Preview: U.S. vs. Mexico

Posted by Jeff Carlisle

Tim Howard trained with the U.S. ahead of their match against Mexico at the Azteca.

MEXICO CITY -- Expectations have rarely been lower for the U.S. men’s national team as it prepares for Wednesday’s encounter with Mexico at the famed Estadio Azteca. That’s saying something, considering the team’s all-time record when playing Mexico away is 0-23-1. The U.S. is bringing a decidedly understrength side to the match, while El Tri will have most of its first-choice lineup available. Yet as unlikely as it is that the U.S. will get a result, the match does present a considerable opportunity for some of the team’s more youthful elements.

Without question, El Tri is on a roll at every level of its program. The U-17s are reigning world champions, the U-20s reached the semifinals of last year’s World Cup, and the U-23s are still basking in the glow of last weekend’s Olympic triumph. Add in the team’s victory over the U.S. in last year’s Gold Cup final, and you have a Mexico side bursting with self-belief.

The same can’t be said of the U.S. squad. Injuries and the start of the European club season have resulted in U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann reaching deep into his player pool. The 23-man roster has three uncapped players and 14 with fewer than 10 national team appearances. Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley are among those who won’t be available, but the back line is especially hard hit, with Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo and Oguchi Onyewu absent as well.

Yet at Tuesday’s press conference, Klinsmann didn’t sound at all worried about the prospect of fielding a young lineup, and he welcomed the opportunity to try out some new faces.

“We will get a lot of answers with a couple of players,” he said. “But if you don’t risk those moments, if you don’t try things out, then you will never know. There’s always a question of when do you try things out and give players opportunities. We have to use those moments, and that’s why I told a couple of established players to stay behind in Europe, because I want to see some other players, see where they are. And some players in Europe, they are not as sharp yet as they should be, in my opinion. So I told them I want to see some different faces. But I’m not thinking that we’re going to lose.”

The opportunity to see some different combinations along the back is certainly welcome. For the entirety of this World Cup cycle, revamping the U.S. defense has been a major priority. Some mainstays are getting older, while others have been plagued by inconsistency and injury. Yet two years on from the 2010 World Cup, aside from the emergence of Fabian Johnson at left back, little progress has been made toward that goal. What’s worrying is not the fact that Bocanegra and Cherundolo are still in the lineup. Both players have continued to perform at a high level during this cycle. Rather, it’s that there has been little pressure from underneath to challenge those players for playing time, be it at club or international level.

That could change on Wednesday. If Monday’s training session is anything to go by, Geoff Cameron and Maurice Edu will be stationed in the middle, flanked by Johnson and Michael Orozco-Fiscal. For Cameron, it’s a chance to prove that the progress at international level he’s made this year is sufficient to start him in the biggest games.

“It’s definitely more responsibility, for sure,” said Cameron. “I’m usually leaning on the shoulders of Bocanegra, Gooch [Onyewu] and Clarence [Goodson]. They’ve been to a couple of World Cups each of them, so I have that shoulder to lean on and take some of the pressure off, but now ... it’s definitely different.”

Edu has been tried at center back periodically in the past, including a three-game stint at the 2008 Olympics. He also played in the middle during an October 2010 friendly against Poland, but otherwise has spent the bulk of his career in the center of midfield. Following Monday’s session, he admitted he felt rusty.

“It’s been a while, so it takes a little bit of getting used to and just getting familiar with things,” said Edu. “I think one of the key points is realizing that you’re the last line of defense. You have to be a little more cautious and smarter at times. In midfield, you can take more risks because you have the defenders behind you. When you’re playing center back, there’s no room for error.”

Certainly there’s no doubting the duo’s athleticism, and the time both performers have spent in midfield should provide the U.S. with the capability to play the ball out of the back. But going up against the likes of Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and left midfielder Andres Guardado -- especially in the altitude, noise and smog of the Azteca -- makes for quite a challenge. The tendency is to think that some of the more experienced players like Landon Donovan will need to provide the youngsters with guidance, but Donovan indicated that his influence has its limits.

“There’s not a whole lot that you’re going to say during the game, just because you can’t really hear anybody,” said Donovan. “[The young players] are going to have to draw on the experiences they’ve had, and you have to be concentrated for 90 minutes. These games -- in a split second -- can change, and they can make a play if you’re not prepared. You try to prepare as much as you can before the game. But when you get down to it, you’ve got to be able to do it, because you’re not getting help from coaches on the field, you’re not getting help from players. You’ve got to rely on what you’ve been doing your whole career.”

The risk, of course, is that a heavy defeat can kill confidence. Klinsmann is clearly hoping that Wednesday’s match will inspire it.

NOTES:

* While Donovan is firmly focused on Wednesday’s match, he did take time to address his future, sort of. He stated that a stint in Mexico is something he considered in the past and might again. “I don’t know what the future will hold, but there was a time when I went to Everton, when I considered [a move to Mexico] and would [again] if it was genuine.”

So where would he like to play?

“I’d love to go to Cancun,” he said tongue firmly planted in cheek. “But I don’t know if that’s in the cards.”

With a pinch of salt consumed, Donovan added that there were no discussions taking place at the moment regarding a potential move to Everton.

“I want to be here this year with the Galaxy, and then figure out what next year brings,” he said.

Donovan added that as in previous years, he’ll decide in December what his future plans are.

* One player who is eager to sort out his future now is Edu. He has made it clear that he will not remain with Rangers now that it has been dropped to the Scottish Third Division due to its severe financial problems.

“That has to be the case,” he said Monday about his imminent departure. “If I want to continue playing for the national team and things like that, it would be hard to be selected if I was playing in the Third Division.”

Rumors continue to swirl that Edu might be headed to Spanish side Valencia, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that his stint at center back on Wednesday is connected to a possible transfer there.

* Cameron was asked Monday about his fitness.

“I think I’m pretty fit,” he said. “It’s my third preseason, so I should be, right?”

Indeed. Cameron’s year started with a U.S. national team camp in January and then preseason with the Houston Dynamo. He then participated in the national team’s five-game stint in May and June, one that he called “a grinding couple of weeks.” Now Cameron has spent the last weeks in preseason training with new club Stoke City, and after finally getting approval for his work permit, he played the entire 90 minutes in Friday’s friendly against German Bundesliga side Greuther Furth.

“It’s been a long couple of months, it’s been hectic,” he said. “But it’s all been worth it.”

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