The US Men’s National Team has already gained a berth to the World Cup in Brazil next summer, capturing the top spot in the CONCACAF region. Mexico, on the other hand, has to get a result today against a tough Costa Rica side to gain a playoff spot against New Zealand.
For two of the strongest sides in CONCACAF, the road towards qualification could not have been more different. The US has already wrapped up the top spot with one game to go, while Mexico has played some of the worst soccer in recent memory.
The US has played with confidence and a new-found swagger throughout qualifying. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has dealt with every situation he has been presented with gracefully, and the results have reflected this. There has been a healthy blend of young and old players in the lineup, which has kept everything fresh and removed any possibility of complacency in the squad.
The Azteca Stadium, a fortress of Mexican soccer, has lost its intimidation factor. The Mexican side seems to have lost their identity, as they have struggled to string together some good form. Mexico could finish anywhere from third to fifth tonight, but a win would be enough to see them through to at least a playoff for a World Cup spot.
The US travels to Panama for their last qualifying game on Tuesday night, where they will be met with a hostile environment. Panama still has a chance to qualify, although they do not control their own destiny. The US will be missing some key players, which will give some young and fringe players a chance to stake their claim to a World Cup spot, while Panama will field a strong team that will try to take advantage of the personnel changes in the American defense. They will come out strong, throwing everything they have at the Americans, because their World Cup hopes hang in the balance.
Mexico travels to Costa Rica for their final game, and even though they have already qualified, I’m sure Costa Rica would like nothing more than to knock off Mexico. I expect this to be a chippy game where Costa Rica absorbs a lot of Mexican pressure and tries to catch them off guard with counter attacks. Mexico will have to start quickly and keep Costa Rica on their heels in order to get control of the game.
Both of these teams are used to enjoying the success of World Cup qualification, but Mexico is in danger of missing out and bemoaning their lack of form. The US has taken care of business in a tricky group, and looks to carry the momentum into Brazil next summer. After a bicycle kick late in their last game to win, will Mexico have to depend on another moment of individual brilliance to keep their World Cup hopes alive?