It began with a corner kick.
If you’re looking for a starting point for the US men’s national team’s failure to book a spot at the 2018 World Cup, there may be no better moment than a set-piece for Mexico on 11 November 2016.
After four consecutive 2-0 World Cup qualifying wins over Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, the US suddenly found themselves with an unfamiliar 1-1 scoreline against their old rivals at the Mapfre Stadium.
Then, in the 89th minute, that corner from Miguel Layún found the head of veteran defender Rafael Márquez, who perfectly redirected the ball into the back of the net. The crowd of 24,000 in Columbus were stunned as Mexico not only took a 2-1 lead, but also secured their first World Cup qualifying away win against the Americans since 1972.
The loss to Mexico foreshadowed a dismal run against Concacaf opponents and the US failed to make the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Now, just one day after the five-year anniversary of that defeat, the USMNT have their chance at redemption. In a symbolic change of scenery for a new era, they’ve bucked the trend of playing Mexico in Columbus with the hopes of reenergizing their efforts in a first-ever World Cup qualifier at Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium on Friday night.
Luckily for American fans, things are looking slightly rosier this time around. Although they’ve had a couple of hiccups, with three wins, two draws and a loss so far, the Americans head into the match second in Concacaf qualifying (the first three teams go through to Qatar 2022 automatically with the fourth heading into an intercontinental playoff).
This isn’t the same roster that couldn’t get the job done a few years back either. From the current call-up, only two players (Christian Pulisic and DeAndre Yedlin) were part of the squad that stumbled in November 2016. And through that process and transition, they’ve also beaten Mexico twice this year in the finals of the Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup.
That said, World Cup qualification remains their most significant goal in mind, and neither team was at full strength for the previous two games which took place in what amount to glorified friendly tournaments.
“[The Gold Cup and Nations League] mean absolutely nothing,” said Tyler Adams in an interview on CBS Sports’ Que Golazo podcast earlier this week. “The only good thing about those games is that we continue to progress in those points in time.”
He added: “This is for a World Cup, the motivation will be completely different.”
USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter also recognizes the gravity of Friday’s game.
“In the context of World Cup qualifying, it’s just another game, right? But in terms of the rivalry and the history and the times when you get to play them with a pro-US crowd in a great stadium, I mean, it makes it special,” Berhalter told the Cincinnati Enquirer.
But can Mexico once again steal the show on American soil? Mexico are unbeaten in their six qualifying games, with four wins and two draws, and sit top of the table, three points clear of the US.
Despite all of this, regional bragging rights have remained out of reach for Mexico after losing the Gold Cup and Nations League finals to the US.
During the 3-2 Nations League final loss to the United States, Mexico fell victim to two goals off corners. Months later in the Gold Cup final, it was a set-piece goal in extra time that secured a narrow 1-0 victory over Mexico.
“It is true that we lost two finals, but the United States [hurt us] from set-pieces,” said Mexico coach Tato Martino after the Gold Cup defeat in August. “We had great moments in the two finals where we defined the game. When we cannot convert goals from these situations, there is always a risk.”
For Mexico on Friday, capitalizing on those situations will be paramount as they aim to steal back the crown as the kings of the Concacaf region. Regardless of the two painful losses to the US in 2021, an away win in a World Cup qualifier would do plenty to help heal the wounds.
As for the young US team, they have an opportunity to not only take a huge step towards a return to the World Cup, but to also truly claim their dominance in the region with a historic third consecutive victory over Mexico within just six months.
Either way, keep an eye out for those set-pieces once the game kicks off.