At the start of the year, the clearest goal for the U.S. Men’s National Team was to lock up a spot at the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup. The road to Russia now has one final hurdle, and it’s a mouth-watering matchup with its biggest rival.
On Oct. 10, the United States and Mexico will meet in a do-or-die, one-match playoff at the legendary Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, with the winner taking CONCACAF’s spot at the World Cup warm-up competition.
While the U.S. has largely been successful against Mexico on home soil in the last 20 years, the task of facing a charged Mexican side at a giant venue like The Rose Bowl will serve up a new challenge. Four of the six largest crowds ever to watch the MNT play have watched a USA-Mexico match in southern California, and often with a heavy pro-Mexico tilt. That tide has turned in other venues – most notably Columbus Crew Stadium – and now the opportunity exists to make the Rose Bowl another example of the growing legion of U.S. supporters. After experiencing strong fan turnout during domestic matches throughout 2015, U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann stressed the importance of making sure American fans turn up for the team at the imperative playoff match.
“The support at the Rose Bowl for our team will be hugely, hugely important. There’s absolutely no doubt about it.”
“Playing Mexico in our own country is obviously difficult because of all the Mexicans living here and supporting their team," Klinsmann said. "But at the same time our fans have shown that they show up wherever we go all over the world and create an amazing atmosphere. Anybody who has been to a USA-Mexico game in Columbus knows that our fans make the stadium rock. It’s an awesome environment, and we are looking forward to huge support from our fans at The Rose Bowl.”
The Olympic Movement Calls
The fan support for the playoff against Mexico will only be part of the difficult equation that Klinsmann and his staff will look to solve leading into the busy month of October. Along with the playoff, the U-23 USMNT will also attempt to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro from Oct. 1-13. Qualifying takes place in four cities throughout the United States: Los Angeles, Kansas City, Denver and Salt Lake City.
U.S. MNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann (right) and his staff including U-23 MNT head coach Andi Herzog (center) have the unenviable task of choosing the rosters for critical qualifying matches for the USA's top two Men's teams.
Hoping for redemption after missing out on the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the U.S. will have to navigate a group featuring Canada, Cuba and Panama and then win a semifinal matchup to guarantee qualification to next year’s Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro.
With the Senior Team and the U-23s playing critical matches simultaneously and with some overlap between players eligible for the two sides, managing both rosters will prove a vital task for Klinsmann and U-23 manager Andi Herzog.
“It will be a big challenge for us to organize both rosters for the Olympic qualification, but also for the all-decisive playoff against Mexico,” Klinsmann said. “Obviously we want both. We want to be in Rio with the Olympic team and we want to be in Russia in 2017 for the Confederations Cup.”
The Olympic qualifying tournament rules provide for a 20-player roster that must include three goalkeepers. While FIFA rules do not require the release of youth national team players, there is an international fixture date window that opens Oct. 5 and is typically respected by clubs around the world. Still, with teams only being able to select 17 field players and the matches kicking off on Oct. 1, cooperation with the clubs on the release of players will be critical.
“We will manage it and obviously we need help. We need help from the clubs overseas and we need help from the clubs here in MLS, especially for the Olympic team."
"The Olympic qualifiers start outside of the FIFA window [which begins Oct. 5, four days after the start of the tournament] and we badly need those players to qualify for Rio de Janeiro. Hopefully we get the support from all the clubs to get the players in. It’s going to be an extremely busy time period, we just hope we get all the players on board and get the job done.”
Players Rising to the Occasion
It’s not very often that qualification for any international tournament is left up to just a one-match playoff, like is the case for October’s match against Mexico.
The most recent time the U.S. MNT has experienced a similar circumstance came in 1976, when the U.S. fell 3-0 to Canada in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in a match to determine who would take part in the 1977 CONCACAF Championships, which then served as the region’s qualifying process for the 1978 FIFA World Cup.
The sparse, neutral crowd in the Haitian capital that day will differ greatly from what the team will expect against Mexico in Pasadena. As a coach who preaches that pressure situations are the only way to grow, the players couldn’t ask for a better opportunity than the cauldron of a USA-Mexico encounter with so much at stake.
“I think it’s a huge opportunity to play a game like this for the players to prove a point and to prove their quality,” he said. “This is what you dream about. You dream about playing games in front of 80-90,000 fans. I wouldn’t mind playing this game at Azteca with over 100,000 fans. I would be totally happy to go down there and play there. These are the games where players can show how good they are. There’s nowhere to hide anymore. It’s about the truth. How good you are? I think you should take it as an open invitation and really go out there and show your best game ever.”