Gregg Berhalter’s boys emerged from the summer with momentum. On Friday night, it all gets put to the test in World Cup Qualifying against El Tri.
Whether you’re paying attention or not, there’s hype surrounding the young US men’s national soccer team.
On Friday night, we get to figure out just how real it is.
Over the summer, championship wins over Mexico in the CONCACAF Gold Cup (with its A-team admittedly not participating) and Nations League tournaments put the USMNT in the top 10 in FIFA’s global rankings heading into World Cup qualifying.
Through six of 14 matches, the US sits in second place of eight in the overall CONCACAF qualifying table, with the top three teams getting automatic spots in Qatar next November. The one team ahead of them? Archrival Mexico, whom the USMNT faces Friday night at the new TQL Stadium in Cincinnati.
Historically, the US-Mexico rivalry in men’s soccer has been largely one-sided, with El Tri going 36-21 with 15 draws in the 72 competitive matches since the sides first officially met in 1934. But the US is notably 16-9 with six draws since 2000, US Soccer’s official website eagerly points out, and the current young iteration of this national team evokes promise and possibility.
But promise and possibility are thrown out the window when you face your bitter enemy in a game that truly matters. The two trophy wins over the summer at Mexico’s expense were nice, symbolic of progress but only to a certain extent. This is where the stakes are high, a prove-it game at home that the Stars and Stripes almost have to win to earn not just three points, but legitimacy and respect that emanates beyond the standings.
“We have a long way to go to get the respect of Mexico,” USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “The two victories in the summer I guess didn’t do a lot to get that. We’re going to have to do it by our play on the field.”
Though Chelsea’s star midfielder Christian Pulisic (23 years old) won’t start Friday due to an injured ankle, and Borussia Dortmund attacker Gio Reyna (18) and Barcelona defender Sergiño Dest (21) not on the squad due to injuries, there’s still plenty of star power that’ll face Mexico in Berhalter’s projected starting 11. One major decision already made is that Manchester City goaltender Zack Steffen will start in net ahead of Matt Turner of the New England Revolution, who’s been the primary goaltender to date in World Cup qualifying.
Other possible USMNT starters this week who will likely play starring roles:
- Fulham’s Antonee Robinson (24) Atlanta United’s Miles Robinson (24), Boavista’s Reggie Cannon (23), Genk’s Mark McKenzie (22), Galatasaray’s DeAndre Yedlin (28) and Nashville SC’s Walker Zimmerman (28) on defense.
- RB Leipzig’s Tyler Adams (22) who’s been the anchor and connector, Venezia’s Gianluca Busio (19), Juventus’ Weston McKennie (23), who’s been in and out of the lineup due to disciplinary reasons, Valencia’s Yunus Musah (18) and the LA Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget (29) in the midfield.
- Red Bull Salzburg’s Brenden Aaronson (21) has been flying up and down the pitch and creating chances, D.C. United’s Paul Arriola (26), Lille’s Tim Weah (21), who’s hard 2nd half shot resulted in the winning own goal against Costa Rica on Oct. 13, and wunderkind Ricardo Pepi of FC Dallas (18), who’s been tremendous of late in qualifying matches, scoring both goals in a win over Jamaica on Oct. 7.
The players just listed, with a few others in the mix like Seattle Sounders veteran midfielder Cristian Roldan and young defenders like Royal Antwerp’s Sam Vines and Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Joe Scally (who may make his senior team debut Friday), will have to get the job done against a hungry Mexican team Friday. A road test in Kingston against Jamaica on Tuesday won’t be a day at the beach, either.
If USMNT gets the job done, it’ll have to be against a star-studded El Tri squad featuring Wolves striker Raul Jimenez, Porto attacking midfielder Jesus Corona, Napoli forward Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, and Ajax defender Edson Alvarez. It’s a squad with a lot to prove as well after two summertime losses against its rivals with trophies on the line, though they’re still unbeaten in CONCACAF qualifying heading into the weekend with 14 points in six matches.
If the Americans can’t win this game in Ohio — a state where USMNT notched all four of its World Cup qualifying home wins over Mexico since 1990 — how can it expect to beat top teams from other continents if it qualifies for Qatar? This is America’s chance to assert itself as the team of the present and future in the region.
It’s a prove-it match with so much on the line, an opportunity for USMNT to set the tone for not just Qatar, but perhaps several years to come.