Before suffering a recent one-sided, pride-obliterating blowout in the Gold Cup Final, a US victory over Mexico at the Azteca on August 12th looked like a foregone conclusion.
You know what? I'm still not ready to close the book on that possibility.
Earlier in 2009, fans of Team USA were absolutely salivating over the possibilities of the upcoming match. Mexico was struggling mightily—especially under the tutelage of Sven Goran-Eriksson—and only made it to the final round of World Cup qualifying thanks to winning the goal differential tiebreaker with Jamaica.
And when's the last time that Jamaica did anything meaningful in international football?
Mexico was in dire straits. Blood was in the water, and Team USA was circling, preparing to go in for the kill. Despite all the talent on their roster, El Tri just couldn't pull together and play at their usual high level.
Things looked even bleaker for Mexico after the US' recent run to the finals of the Confederations Cup. While Team USA was off collecting a clean sheet against Spain, Mexico was languishing in fourth place in the CONCACAF qualifying group, a finish that wouldn't even guarantee them a ticket to South Africa.
It must have been terribly depressing for Mexico to sit at home and watch the US mature so quickly on the international stage. Uncle Sam was set to take CONCACAF by the throat and toss it around like a rag doll.
Fast forward to the Gold Cup finale, and El Tri were the ones doing the throttling.
The embarrassment was piled extra-high on the US' plates because not only were they blown out by their biggest rival, it happened in New York in front of a pro-Mexican crowd during the final of a competition that the US had owned in recent years.
Mexico had clearly grown tired of all the accolades being piled on the US after a great Confederations Cup. Hang on, they said, we were top dogs in this neighborhood before you showed up, and we're taking back what's ours.
The majority of Mexican fans seem to agree that the Gold Cup Final signifies some huge shift in power back to Mexico. The US' rallying cry of "Dos a cero!" was to be turned on its head. "Cinco a cero!" is to be shouted from the rooftops of our Central American rivals until the end of time.
Hang on a second. Do these fans really expect that Gold Cup Final to actually change anything? That's just pure naivete on their part.
We've all heard the argument that the US was playing with a 'B' team at best and we should throw that result out. I agree, but Mexico was playing with a bunch of youngsters as well. We shouldn't throw that result out just because the US was playing with a JV squad, we should toss it because less than a handful of US players from that match will see action on August 12th.
We should toss it because Bob Bradley will employ vastly different tactics in Mexico City.
We should toss it because Bob Bradley treated this year's Gold Cup like he treated the Copa America back in 2007.
Most of all, we should toss it because Team USA has a backbone and intends to respond to the gauntlet thrown down by Mexico.
Something happened to the US in South Africa this summer. They underwent a serious transformation right in front of us. The Americans were absolutely thrashed in their first two matches and for all practical purposes were a lame duck squad.
Think back to the last time that the US found themselves in a similar scenario, the 2006 World Cup. Faced with long odds but a very winnable match against Ghana, the US rolled over after an early goal and a questionable penalty. Ghana won the match, the US went home with their tails between their legs, and Bruce Arena was fired for his squad's pathetic performance.
This summer, the US was facing a very similar situation. The first two matches had seen the US go down early and suffer through some very questionable officiating. Everybody expected the US to succumb to Egypt, go home, and replace Bob Bradley.
The terrible losses must have triggered some primal response deep in the psyche of the Americans, because instead of losing, they went out and for two and a half straight matches played the best football of their lives.
Clean sheets against Egypt and Spain followed by a near-upset of Brazil? The very thought would have been preposterous before the tournament but apparently a wounded sense of pride and a healthy dose of anger goes a long with that team.
You can expect a similar result against Mexico on August 12th.
We can already see a US victory taking shape in the reactions of the National Team to the 5-0 drubbing. Brian Ching was definitely censoring himself for the media when he spoke after the match, saying, "I'm sure if you ask the other guys, they're ticked off."
“Look at anybody in the United States and this loss has to anger you.”
Ching and company should be playing with an aggressive edge in Mexico City. They've figured out how to channel anger into very effective football.
Personnel-wise, the Americans will also enjoy an edge. Remember earlier when I said that less than a handful of US participants in the Gold Cup Final would be suiting up in The Azteca? Many Mexican fans would have you believe that Mexico was also fielding a severely weakened side in that match, but that's not the case.
Javier Aguirre has selected 12 players from that match to his squad for the match on August 12th. That seems to imply that the US has already seen close to the best that Mexico has to offer while keeping their own cards hidden from view.
Mexico has already taken close to their best shot. The US? Not even close.
Remember, the last time that Mexico faced the first-choice US lineup, it was the standard dos a cero result to which American fans have grown so accustomed. While the US still hasn't managed a victory in Mexico City, this current generation has owned El Tri both at home and at neutral sites.
You also have to consider that the lineup Bradley will be bringing to Mexico City will allow him to employ different tactics than he did during the Gold Cup final.
That Gold Cup squad was missing Benny Feilhaber and Charlie Davies, their two best attacking options. As much as I enjoy Stuart Holden and Brian Ching, Holden isn't quite there yet and Ching is a bit too old to be shouldering such a large responsibility.
The best defense is a good offense.
A lineup with Davies, Dempsey, Donovan, Altidore and Bradley will be able to get forward, helping keep the Mexican attackers at bay. They will be aided by Jonathan Spector, who proved himself to be essentially a poor man's Sergio Ramos with his abilities to get up the wing and aid in the attack.
Just watch this, 23 seconds in. Do you think that Heath Pearce or Jay Heaps is capable of making that pass? No way. That was world-class service right to Clint Dempsey's foot.
While we're on the topic of defense, you can expect massive upgrades on that front as well. If you're a coach, would you rather have a back line of Spector-Onyewu-Bocanegra-DeMerit or Heaps-Goodson-Pearce-Marshall?
That first group is based entirely in Europe and every week go up against some of the best strikers in the world. The second group contains a 33-year old with four caps, a 27-year old with seven caps who plays in Norway, a guy playing with Hansa Rostock's reserve, and a youngster who has only experienced MLS.
I know which one I'd choose, and it's the one that stifled the Spanish Armada in South Africa.
Look at the evidence and you'll see that August 12th will be a completely different match. Any fan expecting the US to be dominated again is in for an unpleasant surprise. Everything suggests that El Tri will be given all they can handle by a US team that exploded onto the world stage this summer.
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