The United States will look to complete a calendar clean sweep of victories over Mexico on Friday when the arch-rivals collide in a heavyweight World Cup qualifying showdown in Cincinnati.
The US head into Friday’s game buoyed by back-to-back wins over Mexico in 2021 — a thrilling 3-2 victory in the CONCACAF Nations League final in June followed by a 1-0 triumph in the Gold Cup final in August.
A third win over Mexico would keep US coach Gregg Berhalter’s side firmly on track for a World Cup berth, four years after the Americans failed to qualify for the 2018 finals in Russia.
Mexico, meanwhile, can take a giant stride towards Qatar if they are able to conjure a repeat of their last-gasp qualifying victory over the Americans in 2016.
After six rounds of fixtures in CONCACAF’s eight-team final round of qualifying, Mexico lead the standings with 14 points from six games.
The USA are three points back with 11 points from six games after a shaky start to the qualifying campaign, which got back on track with a 2-1 home win over Costa Rica last month.
A US victory over Mexico on Friday would go some way towards stifling the criticism faced by Berhalter during the opening rounds of qualifiers.
“All the qualifiers that we play at home are amazing but this takes it to another level,” Berhalter told US media this week.
“It’s like amazing-plus. Because of the attention around the game, because of the amped-up crowd, all of this just turns it into a really special event. For us as a group, we’re relishing this opportunity.”
Berhalter has recalled Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic to the US squad, which travels to Kingston after Friday’s game to face Jamaica next Tuesday. Pulisic has barely played since suffering an ankle injury in the USA’s 4-1 win over Honduras in September.
– ‘CONCACAF Clasico’ –
Berhalter said the US would take a wait and see approach over Pulisic’s fitness before deciding how to use the 23-year-old forward.
“We’re not going to risk anything,” Berhalter said. “It’s about how he feels and depending on that, that will determine what role he plays in these two games.”
Mexico, meanwhile, are bracing for a hostile environment at Cincinnati’s 26,000-capacity TQL Stadium for what veteran defender Hector Moreno describes as the “Clasico of CONCACAF.”
“The feeling is always the same when it comes to a Mexico-US game,” Moreno said. “It is a game that generates a lot of expectations in both Mexico and the US.
“It’s true that it’s just three points in a qualifier, but for what it is, what it produces, what is felt, it doesn’t matter if it’s a qualifier, or a final, it’s always a tough game.
“For me, it’s the Clasico of CONCACAF, so it is played in that manner, with intensity, with passion.”
Elsewhere on Friday, Canada will be aiming to extend their unbeaten start to qualifying when they host Costa Rica in Edmonton.
The Canadians, who have only qualified for the World Cup once before, in 1986, are third in the standings with 10 points from six games after two wins and four draws.
The game marks a homecoming of sorts for Canada’s Alphonso Davies, the 21-year-old Bayern Munich star who grew up in Edmonton after immigrating to Canada with his family as refugees in 2005.
“Ever since I left Edmonton, this is the first time I’ll be training, playing in front of the city,” Davies said this week.
It is the first of a two-game home stand for Canada, who also face leaders Mexico in Edmonton next Tuesday.
Canada’s players are hoping the chilly weather in Edmonton may work in their favor. Temperatures around kick-off on Friday are expected to be hovering around zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit).
“I don’t think any players from Costa Rica and Mexico have experienced the weather we will see in Edmonton,” Canada midfielder Jonathan Osorio told the Edmonton Sun newspaper.