On Thursday night, Mexico secured its fourth victory in the CONCACAF Hexagonal with a 3-0 win over fifth-placed Honduras, and has now accumulated an impressive 13 points after five matches. To put that into context, during the 2014 campaign, El Tri finished fourth with 11 points and just about managed to scrap their way to Brazil, largely in thanks to a Graham Zusi goal vs. Panama that put them in the playoff position, allowing for the intercontinental triumph over New Zealand.
How times have changed.
Thanks to the guidance of Juan Carlos Osorio–the methodical Colombian manager with an eye for tactical detail and team cohesion–Mexico has developed into a dynamic force, willing to test the weakness of every opponent.
This is not the same team who lost 7-0 to Chile at last year’s Copa America Centenario. Osorio has learned from last summer’s nightmare, and if anything, the experience was a crash-course in mental resilience, and fans need to look no further than November’s curse-breaking win in Columbus in the earlier matchup in the qualifying round.
And that’s what should worry every American soccer fan, because on Sunday night, Bruce Arena’s side will meet the strongest team in CONCACAF, and at the present time, it’s not particularly close.
Here’s why Mexico has reason to feel good about securing another three points Sunday night at the Azteca:
Timing and transition
There is no doubt that Christian Pulisic is the face of the U.S. men’s national team, and the hype is most definitely real. In addition, the U.S. should also feel optimistic about Darlington Nagbe, Kellyn Acosta, Jordan Morris and consistent members such as 23-year-old DeAndre Yedlin (yeah, he’s still only 23!) and what they will be able to offer for years to come. Jozy Altidore, at 27, is a seasoned veteran who has found his form in the early going of the Toronto FC season. But this team is not the finished product it could be come next summer just yet.
Mexico, meanwhile, is the complete opposite.
“Mexico’s squad right now, and in regards to their key personnel, are in the prime of their career,” says Tom Marshall, ESPN’s expert on Mexican soccer. “Whereas I think the U.S. is going through a generational change after Donovan, Beasley, Dempsey (who is looking towards the end of his tenure) are either gone or on their way out.”
But for Mexico, players such as Jonathan Dos Santos, Marco Fabián, Carlos Vela, Hector Herrera and Jesus “Tecatito” Corona are sticking around for a while longer. The latter is only 24.
Mexico is ready right now.
Strength in numbers
El Tri’s 3-0 win over Honduras was done without key players such as Javier Hernandez, Hector Moreno and Fabian, meaning that they will be fresh to face the U.S. Even without Rafa Marquez, Andres Guardado and Miguel Layun (who are all out for tonight, but will join the squad for the Confederations Cup) this team has so much depth that the the level of quality on the pitch should not drop.
Osorio relies heavily on his wingers for his 4-3-3 system and the choices are plentiful–he has about eight players to choose from.
But even more than talent, this is also about a Mexican squad that has been together long enough to experience the hardships and successes of the last 12 months. There is something to be said about the value of togetherness, a trait often overlooked by statistical analysis.
The Azteca advantage
It’s as obvious as it is true. The Azteca is a fortress and it’s more than just the intimidating, powerful Mexican crowd. At an elevation of 7,200 feet, this is by far the biggest obstacle for any team. In order to acclimate, it’s always recommended to arrive as early as possible, but the U.S. squad didn’t get there until Friday. The Americans have been preparing for high altitude during their matches and pre-qualifier training camp in Colorado and Utah, albeit at locations still at a significantly lower altitude than Mexico City.
It will be extremely interesting to see how Arena approaches this match, as strategy in high altitude begins with composure. Can the U.S. rely on an almost-perfect game, with few mistakes? And more importantly, can this be done for 90 minutes?
Almost always when the Azteca plays host, history favors the home team. Since the stadium was built in 1966, Mexico has only lost twice out of 49 World Cup qualifying matches, with the record now standing to 40-2-7. One of those draws came against the U.S. in the 2014 qualifying process, a scoreless affair, but Mexico was in a far different place at that time.
When it comes to playing at the Azteca, the consensus never changes: This is Mexico’s match to lose. But as far as the World Cup is concerned, the U.S. should just be happy it probably won’t matter, given the points it has accrued since Arena took over and the schedule that remains. After Sunday, the U.S. has two home games against Costa Rica and Panama and two away fixtures against Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago. Two home victories should all but guarantee a ticket to Russia.
For Mexico and Osorio, however, this is more than just a CONCACAF Clasico and a matchup against a fierce rival. This is about turning the page to a new chapter, making a statement and showcasing to the world that this time around, El Tri mean business and will forge its way to the World Cup on its own terms.