NASHVILLE — Throughout the last year, U.S. Men’s National Team interim head coach Dave Sarachan has focused on getting younger players opportunities on the international stage ahead of the 2022 World Cup cycle.
The young core of Americans coming up through the national team system flashed signs of promise, dating back to the November friendly against Portugal.
But every game before Tuesday, including the 2-0 loss on Friday to Brazil, has been a friendly with little meaning attached.
The 1-1 draw in June against France impressed, as did the fight displayed during the defeat to Brazil, but there’s one measuring stick that means the most to the USMNT on its way back to the World Cup — and that’s Mexico.
The USMNT and Mexico have long been the standard bearers of Concacaf, but after the United States’ failure to qualify for Russia, it dropped down the North American hierarchy behind Mexico and Costa Rica.
While Tuesday’s match at Nissan Stadium won’t cure all of the USMNT’s woes, and it surely won’t guarantee passage to Qatar in four years, it will serve as an introduction to the standard the young Americans have to reach at minimum to erase the shortcomings of the last World Cup cycle.
“Getting results is very important, and with Mexico, it’s very important because it becomes a little more personal,” Sarachan said. “There’s a real history. There’s a real rivalry. That doesn’t go away, even in friendlies, even in a calendar year when there’s no Gold Cup or World Cup. These players, I believe, understand that and they’re certainly going to understand that in the next 48 hours, and when we come away from it, we expect a good result.”
Sarachan understands the history of the rivalry from his two stints on former U.S. coach Bruce Arena’s staff, but the players don’t have much background.
DeAndre Yedlin has five appearances versus Mexico, the most of any player on the roster, while Bobby Wood, Gyasi Zardes, Kellyn Acosta, Julian Green and Eric Lichaj have also seen time against El Tri.
That means the young collection of stars headlined by Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Timothy Weah will receive their El Tri baptism Tuesday night.
By no means will this be the most important game against Mexico the USMNT will face in the next four years, but it still carries value.
Under Sarachan, the USMNT has two wins against Paraguay and Bolivia. The draw against France was a result that caught outside attention, but outside of that, the results with an interim coach haven’t impressed.
Now it’s time for the squad with an average age of 23 to make a statement that it’s not just capable of playing teams tough, but it’s able to take wins from the teams it needs to beat.
“I think the idea of playing against Mexico should be in your head already, and it’s that rival in your head,” USMNT centerback Tim Parker said. “Hopefully that’s the attitude we walk into it with.”
In order to do so, the mistakes from the Brazil loss must be corrected and the USMNT must display a more proactive style of play.
That starts by sprinkling in the experience of Lichaj and Yedlin along the back line with the centerback pairing of Cameron Carter-Vickers and Matt Miazga, which carries a wealth of chemistry.
Adams, McKennie and Weah should have more freedom in the final third in order to open up Mexico’s defense, starting with Adams’ influence in defensive midfield.
The final product in front of goal also needs to be refined, as the USMNT wasted most of its opportunities against Brazil.
Since failing to qualify for Russia, the USMNT has seven goals in seven games, three of them coming in the May victory over Bolivia.
With in-form forwards Andrija Novakovich and Gyasi Zardes expected to receive playing time, at least one of the scoring opportunities should fall.
“I think it’s extremely important for players to take advantage of the opportunity if their names are called to start the game,” Zardes said. “I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for players in camp just to give it their all and show that they belong here as well. I think it’s going to be a great matchup against Mexico too.”
A victory over the USMNT’s biggest rival, no matter the stature of the game, would go a long way in developing the confidence of a team embarking on a challenging fall slate.
Said Parker: “I think that’s something we have to take with pride and remember there’s no such thing as a friendly against Mexico.”