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That’s On Point – USMNT vs. Mexico Preview

Brad Guzan: Cold … blooded.

By Mike Cardillo / That's On Point

“Momentum? Momentum is the next day's starting pitcher.” — Earl Weaver


Momentum is a nebulous term once you apply it to the world of sports, as opposed to the realm of physics where, you know, it actually means something what with co-signs, velocity, all that jazz.

Is momentum nothing more than a staple for lazy sportswriters? Is it the bane of people who attend the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and who think sports are played devoid of emotion inside a vacuum and or Excel spreadsheet? Probably.

But could it actually be something that exists during the course of a sporting event or over a period of time? Maybe.

The most fair way to look at it is that momentum exists, to a degree, yet it's not tangible. It's here today, gone tomorrow.

Sure the winning team usually has “momentum” on its side and the losing team didn't. (Admission: in my real-life job where I get paid to write about sports, I've disinterestedly asked a coach or player about, “how much having the momentum” helped them win or lose.)

Momentum seems to be something we as fans watching seem to readily identity over the course of a game or series of time, whereas the players — managers and coaches especially — seem to downplay, hence the Weaver quote to start this jam off.

Ever since the referee whistled full time Friday night to confirm the United State's 1-0 win Costa Rica in snowy Dick's Sporting Goods Park would indeed be official in the FIFA record books, it's been hard not to think about “Uncle Mo.”

You'd think, in basic terms, the U.S. — once again with it's “back against the wall,” needing three points to kick start its 2014 World Cup Qualifying campaign — would get a huge bump from digging down deep in the whiteout conditions of Commerce City, Colo., going into Tuesday's showdown with Mexico at the Azteca.

By the same token, the snow and wind masked any real conclusions to draw from the match. Soccer isn't meant to be played in conditions like that (a-doi!). You can point to Costa Rica playing its home games on artificial turf at the Saprissa Stadium, the elevation of Mexico City, or whichever other of CONCACAF's road pitfalls you fancy. The fact remains, whatever obstacles those homefield advantages pose, it's still the game of soccer between the white lines. What happened in Colorado Friday, was awesome to watch on television and made for some great Instagram fodder, but it wasn't soccer.

Or it wasn't soccer that we see 99.9 percent of the time.

Don't take this the wrong way.

This isn't denigrating what the U.S. players did Friday. Gutting out the win and making Clint Dempsey's goal stand up for close to 75 minutes with the No. 2 keeper and makeshift defense in miserable (unplayable) conditions is commendable. It's more that, because of the outlandish weather scenario, trying to divine anything other than the three points in the bank is foolhardy. (If you think about it perhaps it's the way all games in the Hex ought to be analyzed. Results are results. Points are points. No more. No less. Style points don't qualify you for a World Cup.)

It's also why it would be dangerous with the U.S. heading into Mexico City to think the team had turned a page. For all the goodwill winning Friday did, those positive vibes are likely limited to inside what was reportedly a fractured locker room. There's probably a bond forged by the players and a lot more smiles on the plane to Mexico City. Beyond that?

The problems the unnamed players had about Klinsmann and assistant Martin Vazquez that they're under-prepared tactically (and in over their heads) are still bubbling beneath the surface. One result — even in Ice Station Impossible — isn't going to paper over all the hard feeling some players have toward Klinsmann.

Sure it was a night anyone watching won't soon forget, if only for the novelty of it, but what it tells us about the U.S. team before the Mexico game is probably very little — or very little we didn't already know considering the team's track record for positive results when everything outside appears to be crumbling.

And it must be said: Mexico isn't going to be in a very good mood Tuesday night after it blew a 2-0 lead on the road against Honduras to draw 2-2. El Tri is, believe it or not, a point behind the U.S. in the Hex standings after draws in its first two matches.

On the topic of momentum, a couple months ago it appeared as if Mexico would sweep through qualifying and position itself as a firm favorite in Brazil next summer based on its youth team successes and Gold Medal at the London Games. It hasn't exactly worked out that way for El Tri through its first two matches.

Watching Mexico play vs. Honduras it had the air of a team that expected to win, call it complacency. When things went a little awry there was a lot of wild gesturing toward the referees or players trying to do it all by themselves. Mexico is also going to be without captain “Maza” Rodriguez due to yellow card accumulation Tuesday meaning manager Chepo de la Torre likely turns to either 25-year-old Hugo Ayala or rising star Diego Reyes, who's only 20 but was part of the Gold medal-winning squad in London. Losing Maza might not be a terrible turn of events for Mexico since he was beaten by Carlo Costly on Honduras' first goal then gave up the penalty that led to the equalizer.

If this was chess, it'd be trading, say, rooks with Klinsmann opting not to use ex-captain Carlos Bocanegra for these matches.

Mexico looks vulnerable and with the U.S. winning last August in a friendly for its first victory ever at the Azteca, there's never looked like a better time to win a game that counts in the smog of Mexico City. Of course, Andres Guardado, Javier Hernandez and Gio Dos Santos will pose a much tougher test for the American defense in the beehive of the noise the Azteca figures to be compared to what Costa Rica could muster in the snow of Colorado.

Uncle Sam certainly has “Uncle M”o on its side when it heads South of the Border.

Mexico, decidedly, does not.

If you think it's going to matter when the game kicks off, well, you haven't been paying attention over the last 25 years.

Other Stuff:

* Snow or not, Klinsmann appeared to get the defense lineup correct, with Geoff Cameron at right back, Clarence Goodson and Omar Gonzalez in the middle and evergreen DaMarcus Beasley at left back. It's only two games in 2013, but perhaps the stink of playing at Stoke City is rubbing off on Cameron. The player he was during the 2012 is becoming a more distant memory. (Once again anointing an American player “the future” based on 2-3 games might not prove accurate. Who knew?)

Many have lauded Beasley's performance and it was just what you'd want from a veteran closing in on 100 caps. How he fares against the pacey, technical attack of Mexico in normal conditions is another story.

* Klinsmann played his seemingly preferred three-pronged attack against Costa Rica in Jozy Altidore, Dempsey and Herculez Gomez. U.S. Soccer listed it as a 4-2-3-1 — again not that it mattered in the snow. Will the German coach be that aggressive on the road? He doesn't have a lot of other options.

* The U.S. plays in snow on Friday. Mexico played in 100-degree heat. Training staffs going to be working overtime in the three days between the matches. Klinsmann's caught a lot of heat for a different lineup in every match. He may need to make changes by necessity. Soccer players might have superhuman endurance but running around for two hours in the snow has to snap a lot out of you, especially at altitude.

* History won't smile too fondly on Steve Sampson, but he did manage the U.S. to it's only qualifying points at Mexico. This clip in 1997 is proof!


Why did Mexico ever go away from the Aztec imagery inside its shirt?

* Altidore looked more comfortable having balls played to him, as opposed to having to drop deep. Not a shocker. With Maza out and Mexico likely having to scramble to fill the hole next to Johnny Magallon, the AZ forward could be in line for a productive day. If anything Altidore attempted a shot from the edge of the box that set up Dempsey's goal vs. Costa Rica.

Altidore is not Mario Balotelli. You can't just throw him up top all by his lonesome and expect him to conjure up some magic. He needs link-up play and service to prove effective.

* Mexico No. 1 Guille Ochoa is listed at 6-foot-1. He looks tiny. Maybe it's an optical illusion and why the height-challenged Jorge Campos wore such garish outfits during his career. In any event, if I'm the U.S. I take as many shots as I can at the top corners and have guys crashing the six-yard box, ie. Dempsey and Bradley, looking for rebounds.

* Jermaine Jones, love him or hate him, does serve a role in the U.S. team, even if he does dumb things, like give a Costa Rican player a face wipe for no reason to set up a dangerous free kick in the second half Friday. In any event, he's out for the Mexico game, which can only be seen as a negative considering the chemistry he and Michael Bradley have established in the “double-pivot” in the center of the field. Swapping in Maurice Edu is a like-for-like change, but when is the last time we've seen him go the full 90 in an important match for the U.S.? Barring a complete midfield overhaul its Edu or Kyle Beckerman getting the start.

* Longtime friend of the blog, aimorris, will be attending the game with his brother. Give him a follow on Twitter.

* Speaking of Twitter, going to pimp myself via this little Jake Edwards Vine montage. SCORE!!!!!

Lineup Guess:

Wouldn't it make perfect sense for Klinsmann to finally use the same XI in back-to-back games following the snow? Not going to happen since Jones is out with an ankle injury. With the Schalke midfielder out, a 4-4-2 in a tight diamond might make sense. It still seems more likely Klinsmann adds another midfielder to try to clog it up for Mexico, if he does that it probably has to drop Altidore. It would be quintessential Klinsmann to throw Joe Corona into the lineup out of left field.

Option 1 (4-4-2):

GK — Guzan

DEF — Cameron — Goodson — Gonzalez — Beasley

MID — Zusi– Bradley — Edu — Dempsey

FOR — Altidore — Gomez

Option 1a (4-4-1-1):

GK — Guzan

DEF — Cameron — Goodson — Gonzalez — Beasley

MID — Zusi — Bradley — Edu — Shea

SS — Dempsey

F — Gomez

(I'm making this guess Sunday, blindly. Figure to be way off.)

Closing Thought:

Boil away all the “do or die” statements, the exposés, the players on surf vacations, the injuries, whatever, through the first two matchdays of the Hex (six games), the U.S. and Honduras are the only teams to notch wins. The four other games finished in draws.

The U.S. isn't going to qualify with a win Tuesday — it sure would help — but there's a long way to go until this is over in October. Same thing with a loss or a draw, nothing is going to be decided.

Realistically we're going to know if this is going to be a rote qualification process or if we're going to be sweating it out until the end come June. In a 12-day period the U.S. plays at Jamaica and then hosts Panama and Honduras.

That's when Klinsmann will either make his bread or start really feeling the heat in the kitchen.

Tags: That’s On Point, USMNT

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