The United States Men’s National Team will play their most important match in months later this evening, and their best player won’t be there.
When kickoff begins against Mexico at 8:00 PM (EST) in a sold out MAPFRE Stadium, forward Clint Dempsey will be watching home, more than 2,000 miles away.
Dempsey has been out of competitive soccer for nearly three months, having been diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat this past August. The Seattle Sounders striker has returned to training, but has still yet to be cleared for game time action.
The United States have performed well in Dempsey’s absence thus far, notching shutout victories against Saint Vincent & the Grenadines, Trinidad & Tobago, and Cuba, but this upcoming match is a completely different animal.
Mexico is, without a doubt, the toughest competition the United States will face since drawing Colombia in the Copa América third place match. And although Mexico is not quite on the level of the Colombians, they still have the firepower necessary to defeat the Stars and Stripes on their home soil.
Especially without the United States’ all-time leading goal scorer.
In Dempsey’s absence, who thrived in the 4-3-3 during the Copa América this summer, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has shifted focus to a two striker formation: the 4-3-1-2. Strikers Jozy Altidore (Toronto F.C.) and Bobby Wood (Hamburger SV) will likely be the ones to fill the hole left by Dempsey.
Altidore, after experiencing a somewhat slow start to his MLS career, has caught fire of late. The ex-Sunderland striker has scored 12 goals in his last 15 matches, including two against New York City F.C. in the MLS Playoffs.
Likewise, Bobby Wood, in hist first season with Bundesliga side Hamburger SV, has performed admirably. Wood has scored two goals in his last two games in Germany, showing great pace to go along with a knack for goal.
With the two striker formation, Wood and Altidore will have to work together seamlessly to find the goals against Mexico. Without Dempsey, the United States lose creativity.
Dempsey was able to operate as a lone striker in Jurgen Klinsmann’s offense, providing avenues of spaces on the wings for the other forwards. Now, with Altidore and Wood up top, the United States will have to rely more on the midfield play of Michael Bradley and company.
That may spell bad news for the U.S.
Michael Bradley, when playing against inferior opponents, is a joy to watch. Look no further than the United States’ victories against Saint Vincent & the Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago. When given time and space, Bradley can continually make the pin point pass to put attackers – Altidore and Wood – through on goal.
But once the competition stiffens, and Bradley is closed down upon with greater speed, the holding midfielder struggles.
Against Colombia and Argentina in the Copa América, Bradley simply couldn’t maintain possession, and the United States suffered. In games against “greater competition” this year – Colombia and Argentina, the United States have failed to score a single goal.
And with Dempsey out against Mexico tonight, it will be paramount that Michael Bradley maintains his composure against an engine-like Mexican midfield. Players like Hector Herrera and Andres Guardado never stop running; they will definitely look to disrupt Bradley in the midfield.
The good news for the U.S., however, is that this game will be played in the fortress of MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Since 2001, the United States, when playing in MAPFRE Stadium, have beaten Mexico four straight times – all 2-0 victories.
The Mexicans may have the advantage on paper, but the United States have the American Outlaws.
In what should be a match to remember, it will be up to Altidore and Wood to find the goals. The Dempsey era in United States soccer is all but over, it’s now time for someone else to step up.
Kickoff tonight is scheduled for 8:00 PM (EST) and will be televised on Fox Sports 1.