U.S. on defensive vs. Mexico
Just call it "The World Series of Poker Faces."
On the one hand, you have Mexican head coach Ricardo Lavolpe, who is apparently so unconcerned about tipping his hand prior to this weekend's smackdown with the United States in Columbus, Ohio, that he released his roster a full week before the tilt.
On the other you have American coach Bruce Arena, who is doing his best to channel Phil Helmuth by releasing his roster a scant three days before the match and closing practice as well. The only thing that's missing for the U.S. coach is a hat and sunglasses.
But Arena can be forgiven for playing things closer to the vest than usual, because if there was ever a contest that was "all in," it's this one. Never mind that both sides are shoo-ins to qualify for Germany. Never mind that the U.S. ought to be well beyond making this a statement game. And never mind Arena's claim on Wednesday that this weekend's match was "no different than the previous six games."
This is as big as it gets, and emerging with a win will require another massive effort from the makeshift U.S. defense. Two weeks ago, the Americans put on a masterful performance in a 1-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago. This weekend, Mexico will provide a much sterner test.
Mexico's combination of speed, technical ability and insatiable desire to take the game to the opponents are bound to stretch the U.S. defense in ways that other CONCACAF nations don't. In the process, questions will be answered as the U.S. begins to fine tune ahead of next summer's finals in Germany. Is Eddie Lewis really the answer at left back? With Steve Cherundolo injured, does Bruce Arena continue with Chris Albright on the right, or does he give Frankie Hejduk yet another go? Just how far has Oguchi Onyewu come since his rather suspect performance in the Azteca? And will Carlos Bocanegra finally get the chance to convince Arena that his proper home is in the center of defense?
Of course with Arena doing nothing to show his hand, there is a real chance that some of these questions will go unanswered, especially if the shortage of outside backs sees Arena chuck his 4-4-2 formation and opt for a three-man back line. That seems unlikely, however. Given the three-pronged attack Mexico employed to great effect in March, there's little reason to think Lavolpe will change his ways, which means the Americans will get a good look at how the defense on the flanks stacks up.
In this regard, a second consecutive appearance by Lewis at left back will bear watching. There's a tendency to think that more out-and-out defenders like Bocanegra and Greg Vanney might be better choices to play this weekend. But Lewis' speed and passing ability out of the back make him a better option. And given Arena's penchant for his outside backs to get forward, Lewis is tailor-made to get into the attack. At any rate, seeing Lewis matched up against Francisco Fonseca should provide a good barometer of how the Leeds United man stacks up at that position.
Ironically, the other side of the U.S. defense poses more questions. It has come down to a choice between Hejduk and Albright. Albright is the better player going forward, while Hejduk has greater speed and experience. Despite his limitations on the ball, I think the nod will go to Hejduk, whose day should be made somewhat easier by the absence of Mexican forward Cuauhtemoc Blanco.
Perhaps the day's most intriguing matchup will come in the middle, where Onyewu will likely have his second encounter with Mexican target-man Jared Borgetti. The Bolton Wanderers' forward got the better of Onyewu in March, scoring the first goal when the American got caught ball watching for a split second. But the Standard Liege man has delivered some towering performances for the U.S. side since his baptism in the Azteca and will need to have more of the same in his first Clasico on American soil.
Certainly, Arena feels that in a lineup full of talent, Borgetti is tops on the list of players the U.S. needs to stop.
"I don't think you can argue [Borgetti's] effectiveness," said Arena on Wednesday. "He scores goals in big games, and that's what a real goal scorer is all about."
Who will be helping Onyewu is still anybody's guess, but a pairing with Bocanegra would be interesting and could represent the U.S.' present and foreseeable future in the middle. After spending more than year playing at fullback for Fulham, Bocanegra is now enjoying a spell in the center of their defense. A permanent move into the middle at international level is one that Bocanegra would welcome. Now it's up to him to prove he should stay there.
Of course, the Americans' defensive strength isn't just about the back line. The U.S. midfield will need to do its bit as well to frustrate Mexico's possession game. It's a familiar task that the Americans are more than capable of delivering. And both sides know it. How else can you explain Borgetti's rather hilarious suggestion to La Opinion that the U.S. should "come at us." To which the U.S. will no doubt respond "Uh, no thank you, Jared. You first."
That's not to say that the U.S. will bunker in. As has been the hallmark of Arena-coached teams against rivals to the south, they'll try to attack with intelligence, and that means Claudio Reyna will need to control the tempo while someone like Pablo Mastroeni does the dirty work.
Given Arena's comments about Reyna on Wednesday, it certainly sounds like he's counting on the Manchester City midfielder to provide a good deal of his team's inspiration.
"[Renya] is in very good form right now," said Arena "He gives our players confidence. He allows us to be more aggressive going forward. There are just a lot of things Claudio offers our team so we're real happy to have him here."
And if the defense, along with Reyna, can deliver on Saturday, maybe Arena's poker face will turn into a smile.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com