. This is in addition to the numerous players who missed out on call-ups due to injury, such as Tim Howard, Timothy Chandler, Steve Cherundolo, Fabian Johnson and Danny Williams. Klinsmann elected not to call up Landon Donovan, who is yet to come back from his soccer hiatus, and Carlos Bocanegra, who has not been playing recently for an average Racing Santander side.
A bit of a mix-up in the Mexico camp worked out in Chepo's favor. Left back Jorge Torres Nilo, who was believed to be out through suspension by the Mexican coach, is actually available. However, captain 'Maza' Francisco Rodriguez is not. That might actually be good news for Mexico, given his recent form and antics. He's struggled in recent games for both Mexico and Club America, and was let go by Stuttgart in January because of his terrible form. He's simply not as good as Chepo's other options in defense and has only retained his position through seniority. His absence should be addition by subtraction.
Projected lineups (left to right)
Mexico (4-2-3-1): 'Memo' Guillermo Ochoa; Jorge Torres Nilo, Hector Moreno, Jonny Magallon, Severo Meza; Carlos Salcido, Jesus Zavala; Andres Guardado, Giovani dos Santos, Javier Aquino; 'Chicharito' Javier Hernandez
Between the difference in opponent, setting, expected result and weather that the United States is facing on Tuesday, they're going to play a different team than they used against Costa Rica. The absence of Jermaine Jones hurts as well, as every single option to replace him is either worse defensively or less dynamic going forward. There simply isn't a like-for-like replacement. There's no reason for the back line to change from the Costa Rica match, however.
The only change that Mexico are likely to make is in defense, where they'll be without Maza. Hugo Ayala has been great for years and Diego Reyes is Mexico's top prospect, but what was Jonny Magallon called into the squad for other than a potential situation like this one? He's not Chepo's best central defender, but if he called up a player for his experiences in big games against the United States, he'll probably use him.
F--k the empty bucket! - Hey, don't shoot the messenger. Jurgen Klinsmann has shown a willingness to go to three defensive midfielder setups -- the 'empty bucket' -- in games against very good attacking teams, especially when a draw would be a decent result. Without Jermaine Jones, who covers enough ground to make a third defensively-minded midfielder unnecessary, Klinsmann is going to the empty bucket. Also, that's not a question.
Jonny Magallon? Really? - Sorry, sad El Tri fans, but Chepo's old man fetish hasn't gone away yet. He didn't call in Magallon just to 'lend experience' and not use him if one of his starting defenders was unavailable. It's hard to believe he would get a recall to the team if Chepo didn't intend on using him in this kind of situation. He should start Ayala, but he won't.
Will Friday's goal jolt Clint Dempsey back into form? - U.S. (and Tottenham) fans sure hope so. With Clint Dempsey in top form, the United States can beat anyone in the world. Without Dempsey on top of his game, the USMNT seriously lacks dynamism and the ability to keep the ball, which Klinsmann values more than any of his predecessors. An upset wouldn't be shocking if Dempsey turned in a man of the match performance, but let's not put too much stock into things that happen during blizzards.
Does the August win at Azteca mean anything? - Actually, yes. It would be hard to believe that the USMNT's mental block about avoiding defeat at Azteca had nothing to do with at least one of the late goals that the U.S. conceded in any matches there since the early 1990s. Mexico are still the better squad and still have one of the best home field advantages on earth, but the lack of a mental block about getting that first ever win at Azteca can't hurt.
How disastrous is any result but a win for Mexico? - Not a complete disaster, because they could stumble their way to third place in CONCACAF, but it would be pretty bad. They were terrible against Jamaica and their collapse against Honduras was farcical. There's no excuse for them not to win 7-8 games, including all of their home games, during CONCACAF qualifying. Serious questions will be asked about Chepo's continued employment if Mexico do not win on Tuesday night.
Yes, the lack of a mental block about winning at Azteca is nice for the United States, but they're still the underdogs on Tuesday. They don't have their captain, their starting fullbacks, one of their starting central midfielders and Landon Donovan. Clint Dempsey isn't in top form. Jozy Altidore is yet to turn his club form in to national team form. Beasley is not a left back. There are a lot of things that are wrong about this U.S. side, and they're simply not good enough for anyone to expect them to win at Azteca. However, Chepo's ridiculous tactics and Mexico's recent results suggest that the USMNT can make this one more interesting than it should be. 2-1 Mexico win.