USMNT plays Mexico at Azteca Thursday, hosts Panama Sunday, travels to Costa Rica on March 30

By Official Florida FC

This week will be the biggest in the international football career of Gregg Berhalter and the two dozen players he trusts to represent the United States men’s national team.

The 2022 World Cup is within sight.

Seeing and feeling are two different sensations, a fact the USMNT would be wise to remember as it plays in a pair of venues where it has never won, and hosts a Panama team that has already beaten them once this qualifying cycle.

The Panama match will be played at Orlando’s Exploria Stadium on Sunday night. The Americans are 4-0-0 at the home of the Orlando Pride and Orlando City. However, Sunday’s match will be the biggest international match Central Florida has hosted since the 1994 World Cup.

Before the Americans can begin to think about hosting Los Canaleros, they must first deal with El Tri.

Estadio Azteca is not the fortress it once was. Mexico used a late goal to beat a lackluster Jamaican side, a shaky penalty to beat Panama and couldn’t score against a creaking Costa Rican team playing for the third time in seven days at altitude are not the type of results that scream intimidating.

But, this is Mexico and the United States. As patchy as El Tri’s home form has been, the American’s penchant for starting games slowly, combined with its injury issues means a historic win does not appear likely.

This current iteration of El Tri may be sputtering a home. And, its true that the USMNT has beaten their rival in each of the last three meetings. But, there is a difference between the Concacaf Nations League, the Gold Cup and playing a competitive match in Mexico City.

History is one thing. The roster is another.

Weston McKennie has a broken foot. Brenden Aaronson has a sprained ligament in his knee. Sergino Dest is recovering from a hamstring injury. Those three are starters when healthy. Goalkeeper Matt Turner also was not included in the squad because of a knee injury.

Turner may not be a certified starter like McKennie, Dest and Aaronson; but, he has posted four clean sheets in eight World Cup qualifying matches. While, he could have played better in the Americans’ 2-0 loss to Canada in January, no one in red, white and blue covered themselves in glory on that ghoulishly cold afternoon in Hamilton, Ontario.

Most concerning is the American midfield.

Tyler Adams is one yellow card away from a suspension, Gianluca Busio was anonymous for an hour the last time he started an international match away from home, neither Cristian Roldan nor Luca de la Torre has started a World Cup qualifier and Yunus Musah is a teenager. Musah may be a rapidly developing teenager who has played 1,000 minutes in La Liga this season, but is still 19.

Better midfields than this have gone to Mexico City and returned humbled.

This is not a time for moral victories and lessons through losses. Because the USMNT has dropped points to El Salvador, and struggled to score against everyone not named Honduras, the program needs points from places, or opponents where they have not been forthcoming.

Mexico is 6-0-3 against the Americans in World Cup qualifying. The USMNT record is worse against Costa Rica. The Americans are 0-9 and been outscored 23-6.

Failing to win in either Mexico City or San Jose would not be as shocking as the setback against Trinidad and Tobago that eliminated the U.S. from the 2018 World Cup. But, it makes the home match all the more important.

Sunday will not be the first time the USMNT has played Panama in its penultimate World Cup qualifier at Orlando’s Exploria Stadium. The program’s 4-0 win in October 2017 seems like eons ago. All but two of the players who appeared for the USMNT back then have been put out to pasture.

Christian Pulisic enters this three-game stretch in a solid run of form for both club and country. We should have learned by now that relying exclusively on Pulisic to will the Americans to victory is not a wise tactic.

Is Pulisic capable of taking a game over? Undoubtedly.

But, a team that started Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and a peak Ricardo Clark as its four-man midfield in support of an in-form Charlie Davies and Brian Ching can lose at the Azteca, then Pulisic alone should not be relied upon to lift the Americans to the three points they desperately need.

The USMNT has escaped the Azteca with a draw in its last two visits during World Cup qualifying. The result was there in both 2013 and 2017, but the team was considerably outplayed in both circumstances.

Berhalter’s surprising selections, quizzical tactics and the team’s inability to feast on minnows has left the USMNT in a position that its leadership promised would not be the case after the Collapse in Couva.

Anything less than qualification for Qatar has been a waste of everyone’s time.

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