USMNT

Olympic qualifying preview: US U-23s v. Mexico

The final group-stage game is here, and with it come… basically no stakes. But it’s Mexico, so there’s a matter of pride nonetheless. Maybe.

Let’s drop the preview a day early so tomorrow’s focus can be the Nashville SC friendly that’s on the schedule.

The essentials

Opponent: Mexico U-23
Time, Location: Wednesday, March 24, 8:30 p.m. CDT • Guadalajara, Mexico
Weather: 65ºF, 0% chance of rain, 20% humidity, 10 mph Westerly wind
Watch: FS1 (national) • TUDN (nacional)

The rankings (senior teams): USA 22 , Mexico 9
Competition: Group A (matchday three).
Format reminder: Top two teams in each group advance to semifinal round. Semi winners qualify for Olympics.

The competition

Group A is settled in terms of who advances to the semifinals, though the first-second order will change depending on tomorrow’s outcome:

TeamPointsGoal DifferentialStill to play
Mexico6+6USA
United States6+5Mexico
Costa Rica0-4Dominican Republic
Dominican Republic0-7Costa Rica
Group A – Through Matchdate 2

Mexico and the United States are making it out of the group. A US win tomorrow puts the Red, White, and Blue in first, whereas a draw or Mexico victory sends El Tri into the top spot (on goal differential or points, respectively). Costa Rica and Dominican Republic are simply playing for pride – I’d actually held out vague hope that the Ticos would release Randall Leal back to Nashville since the third game is meaningless (which would facilitate an earlier re-entry to preseason camp and ultimately friendlies), but alas. I would bet on Costa Rica taking it to the DR to make a bit of a statement.

Anyway, what are the stakes between the two finishing positions? That all depends on how things shake out in Group B:

TeamPointsGoal DifferentialStill to play
Honduras4+3Canada
Canada4+2Honduras
El Salvador1-2El Salvador
Haiti1-3Haiti
Group A – Through Matchdate 2

Honduras and Canada have the upper hand on moving through: they could agree to a gentlemen’s draw ahead of time and guarantee mutual advancement, in fact. That’s actually an interesting thought exercise: would the Canucks agree to move through, with the understanding that they only guarantee second place in the group (and a likely semifinal matchup with Mexico)? Or would they risk being knocked out in the group stage for a chance at a potentially easier matchup with the US (and thus a better shot at making the Olympics)? Surely these gentlemen’s draws don’t happen in the real world – he said unconvincingly – but I would bet on the latter anyway.

It would take a Canada loss and El Salvador win by a combined goal differential of four across the games (or a Haiti win and differential of five) for the Canucks to not make it through. It would be extremely tough for Honduras to not go through, even with a loss (the goal differential would have to be five in favor of El Salvador or six for Haiti). The game between the two is Thursday’s nightcap, so they’ll know exactly what is needed for advancement.

As a reminder, the winner of each semifinal game (matching up the top team in each group with the second-place team in the other) makes the Olympics, and the final is more of a pride point and continental U-23 championship than any practical consideration about making it to Tokyo.

El Tri

Mexico is pretty clearly the strongest team in this tournament, with all 20 of its players plying their trade in Liga MX, some of them in big roles for the most prominent clubs in the region.

Por ejemplo, defender Gilberto Sepúlveda is Chivas’s No. 5 minute-getter in the 2020/21 season (Apertura and Clausura combined), midfielder Uriel Antuna is No. 6, striker Jose Macías is eighth, Jesús Angulo is ninth, and striker Alexis Vega is 10th. If that’s not impressive to you because Guadalajara is having an awful year (16th in the table – thank goodness Mexico suspended pro/rel!), Roberto Alvarado is No. 10 in minutes for league-leading Cruz Azul, and midfielder Sebastian Córdova is third for América, which sits just two points behind Cruz Azul.

What I’m getting at is: not only is this Mexico team full of professionals, they’re guys who are key players for the top club teams in Concacaf. You may recall Córdova from such events as “hat trick against Dominican Republic,” while Carlos Alberto Rodriguez (fifth in minutes for superclub Monterrey) also tallied against the Quisqueyanos. Antuna and Vega complemented Córdova’s goal against Costa Rica (I’m thinkin’ he’s got a lock on the Golden Boot here) with scores of their own.

So… a B-minus-ish United States team against an A-minus Mexico team might not have a great time. The primary theme is that Mexico brought more talent than the United States to this tournament. That doesn’t necessarily mean El Tri is stronger at the U-23 level (gimme Adams, McKennie, and Pulisic – just to name three age-eligible players – and it’s a different story), but regardless of who plays for either team… Mexico’s gonna have more talent on the pitch.

The Americans

With that in mind, this game is ultimately meaningless in the big picture. Except for rivalry bragging rights, (and your desire to take on the weaker Group B team) there’s not a whole lot on the line. Add in the factor that it’s possible/likely that these teams square off again for the U-23 continental title – should each win a semifinal match – and there’s an argument you’re better off essentially throwing this game by putting out a weak lineup to make sure key players are rested for that all-important semi.

Heck, you could even look at it as an opportunity to throw some guys into the fire to give them valuable experience (and get through growing pains) if they aren’t seen as contributors for those final two matches.

The only guy who has yet to see a minute is Philadelphia Union keeper Matt Freese. If he’s not your choice for the semi/finals… screw it, I’d play him unless you feel like the choice for that game (I prefer David Ochoa, though it seems JT Marcinkowsi came in as the top choice) needs another appearance to maintain sharpness. Let the kid know he didn’t come to Guadalajara for nothing. Johnny Cardoso, Benji Michel, and Sebastian Soto have less than a full 90 worth of action so far. If you don’t think (and head coach Jason Kreis probably doesn’t think, and fairly so) that they’re in your best lineup, give them as much time as possible tomorrow, saving the legs of key contributors for the matchup with Honduras or Canada.

Not only managing minutes in this one, but getting a close look at some guys who are closer to the fringes of the group – and not giving Mexico a close scouting opportunity for a potential meeting in the final – seems like a fair objective here. Given that a guy like Cardoso has looked rough in his 70-some minutes, you’re also giving him a bit of a chance to hopefully find a groove.

Obviously I haven’t given postgame recaps of the first two contests – I just don’t think there’s a ton of value in pumping out “here is the lineup, here’s who scored” content when tons of others are already doing it – since I think the effort (and selfishly, the intellectual exercise) of previewing games is more useful. In this one, it’s tough to guess what Kreis’s full plan will be. I wouldn’t imagine he goes full “training session” against Mexico, naturally. But from a program-building (and Olympic-participating) standpoint, there’s at least an argument for it. And possibly not an argument against it.

Predictions

I think you’re going to see a bit of experimentation, but not a full-on training unit from the United States. The flipside of that, of course, is that Mexico has the opportunity to do the same (and with the goal-differential advantage, the opportunity to do so while still winning the group with a draw).

All told, though, both teams – rivalry bitterness be damned – probably go less than 100% here.

The game ends in a 1-1 draw, and Mexico wins Group A.

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