Always bringing his best, the always red, goatee’d center back—the first U.S. pro to play in Italy—Alexi Lalas was my childhood hero.
In 1997, I was watching the U.S. Cup game between the U.S. and Mexico in a Southern California bar. When Mexico’s Ramón Ramírez karate-kicked Lalas in the groin, I stood up and yelled, swearing at the television, demanding retribution, quickly realizing I was the only gringo in the place and no one else shared my opinion.
U.S. Hall-of-Famer Cobi Jones was always a focus of Mexico’s frustration, and I remember watching as Rafael Márquez speared Jones in the back in 2002. Seven years later, Rafa did it again, that time lashing out on goalkeeper Tim Howard.
When these two teams meet in this Saturday’s Gold Cup, both teams are going to bring it hard. The referee is going to be a busy man.
Mexico dominated their first-round opponents, while the U.S. struggled to get into form. Defensive solidity and offensive fluidity, the hallmarks of any good team, have been the key to Mexico’s dominance and it’s the reason why bookies are giving the odds to El Tri.
In the U.S., the “Fire Bob” brigade has been reaching feverish heights, demanding the head of their coach as a panacea to all the ills that have afflicted Team U.S.A. If the Red, White, & Blue do anything but dominate and win, calls for Coach Bradley’s termination will continue.
But the important question is, tactically, what can the U.S. do to shut down Mexico, a team that has a 31-16-11 record against the U.S. and has scored eighteen goals in the five Gold Cup games? Bradley’s team has scored seven.
All eyes are going to be on Mexico’s striker, Javier Hernandez—Chicharito on his jersey.
It’s funny to think that just a short time ago, Hernandez was talking about packing it up and quitting the game. He wasn’t getting any playing time in Mexico and was disillusioned. When Manchester United’s scout approached him, he thought it was a joke. An outstanding season later, Chicharito, the little pea, is now the goal-scorer that Mexico has lacked since the days of Hermosillo and El Matador. He’s a fan favorite and expected to make a huge difference in Saturday’s game.
And he will be a handful for the U.S. defense. He is capable of quick bursts of speed over short distances, and like Fernando Torres, he is deadly when running onto a ball played between the defensive players. Once he has the ball, you’re too late.
So, what to do?
The U.S. has been putting an extra man in the midfield for an on-paper 4-5-1 formation, using Sacha Kljestan. Bradley tends to stick with the team that got him there, which means Landon Donovan could be on the bench until the second half, a huge statement given Donovan’s status.
It makes sense to keep Donovan on the bench. He hasn’t been tracking back defensively, which will be key in shutting down the distribution to Mexico’s front line. And that’s what needs to be done: shut down passes to Mexico’s front line before they are made.
Kljestan, Michael Bradley, and Jermaine Jones will all be keys to preventing Mexico from getting passes up to Chicharito's targets, the trident of Gio dos Santos, Pablo Barrera and Andrés Guardado. Backing up into the next line of Mexico, you find Castro and Torrado, two players who are over 30, decent players, and, hopefully for the U.S., a bit tired after that 120-minute extra-time game against Honduras.
Bradley’s team needs to press them both and press them hard and prevent them from getting passes out to the wings. That’s what Mexico has done over and over during this tournament, and they’ve been very successful. Coach Bradley will be content if Mexico dominates possession—which they have in every game between the two teams—but if they spend their time making side-to-side passes.
If the U.S. adopts this tactic, it won’t be the free-flowing, attack-oriented game the U.S. fans demand. It’s a game plan that’s about destroying Mexico’s opportunities, not about creating.
The U.S. is the most deadly when it’s on the counter-strike, and they will be looking to score on the break when the Mexican team has surged forward, caught out of position.
Coach Bradley’s men have their work cut out for them. For a generation, Mexico has been without a coach that is good and well respected and they’ve been without a world-class striker. They have both and they are a well-organized, unselfish team. But it’s the U.S. against Mexico. Anything can happen.