The United States heads into Tuesday night's World Cup qualifier against rival Mexico with a chance to lock up a spot in next summer's marquee event. In order to do that, the American squad must make sure it doesn't provide El Tri with a ray of hope after a tumultuous stretch.
Even though the United States suffered a lackluster 3-1 loss to Costa Rica last week, it's still in good shape. A victory over a reeling Mexico side paired with a Panama loss or draw in Honduras will be enough for the U.S. to reach the World Cup.
#USMNT clinches on Tuesday with a win and a Honduras win/draw vs Panama.— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) September 7, 2013
With that said, a loss to Mexico would make things exponentially more complicated. Not only because it would make the race for the top three spots in the Hex more cluttered, but a triumph on American soil is exactly the confidence boost El Tri is seeking.
Mexico decided to change managers after a stunning loss to Honduras at Estadio Azteca last week. Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre is out after a very disappointing run of results and Luis Fernando Tena takes over on an interim basis.
It was a necessary switch as Mexico attempts to avoid missing the World Cup, an outcome that would be a major setback for one of CONCACAF's powerhouse sides.
From an American perspective, the change signals desperation from their biggest rival. Furthermore, it means the rivalry clash provides the United States with a chance to put Mexico in even deeper trouble by simply taking care of business at home.
The first 15 minutes are going to be crucial.
Last week, the U.S. allowed two goals inside the first 10 minutes and never fully recovered. Mexico is already on shaky ground. If the Americans can flip that script and dominate the first portion of the match, there's a good chance Mexico's belief quickly fades away.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, if El Tri can come out revitalized by the managerial change and maybe even score a quick goal, the entire match changes. Suddenly, the Americans are on their heels again, and the challenge becomes far more difficult.
If the United States is going to avoid the latter fate, it will have to do so without two key pieces. Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley will both miss the match. Altidore is suspended after a late card against Costa Rica, and Bradley couldn't recover in time from an ankle injury.
What's your prediction for the key match?
The squad struggled to control the midfield and create chances without them against Costa Rica. The attacking effort improved once Altidore came off the bench, but it wasn't enough to steal a point in hostile territory.
It will take a far more complete performance to earn three points against Mexico, which will likely be feisty right out of the gate. That's why it's so important for the Americans to take control early and take a little bit of that edge off.
As it stands now, the United States is in second place, five points clear of Mexico. A win for the USMNT and El Tri cannot catch up. A loss and El Tri is just two points behind with two matches to play. At that point, the U.S. would no longer be on cruise control to the World Cup.
All told, Mexico is vulnerable right now. Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan and Co. must take advantage of that and earn three points. If they don't, the qualifying task gets tricky again and Mexico gains renewed confidence.
It's a turning-point match for both sides and fans will soon find out which team steps up.