122912_mexico_isi_usamnttq081512014 Tony Quinn/isiphotos.com
Talking Tactics

Slaying the Chupacabra: Keys to Victory in Mexico

ASN tactician Liviu Bird offers some ideas about how the U.S. can beat Mexico on Tuesday, looking to its historic victory in August for inspiration. Hint: The team must reverse a troubling qualiying trend.
BY Liviu Bird Posted
March 25, 2013
1:30 PM
Estadio Azteca offers Mexico one of the most formidable home-field advantages in the world. On Tuesday, the U.S. will have to fight through 100,000 rabid fans, 7,400-foot elevation, and Los Angeles-level smog. Not to mention, Mexico is historically the best team in CONCACAF, and its current crop of players may be the strongest yet. On the back of its youth development, El Tri sits at No. 15 in the FIFA World Ranking and No. 10 in the Elo Ratings.

The United States holds one of just 11 victories against Mexico at Azteca, but its overall record in Mexico City is one win, 19 losses, one draw. The win was Aug. 15, 2012, 1-0 in a friendly match; the draw was Nov. 2, 1997, 0-0 in World Cup Qualifying. Any way you slice it, the odds are stacked against the U.S. getting any points on Tuesday.

Home, Sweet Home
Lately, the gap between Mexico’s play at Azteca and abroad has been notable. At Honduras on Friday, El Tri jumped out to a 2-0 lead, only to see the host storm back to steal a point in a 2-2 draw. Honduras dominated the ball in that match, attempting 418 passes to Mexico’s 208—a 65-to-35 percent Opta possession edge. In the first Hexagonal match, Mexico nearly overran Jamaica on multiple occasions, but Jamaica held on for a shocking 0-0 result at Azteca. Mexico attempted 510 passes in that match and had 72 percent of the ball.

The difference in quality between Honduras and Jamaica likely had something to do with the discrepancy, but both teams have had success against supposedly bigger players on the CONCACAF stage in qualifying. Jamaica gave the U.S. a run for its money in the semifinal round, taking three points in Kingston. What this means for the U.S. is that it is nearly a foregone conclusion that Mexico will have more of the ball on Tuesday. Anything the Americans get will have to be against the run of play, likely on the counter-attack.

So What Happened in August?
Last time the two teams met in Mexico City, the U.S. somehow managed to win. Goalkeeper Tim Howard made several stunning saves, and Michael Orozco Fiscal (added to the roster after this story was filed) scored a tap-in created by Brek Shea and Terrence Boyd (both on the roster for Tuesday).

Jurgen Klinsmann played the three defensive midfielder set fans have become accustomed to seeing on the road, but the key men in the lineup were Herculez Gomez and Landon Donovan, who started at forward. Possession—or at least the measly 34 percent the U.S. had, on 248 attempted passes—was concentrated much wider than expected with no wingers in the lineup. Although Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones, and Danny Williams stayed fairly deep and central, Gomez and Donovan floated wide.

Think about those two players and where they typically play with the national team. Both are traditionally wingers with the U.S., although they often play up top for their clubs. Donovan and Gomez gave a wide presence in the August game as well, as did attacking midfielder Jose Torres. All three preferred the left side to the right, but they had touches in wide areas far more often than is typical for the U.S. on the road. However, because the forwards and central attacking midfielder provided width, nobody stretched the Mexican defense high. The Americans hit only four crosses from the run of play, and three of the five touches inside the penalty area in the match came on the goal-scoring play: Shea crossing to Boyd, who flicked on to Orozco Fiscal for the tap-in.

The two-forward set worked well, but not because of its goal-area presence.

This Time Around
Regardless of whether Klinsmann wants to play for a win or a draw, the game plan has to be the same on Tuesday: width will be vital, but a forward presence will help stretch the defense and give an option for service.

Three defensive midfielders is almost never a good idea, but that’s especially true in this game. The U.S. cannot afford to sit in a defensive shell if it hopes to hit Mexico on the counter, which will likely be the only way the Americans get opportunities. This is where Klinsmann’s habits in home games versus on the road provide no comfort. He started no wide players against Honduras, which led to nearly no possession in the attacking half. Eddie Johnson, who was really playing more of a shadow-striker role, and Jermaine Jones, one of the three holding players, provided the most width in that match. The outside backs’ average positions were just as wide as they were against Costa Rica but farther inside the defensive half.

That made for nearly no attacking options in San Pedro Sula. Central players received the ball and had nowhere to go with it. Two forwards would also provide an outlet for those same moments on Tuesday, along with wide players who can receive the ball on the break. One striker can play as a more traditional target, while the other can drift into spaces under him, dropping into midfield to receive early passes from deep positions.

The absolute earliest Klinsmann can think about sitting in and settling for a point would be halftime. Even 45 minutes is a long time to withstand the pressure Mexico will pour on, in desperate need of its first win in qualifying, but any longer would be nearly impossible. Last time, El Tri hit 34 crosses and won 10 corner kicks. If Javier Hernandez’s finishing had been up to its normal standard, he would have scored at least twice.

Let’s Talk Lineup
Taking everything into account, a 4-4-2 with one holding midfielder is the way to go in Mexico. Jones is unavailable anyway, so starting Michael Bradley by himself is already more likely than it would be if Jones were healthy. Wide players Joe Corona and Graham Zusi are tidy on the ball and can also serve well. Jozy Altidore can reprise his favored role, staying high to occupy Mexico’s center backs, while Gomez underneath him can have free roam of the attacking half with Clint Dempsey. The back four remains untouched from Friday’s match except for a switch between Clarence Goodson and Geoff Cameron. Cameron started in that central spot in August, and it was the match in which he showed that he could command the back line in the hostility of Mexico City.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this lineup gives all three Mexican-based players a chance to perform in an environment they will be more accustomed to than any others on the squad. Setting a team up for success includes putting players in positions they know they can manage. Both Mexico and the United States have lived strangely dichotomous lives in qualifying to this point, with home and away styles contrasting sharply. For the U.S., moving to a more positive game plan on Tuesday would be a large step toward killing that Jekyll-and-Hyde duality and instilling a winning mentality, no matter where the team plays.

After all, the next World Cup is not in the United States; it’s in Brazil. It’s time the U.S. learned to win on the road in significant matches.

Liviu Bird is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. Follow him on Twitter.

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