USA or Mexico: Which CONCACAF Giant Is Stronger Heading into the Hexagonal?

John D. HalloranContributor IINovember 2, 2012

USA or Mexico: Which CONCACAF Giant Is Stronger Heading into the Hexagonal?

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    Now that the field is set for the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, commonly known as the hexagonal, both the United States and Mexico are beginning preparations.

    The United States struggled a bit in the semifinal round of qualifying, overcoming a sputtering start to top group A with four wins and one tie worth 13 points. Mexico, on the other hand, steamrolled their competition, winning all six games in the semifinal round and topping group B with 18 points.

    So, who has the edge between these two CONCACAF powers as the two teams head into the hexagonal?

    Let’s find out.

Estadio Azteca

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    The U.S.-Mexico head-to-head matchups in the hexagonal round will be the most fun games of the entire round.

    When Mexico hosts the United States, it will most likely be at Estadio Azteca, perhaps the most feared venue in the entire Western Hemisphere.

    The Azteca, located in Mexico City, presents a number of problems for any visiting team.

    First, the elevation in Mexico City is about a mile-and-a-half above sea level, something the vast majority of the American players will not be acclimated to. The second problem the Americans will face is the pollution in Mexico City which, while not as bad as it used to be, combined with the altitude, makes playing there very difficult.

    The third problem for the Americans could be what time of day the game is played. If the game is played midday (as Mexico did for the August 2009 U.S.-Mexico qualifier), it will likely be warm and sunny. That factor, combined with the altitude and pollution, gives Mexico a clear home-field advantage, especially in the second half when the American players will begin to fade.

    While many of the Mexican players, particularly those based in Europe, will also not be acclimated to the climate, elevation and pollution, most of them have extensive experience playing in Mexico City at a variety of venues, and that experience gives them the edge.

    And, all of that neglects to mention the 105,000 raucous Mexican fans likely to be in attendance.

    Mexico holds a 23-1-1 advantage over the United States in games played at Estadio Azteca, with the United States’ lone victory coming this last August in a friendly in which neither team fielded their first-team lineup.

American Home-Field Advantage?

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    Choosing a venue for the U.S.' home leg of the U.S.-Mexico clash is a much trickier proposition for U.S. Soccer than choosing a venue is for the Federation of Mexican Football.

    If U.S. Soccer picks any venue near a major American metropolitan area, the game is likely to become like a home game for Mexico, or at best, a 50-50 U.S.-Mexico crowd.

    Therefore, the U.S. will be forced to pick among several, likely smaller, venues.

    And while the last few months of World Cup qualifying have proved that places like Columbus, Ohio, and Kansas City, Kansas, can provide great home crowds, they are much smaller than the 100,000-plus fan venues like Estadio Azteca or the numerous 90,000-plus fan venues available in the United States.

    If the home leg of the U.S.-Mexico game is on the February qualifying date, as it was in 2009 when the game was hosted in Columbus, Ohio, U.S. Soccer will likely pick a similarly northern venue under the assumption the Mexicans don’t like to play in the cold.

    Overall, the home-field advantage over two legs still benefits Mexico more than it does the United States.

Coaching

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    Despite a number of ups and downs for the U.S. over the past year, including a pretty scary semifinal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, the USMNT is about to finish the year 9-2-2, making it the most successful year ever for the team.

    However, if you were to talk to most USMNT fans, they would give you a much different picture of the current state of the team and its coach, Jurgen Klinsmann.

    For better or for worse, Klinsmann has not seemed to care one iota about the conventional wisdom surrounding the U.S. program, tactics, or players.

    He has shown a willingness to throw caution into the wind, trying out at least seven different formations during his tenure. He has encouraged the U.S. to be more adventurous on the attack, has refused to call-up players that most fans think are crucial to the success of the team and called up players many fans think are undeserving.

    Perhaps the biggest example of this was his most recent roster for the do-or-die October qualifiers when Klinsmann left Jozy Altidore and Terrence Boyd off the roster and instead called up Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon.

    And when injuries to his left-back options eliminated Fabian Johnson, Edgar Castillo and even Jose Torres and Brek Shea from the roster, Klinsmann refused to call in backups, relying on Carlos Bocanegra and Michael Parkhurst to get the job done.

    South of the border, Jose Manuel de la Torre has taken Mexico to a 19-4-2 record since taking the helm in early 2011 including wins over Paraguay, New Zealand, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, the United States, Chile, Serbia, Venezuela and Brazil. De La Torre also famously led Mexico to the 2011 Gold Cup with a 4-2 dismantling of the United States in the final of that tournament.

    Advantage - Mexico

Talent

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    Mexico has Carlos Vela, Andres Guardado, Gio dos Santos, Chicharito, Oribe Peralta, Carlos Salcido, Jesus Zavala and Gerardo Torrado among others and has an unbelievable wealth of talent coming up through their youth ranks.

    The Mexican team also specializes in what the U.S. struggles against most—speedy, two-touch counterattacks.

    The U.S. team is a mix of up-and-coming youth players like Fabian Johnson, Danny Williams and Graham Zusi along with grizzled veterans like Clint Dempsey, Steve Cherundolo, Carlos Bocanegra and Tim Howard and important role players such as Herculez Gomez, Geoff Cameron, Jermaine Jones, Maurice Edu and Michael Parkhurst.

    But there remain very few players between the relatively inexperienced youngsters and the large group of veterans over 30 years old. The lone notable exception is Michael Bradley.

    Terrence Boyd, Geoff Cameron, Danny Williams, Fabian Johnson and Graham Zusi all have ten or less caps and it is not unreasonable to wonder if Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo, at 33 years of age, will be able to continue playing at a high level (although they are still currently two of the most consistent players on the squad).

    Landon Donovan himself has discussed retirement on a number of occasions recently and Jurgen Klinsmann seems to have lost faith in Jozy Altidore.

    The U.S. squad could still be in for a major overhaul during the hexagonal.

    Advantage – Mexico.

Mental Edge

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    Over last ten years, the U.S. is 6-4-3 versus Mexico.

    However, that statistic does not tell the whole tale.

    In that same time period, prior to the 2009 Gold Cup final, the U.S. was 5-1-2 against Mexico.

    In that game, the U.S., having just played in the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa, decided to field its “B” team in the Gold Cup.

    The U.S. reached the final, but lost 5-0 to Mexico, and things in the rivalry with Mexico have not been the same since. The U.S. is 1-2-1 against Mexico since that loss.

    The mental edge since that game has gone decisively in Mexico’s favor, including Mexico’s victory over the U.S.’ “A” team 4-2 in the 2011 Gold Cup final.

    While the U.S. victory over Mexico in August at Estadio Azteca may help the U.S. regain that mental edge, Mexico is playing full of confidence right now and were 6-0 in the semifinal round of CONCACAF, qualifying with a plus-13 goal differential and finishing third at the U-20 World Cup and winning the U-17 World Cup and the London Olympics, largely with a squad of their U-23 players.

    Advantage - Mexico

Intangibles and Overall

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    Anything can, and often does, happen in CONCACAF qualifying from poor pitches to crazy weather extremes to disastrous officiating.

    One might argue that there is an anti-American bias among officials, but it is probably attributable more to a lack of quality officials in the CONCACAF region than a conspiracy against the United States.

    The U.S. has the advantage of having a more versatile game when it comes to poor pitches or poor weather conditions through qualifying because the U.S. is more adept at scoring set-piece headers when playing a possession game is out of the question.

    And, despite rising interest from Americans and the media in the USMNT, and therefore more pressure on Jurgen Klinsmann and the players, there is no doubt that that pressure is much more intense in Mexico.

    If things go awry for either team in qualifying, the U.S. is more likely to stay the course and resist radical changes while the Mexican fan base and media is more likely to demand wholesale changes, should they fall into trouble.

    Intangible advantage – the United States

    Overall advantage in the hexagonal – Mexico

     

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