After its costly 3-1 loss in Costa Rica on Friday night, the U.S. squad resumes World Cup qualifying in Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday against arch-enemy Mexico. A victory by the Yanks would pile further misery on reeling El Tri and would also be enough to qualify the U.S. for Brazil 2014 if sputtering Panama can’t upset Azteca-slayer Honduras on the road the same evening.
Winning home games is the key to qualification from the CONCACAF region and the Americans are a perfect 3-0 so far. But with up to four starters missing -- Jozy Altidore, Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron are suspended, while Michael Bradley has been ruled out due to an ankle injury, which didn't look pretty -- taking all three points from a desperate foe won't be easy.
With all that in mind, here are the Americans' five keys to victory at Crew Stadium.
Use El Tri's desperation against them
Under normal circumstances, Mexico might be content to settle for a point in a venue in which it has failed to score in three consecutive Hexagonal losses. But these aren't normal circumstances. A loss to Honduras in Mexico City this past Friday -- El Tri's second home defeat in qualifying history -- dropped the visitors to fourth place in the Hex standings, five points behind the second-place Yanks, who have 13. That means Mexico will have to push forward from the opening whistle. If the Yanks can hold the fort defensively, there will be spaces to exploit at the other end whenever the U.S. wins the ball.
Integrate the new faces seamlessly
With U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann forced to make major changes, the Americans will have to adapt quickly. If defender Clarence Goodson -- who was recalled late Saturday along with midfielders Joe Corona, Brad Davis and Jose Torres -- gets the nod alongside Omar Gonzalez, it will help that the veteran played alongside left back DaMarcus Beasley throughout July's Gold Cup. (For those wondering about young center back John Brooks, he returned to German Bundesliga club Hertha Berlin in a pre-planned move.)
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Another key switch will come in central midfield, where Kyle Beckerman is expected to line up alongside Jermaine Jones. That pair hasn't played together often, but they did partner in the Yanks' historic first win at the Azteca last year -- a result that began Mexico's steady downfall since winning the 2012 Olympic gold medal.
Control the midfield
The U.S. was overrun in the middle for large stretches of Friday's match. That simply can't happen in Columbus. The Beckerman-Jones partnership, if it happens, will have to avoid the turnovers that killed the Yanks early in Costa Rica -- the fact veteran Mexican ball-winner Gerardo Torrado is suspended could help. The U.S. will also have to defend better on the flanks, especially if speedy Giovani dos Santos and Andres Guardado, who have given the U.S. fits in the past, get the nod from new coach Luis Fernando Tena.
Shut down Chicharito
Despite recent struggles for club and country, Manchester United forward Javier Hernandez is still Mexico's most dangerous player. Chicharito was merely a second-half substitute Friday for since-fired coach Chepo de la Torre but seems likely to get the nod from the new boss this week. He's clearly motivated. Hernandez, who has never scored against the U.S., is calling the grudge match a must-win and he's the kind of classic poacher who needs only one half-chance to change a game.
Gonzalez did well to limit the star's space in the Americans' scoreless draw in Mexico earlier in qualifying. Yet he'll need another big performance on Tuesday.
Klinsmann’s safe-is-death approach has worked wonders for the Yanks this year, but in the first 20-25 minutes against Mexico it's more crucial than usual that the U.S. doesn't concede the opening goal. A poor start doomed the Americans in Costa Rica and an early strike from the visitors would again force the U.S. to chase the game. It could also quiet the heavily pro-American crowd at sold-out Crew Stadium, almost half of which will be filled by organized, hard-core U.S. fans.
Make no mistake: the 12th man matters in this rivalry. Besides, the longer the hosts can keep El Tri off the score sheet, the more frustrated the visitors are likely to become.