It all comes down to this.
One of the most critical stretches in US men’s national team history gets underway on Thursday, as the Yanks travel to Estadio Azteca for a mammoth Concacaf World Cup qualifier against arch-rival Mexico.
Heading into the final three matches of the Octagonal campaign, the USMNT are in position to secure an automatic berth for Qatar 2022 that comes with a top-three finish, currently residing second on the table with 21 points from 11 matches. But the job is anything but finished, with Mexico only below them on goal differential (equal on points).
Here’s everything you need to know ahead of Thursday’s kickoff.
As much pressure as the US are under this window, Mexico are in much the same situation. Historically Concacaf’s most dominant team, El Tri have not looked like the top dog to this point in qualifying, ceding that distinction to a Canada squad that’s the only team in the region entering the final window with a spot almost assuredly clinched.
This El Tri side might be more vulnerable than years past, but it also makes them a desperate opponent. Expect head coach Tata Martino to have his players flying from the opening whistle to try and secure a pivotal three points.
From an MLS point of view, watch for LA Galaxy right back Julian Araujo possibly making his second WCQ appearance this year. Future Houston Dynamo FC midfielder HÃ©ctor Herrera is in the squad, too.
The stakes could hardly be higher for the USMNT as Octagonal play resumes, with a World Cup berth within reach, but far from assured. They’ll enter one of the most difficult away matches in Concacaf at the Azteca, against a Mexico side that’s level on them with points on the table, and only in third place behind them by virtue of the goal differential tiebreaker.
The USMNT have never won a WCQ at the Azteca, but if they can buck that trend here and pull out a result, the first step in their qualification mission would be considered complete. One silver lining is that the USMNT have won three straight against their arch-rival, finals in the Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup, as well as 2-0 home leg in qualifying.
Exactly how head coach Gregg Berhalter chooses to manage his lineup for the fixture becomes the prevailing question â€“ knowing games vs. Panama (March 27, home) and Costa Rica (March 30, away) loom. Making matters even more complicated for the coach, several key contributors are out injured, including midfielder Weston McKennie, attacker Brenden Aaronson and fullback SergiÃ±o Dest.
Watch Mexico vs USA and Costa Rica vs Canada with DaMarcus Beasley and the crew from Extratime
It all comes down to this.