Showdown in Columbus: U.S. men’s soccer team faces rival Mexico in Cup qualifier Friday night

U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann calls it the “Columbus tradition.”
U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann calls it the “Columbus tradition.” AP

The last time the U.S. men’s national soccer team faced familiar rival Mexico, El Tri beat the red, white and blue 3-2 in the Rose Bowl.

But the U.S. side possesses a special “Dos a Cero” winning streak in Columbus, Ohio, the site of Friday night’s World Cup qualifying clash (7:45 p.m., Fox Sports 1 and Univision Deportes) and considered the “spiritual home” of U.S. soccer since 2001, when the U.S. won “La Guerra Fria” in frigid temperatures. The Americans have defeated Mexico four times at MAPFRE Stadium, each by the score of 2-0. It’s one of the few venues in the country where Mexican fans are outnumbered.

U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann calls it the “Columbus tradition.” Keeping that tradition intact is only one stake in the critical match. Ideally, the U.S. collects three points as the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying -- known as “The Hex” -- begins with six teams -- Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico and the U.S. -- vying for three automatic spots (the fourth-place team will face an inter-confederation playoff). Each team will play 10 games over the next 11 months.

How the U.S. performs in Friday’s match and at Costa Rica on Tuesday night will provide a barometer for Klinsmann as he evaluates his lineup and roster choices less than two years out from the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where a semifinal berth is Klinsmann’s stated goal.

“This is the job of coaches between two World Cups, to build a new cycle, to build a new group that is full of energy, and I think we’re on the right path,” Klinsmann said. “But now starts the Hex with such a big game, and we’re going to be put on our toes from the first second on.”

And pressure continues to build on Klinsmann, who has managed to stay a step ahead of the naysayers. Has he upgraded the talent on the national team? Has he installed a more skillful style? Has he enhanced soccer culture in his adopted home?

“The former Germany national team boss was appointed on the basis that he would progress the U.S. as a footballing country, and yet in recent times, there is a consensus that they have in fact regressed in that respect,” writes Bleacher Report guest columnist Graham Ruthven. “It's for this reason that every game under Klinsmann is treated as much more than just a result and three points. It is the subject of extreme analysis.

“There can be no doubting Klinsmann's commitment to his job as USA coach. More than once he has been presented with a convenient jumping-off point, having been linked with numerous Premier League posts and even the England job. Yet he has never wavered on his faith in what he is doing stateside. Others have, though.”

Klinsmann is presiding over a transition in the post-Landon Donovan era as the U.S. seeks to cement a new identity. Goalkeeper Tim Howard, who will be challenged by Javier “Chicarito” Hernandez and Giovani dos Santos, has been playing well but is 37 years old. Clint Dempsey is out with an irregular heartbeat. Michael Bradley will be playing in his fourth World Cup qualifier against Mexico. Palm Beach County’s Jozy Altidore, who has finally put hamstring injuries behind him, leads the team with six goals in eight appearances in 2016.

John Brooks, Bobby Wood, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Christian Pulisic are among the emerging young stars. Geoff Cameron is out. Midfielder Jermaine Jones is back from a knee injury but not 100 percent fit.

“We’ll see if he can go 90 minutes, how far he can go,” Klinsmann said. “But just to have him with us means a lot ot us and makes us feel a lot more comfortable.”

Mexico, which leads the all-time series against the U.S. 33-18-14, has gone 12-1-2 since Juan Carlos Osorio took over as coach last October. Carlos Vela, back with the team after a year’s absence, will buttress Mexico’s attack while Rafa Marquez hopes to end the Columbus Curse in his fourth appearance in a qualifier at the stadium.