Nations League final preview: USMNT v. Mexico

It is a rivalry game. A trophy is on the line. Let us go.

The essentials

Opponent: Mexico
Time, Location: Sunday, June 3, 8:30 p.m. CDT • Mile High Stadium, Denver
Watch party: TailGate Music Row with AO Nashville
Weather: 74ºF, 12% chance of rain, 38% humidity, 11 MPH SW wind
Watch: CBS Sports Network/Paramount Plus (national) • Unimás/TUDN (nacional)

The FIFA rankings: USA 20, Mexico 11
Competition: Nations League Semifinal

The stakes

It goes without saying that Mexico is the USMNT’s arch-rival historically, but it’s worth contextualizing a bit:

  • The teams have played 70 times, second-most of any matchup for the United States.
  • Mexico leads the overall rivalry 36-19-15. (Mexico-USA-draw)
  • After the US won the initial matchup in 1934, Mexico won 21 of the next 24 (the other three were all draws) before the Red, White, and Blue took another victory in 1980.
  • Since that 1980 draw, the teams have played much more frequently, with 15 Mexico wins, 17 for the USA, and 12 drawn in about 40 years.
  • In the time since the Americans last played in a World Cup (😞), Mexico has a 4-2 advantage in victories, with a single draw mixed in.
  • Mexico won the most recent outing. On Sept. 6, 2019, El Trí picked up a 3-0 friendly victory at the Giants’ Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
  • Mexico’s edge in competitive matches (mostly World Cup Qualifiers and Gold Cup matches) is 26-11-10. Since this is the final of the first Nations League, it will be the first Nations League matchup between the two.

That’s a lil rundown of the rivalry, and as noted, this is also a trophy match. You mileage may vary as to how important the Concacaf Nations League is in the grand scheme of things when other international competitions in the region include World Cup Qualifying (self-evident importance) and Gold Cup (the region’s championship). The sides both have participated in Copas América (as guests of South America’s CONMEBOL confederation) and World Cups over time, as well.

Given where the respective programs are – The US’s faltering has allowed Mexico to become the hegemon of the region, and also means some hardware would help shift the narrative back toward the positive for the Americans – I would contend there’s definitely some importance. That’s particularly true given that the Gold Cup seems to be secondary in importance for US Soccer in this crowded Summer.

El Trí

So. All that said, what is Mexico all about lately?

El Trí is led by former Atlanta United head coach Tata Martino, who is a fine coach, no doubt, but mythologized by the fact that an MLS Title-winning coach (allegedly – let’s just say that the head coach of Mexico has plenty of reason to play it up to make his regional rival look incompetent, and that the narrative around this situation inexplicably glosses over that fact, even when written about by people who should know a lot better) wanted the USMNT gig before taking over Mexico. He’s more a man-manager than a tactical wizard and proponent of beautiful football – other parts of the myth that gloss over the fact he had Atlanta play big bunker-counter ball just by relying on the individual brilliance of Josef Martinez, Miguel Almirón, and to a lesser extend Julian Gressel when winning time came. The mythology was compounded when the coach who replaced him in Atlanta, Frank de Boer, did a horrible job in man-management in addition to mediocrity (not the worst thing when you have that talent, as I’ve just described of Martino) in tactics.

So all of that is just a description of the head coach without getting into much about what he actually, you know, does. As with Atlanta, his preference is for solidity at the back and allowing his playmakers to get out into space and make plays. Against lesser competition, it’s largely been a 4-4-3, but in meaningful games (or to prepare for those meaningful games) or against top competition, he’s gone with four at the back and a double pivot, or the 3-5-2 “bang it up to Almirón and Josef” strategy. While Mexico outshot Costa Rica 12-5 Thursday evening, zero (0) of those shots came from inside the box.

Who are the Almirón and Josef of this Mexico team? Right-footed winger Chucky Lozano has been one of the stars for a while now, and is also the squad’s highest-valued player on TransferMarkt ([however you make a euro symbol]45 million). He plays for Napoli in Serie A – where he scored 11 goals on 7.9 xG, and amassed only three assists on 4.6 xA. His complement is Diego Lainez who plays for Spain’s Real Betis (and was the subject of a viral moment that led to numerous overwrought thinkpieces by some of the same folks who didn’t bother critically examining the Tata situation), where he didn’t score and accumulated just a couple assists while playing only around a third of the team’s minutes. Each of those wingers plays in a “natural” spot for his club team (strong foot to the sideline for crosses), but they were inverted (strong foot to the center of the pitch to cut in and shoot) against Costa Rica Thursday.

Club América’s Henry Martín led the line against the Ticos, but his pretty poor performance probably opens the door for Sporting Kansas City’s Alan Pulido to get a crack at it.

Andrés Guardado and Hector Herrera are the central midfield in some combination, regardless of the tactical approach (though the obvious “they are both CDMs” if it’s a 3-4-3/5-4-1 is exactly as you’d think) – as has been the case in most competitive matches when both are healthy for quite some time. The 34-year old Guardado is the second most-capped Mexican all-time, while at 31, Herrera is in the top 30 all-time (11th among active players, though you may posit that if he wasn’t called in for this one while he’s in form, a guy like Chicharito has seen his time with the program pass). Herrera was an irregularly-used piece for La Liga-winning Atlético Madrid, while Guardado got about half the time for Betis (significantly more time than his teammate Lainez).

Wingback Uriel Antuna of Chivas is a playmaker in the Julian Gressel role for this Tata side. Edson Álvarez is lining up as the middle CB role – and he’s also played as a single-pivot when Tata runs a 4-3-3, which probably tells you quite a bit about both the flexibility of the formation and his philosophy within each of the potential implementations of it.

Goalkeeper Memo Ochoa has been Mexico’s No. 1 since time immemorial. He basically picked up where Jorge Campos left off in 2005, and there’s a decent chance he passes his predecessor as El Trí‘s most-capped keeper. He’s, like, solid. Never really done a ton for me one way or another – just a good keeper who doesn’t stand out aside from the occasional athletic save. This is obviously a caliber of keeper I would love the US to have right now, so.

The Americans

Not a ton has changed since Thursday night, aside from a couple key personnel items of note: Tyler Adams is available this evening (though it sounds like his role will be limited do to the fitness issues that arose from his injury), and Yunus Musah’s exclusion from the semifinal match was simply a coach’s decision – “U DIDNT PLAY MY FAVRIT PLAYER SO I AM ANGAR” reactions ensured – so he will also be available, and more likely to play. Either of both of them could provide a little bit more to the midfield than we’ve seen so far.

As for observations from Thursday… I haven’t re-watched in the type of depth that I’d typically prefer, but I believe a lot of the doom-and-gloom reactions are overstated. “The xG numbers understate the danger Honduras presented” may have a kernel of truth, but also necessitate ignoring that the Catrachos‘ only shots in the first half were a no-prayer header after recycling a set piece, a 36-yarder on the counter that (understandably) was not going to beat any keeper, and… something that looked – and was – extremely dangerous only because the goalie was insane on a set piece.

So about that goalkeeper: my take on Zack Steffen didn’t change much despite trying to gift Honduras a goal (he came out with an awful angle to… something???? …and Alberth Elís’s mediocre header had to be saved off the line by striker Josh Sargent). He’s a good keeper, he’s a guy who has more potential to unlock. And in the end, his performances aren’t at a level you’d like out of the United States’s top guy. I think he’s going to remain first-choice, but giving competitive looks to a guy like Matt Turner at the Gold Cup is necessary.

One of my faveraves, San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Jackson Yueill, came in for a bit of a beating after this one (as far as I can tell, the longer burn reels have been lost to the DMCA takedown gods). He was not outstanding, but I think a lot of the negativity surrounding the performance comes from individuals’ entrenched opinions on him – and they seek only evidence to confirm those opinions. Since the initial source of the negative opinions on him is often “he plays in MLS and therefore sucks,” I take a skeptical approach to it*. Some of his passing decisions were poor, and he’s never going to be known for his outstanding ingenuity playing out of a phonebooth. It’s the “give my guy [in this case Yunus Musah] a look and if you don’t, any decision that lead to your not doing it is inherently incorrect” attitude that compounds the confirmation bias more than anything.

As for another guy on whom my opinion diverges from the overall zeitgeist*, I think Josh Sargent had a solid game. The majority of his popularity comes from the inverse of the Yueill unpopularity: because he plays in the Bundesliga, he is good, regardless of what the stats or moving pictures tell us. My book on him hasn’t changed: he’s big and reasonably technical – though he had a couple sketchy footwork moments – and not athletic enough to be as… room-for-improvement-y… in the movement department as he is. He did have a couple runs that looked good: the early one on which Gio Reyna tried for the shot instead of sliding the ball to him stands out, of course. At the same time, you can easily be 50/50 on whether Reyna just got big eyes at the end of his impressive dribble move, or if he wasn’t certain Sargent had gotten back onside. Either way, I don’t like seeing Sargent standing dead-static on it. Given his positioning, he can float closer to the back post so a great dive from the keeper can neither cut out the pass (albeit one that doesn’t come) nor make an incredible save if Sargent does receive from Reyna. In keeping his feet moving rather than having them cemented to the top of the six-yard box, he’d also be better-able to make a reaction play on a shot from Reyna that either drew a save or struck the post. As it happened, he would have had to dig up the roots that his feet were growing into the turf and get his body moving again, which would have given non-static Honduran defenders a chance to recover. That’s a lot about a specific play (on which he was generally doing the right thing!) that sums up a lot of where I think Sargent has room to improve, even though he plays in the Bundesliga.

Since that, uh, ballooned in length, not a ton on many other guys. I do think that when you survive a very Concacaf-y game with the win, it’s whatever. I don’t think the US played particularly well, and didn’t have enough vertical depth in its attacking postures – it was too-often basically five across a straight line – to beat the type of defenses you’re going to see in this confederation, and there has to be a smarter tactical approach (or possibly in-game tactical instruction to the players) in order to achieve that with later runs from the central midfielders, more interchanges with overlaps from the fullbacks, etc.

And no, I don’t know if the rumored 3-4-3 for tonight is going to happen, but it might make a bit of sense given the specific weaknesses we saw against Honduras. Mexico plays a fairly defensive game under Martino, and beating that type of block is a tool the US will absolutely need in its kit. Yes this section got so long I almost forgot it was in the same post as the Mexico discussion. Mostly, I want to see a really good run from the top European guys, and then not have to see them again in the Gold Cup.

* (And yes, I respect the hell out of Scuffed, and they put in the work and show receipts as much as anyone out there, and are more willing than many to adjust opinions when other evidence is available, but they’re far from immune to the confirmation bias thing themselves, and they don’t intentionally walk the “MLS therefore sucks” path as much as some others).


Short and sweet:

Mexico wins 2-1. 😦

Or maybe because I’m a good person and deserve to be happy: 2-0 USMNT.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: