Sports

I want my win in the Azteca, Gregg Berhalter


Christian Pulisic

Christian Pulisic
Photo: Getty Images

Right off the bat, I know all the logic the US might keep something in reserve tonight at the Azteca vs. Mexico. The USMNT has not been able to thread the three-matches-in-seven days windows all that well. The Panama game is the real crunch one of the three this time, as a win there basically guarantees qualification (though not totally). And the Panama match is the one in the middle, which is the one the US has struggled with the most (tie with Canada, loss to Panama, loss to Canada). Playing at altitude and in the air you can chew in the Azteca can leave any player feeling it for the next week, much less the next couple days when the US will play again. Thanks to injuries, whatever depth the US had to begin with (not much) has been eroded even more. Asking players to go 90 minutes twice in four days, including the toll it takes to get through a match at the Azteca, is asking for a host of problems come Sunday in Orlando. Have to keep your eyes on the big picture and all that.

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Well I’m here to say…Fuck. That.

First off, as mentioned already, simply three points against Panama on Sunday isn’t a full guarantee of passage to Qatar by itself. The US probably needs a point or more somewhere else. And while Gregg Berhalter was seemingly already prepping the ground for something of a bypass of this match against Mexico, citing the US’ record in Mexico City, you know where it’s worse? Costa Rica. Which is the last game of qualifying.

Gregg, do you really want it all to come down to getting a point out of San Jose? Which the US hasn’t done? Yes, this Costa Rican team is terrible, and the US already thwacked them once already. But still, the US thwacked Mexico too at home, so why is that the one you just let go of the rope for?

Conversely, the US has drawn its last two qualifiers at the Azteca, and was a Christian Pulisic injury time shot just on the wrong side of the post from winning the last one. Even just a draw tonight and a win Sunday and that’s it, you’re in. But you can’t get a draw by playing for one, generally.

Second, this Mexico team is ass and is there for the taking. Which would make it sobering that the US remains tied with them on points in this qualifying cycle, but Mexico isn’t undergoing a complete remaking of their squad as the US is. Perhaps it should. This Mexican side is old, not particularly quick, hates its manager, and seemingly has a mental block when it comes to this US side, losing the last three matches. It’s not even going to be a full Azteca, with capacity capped at 40K instead of the usual 100,000 causing that deafening beehive sound and tossing bags of their own piss. And it wouldn’t take much to get that 40,000 to turn on its own side early. They’re pretty much waiting to do so, given how this qualifying journey has gone for them.

Canada walked into the Azteca, having never done anything there before, and bossed the game and kicked around Mexico. Sure, it ended 1-1, and yes, Canada is a more cohesive unit right now than both of these teams. But come on, if Canada can do it. Panama, apparently the monster everything has to be planned around Sunday, got a draw at the Azteca in this cycle. You’re either a big dog or you’re not.

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Third, it’s hard to kick up a gear when you start in second or third. You can’t take a laissez-faire attitude to open this window and then think you can just ratchet up to fifth gear on Sunday simply because you want to. The chance of installing a malaise for all three games is too high.

Again, I know the problems. Gio Reyna can’t possibly get 90 minutes twice in four days. Christian Pulisic’s hamstrings probably can’t stand up to that either. They have no Brendan Aaronson, or Weston McKennie, or Sergino Dest. Tyler Adams is a yellow card away from suspension, they still don’t have a viable replacement for him. Which means I’m going to have to see more Kellyn Acosta than I’d like. But so help you, Gregg Berhalter, if you roll out of that tunnel in the Azteca with Paul Arriola and Jordan Morris as your wide forwards…

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There are few things as an aging sports fan that I haven’t experienced yet. This is one of them. I haven’t seen the US beat Mexico in Mexico in an official match. And this is probably the last chance. There won’t be a qualifying process for the 2026 World Cup, because both countries are hosting the thing. After that, when there are 48 teams in the World Cup, and CONCACAF gets five or six spots or more instead of the three and a half now, the qualifying system could be anything. There might not be US-Mexico matches. There probably won’t be a Hex or an Octo, and we’ll have another cutesy term for whatever system is used.

I need this, Gregg. We all do. This team wants it. For as disjointed and weird and promising and infuriating as they’ve been, you’ve always had their attention against Mexico. Telling them this match won’t matter would be a pretty awkward message. And this is after you put them through a match in a meat locker for no reason. You think you draw that much water with them?

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Win this, and then you’ve got a foot in Qatar, maybe more. You’ve got a signature win to justify your existence, Gregg. You don’t take a dive in front of your greatest rival unless you have the cushion to do so, which you don’t. And if you need to be at absolute full strength to beat Panama at home, there are bigger problems.

You don’t have to go hell-bent for leather from the opening whistle, Mr. Berhalter. You can be smart about it, keeping something in reserve until the 60th minute or so if you choose. But you can’t get to the 60th minute behind Sands and Roldan and Arriola and Morris. You’ve gotten in trouble when you’ve eschewed swagger and natural instinct for your logic and planning. That’s why that Canada match was so hard to watch. That’s why you put your charges through a freezer just to beat fucking Honduras.

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Don’t overthink this. Go out there and kick Mexico’s ass again, because it’s there to be kicked. You want to talk all that trash about “man in the mirror” and how you’re the equal? Go out and show it. I know the math. I don’t care. Give us this. Give yourself this, and figure out the rest later. We’re Americans, after all. We don’t care about the long term. We want it now.

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