The United States women's national team and Mexico will face off in group-stage action at the CONCACAF W Championship on Monday. While the U.S. has already clinched a semifinal spot (and a place at the 2023 World Cup), Mexico has slim hopes after two losses to kick off the tournament in Monterrey, Mexico.
Some of the luster of this highly anticipated showdown has now worn off, but it's hard to discount anything in a rivalry. Ahead of the clash at Estadio Universitario, here are three top questions to keep an eye on:
Huerta's case to be on World Cup squad
The CONCACAF W Championship is a microcosm of the delicate balancing task Vlatko Andonovski took on upon being named head coach of the United States in October 2019: identify and develop the core of the next generation without sacrificing results.
Such is often the task of a national team manager, but the spotlight is more intense for the two-time defending World Cup champions and perennial top-ranked side. Andonovski has been explicit at this tournament about the need to see new players in pressure-filled environments like a World Cup qualifying game. Critically, he has given them a leash to make mistakes without feeling like they will lose their roles.
Last week's 5-0 group-stage win over Jamaica brought big opportunities for several players looking to prove they can handle the moment. Sophia Smith was electric on the right flank, scoring twice, including a delightful opener with the outside of her foot.
Right fullback Sofia Huerta might have improved her stock the most, however. While Smith is already part of Andonovski's preferred XI, Huerta is trying to earn more looks and has quickly improved in the fullback role, and she might be the team's best crosser with time on the ball.
Officially, Huerta tallied only one assist against Jamaica, but most of the team's best play came down that right side, and Huerta's cross to Mallory Pugh in the 27th minute -- a would-be goal but for Pugh being a step offside -- was picture perfect.
Given the U.S.'s ongoing needs for fullbacks, it's hard not to see Huerta on a 23-player World Cup roster if she continues this form. -- Jeff Kassouf
Is there a settled starting XI for Andonovski?
The reality of these compact tournaments, and the way the U.S. typically operates within them -- certainly now, under Andonovski, but previously under Jill Ellis at times as well -- is that the lineups for each of the group-stage matches are determined before the tournament begins.
The U.S. has the "good type" of problem in being able to safely assume maximum points in the group stage no matter who it rolls out, given the abundance of talent within the program. Rotation becomes partly about the player vetting and partly about saving legs for the knockout stage.
That is especially true in the relentless Monterrey heat at this tournament, and it's an approach Ellis even took at the 2019 World Cup, rotating heavily in the second match against Chile. So it's likely that Monday's lineup was already set at least a week ago, barring any fitness or injury concerns.
Andonovski was noncommittal about who his starting goalkeeper would be when asked after Thursday's match, but he had previously indicated that the starting XI against Haiti in the 1-0 opener would be the one utilized the most. That XI had the less-experienced Casey Murphy in goal, and she made at least one game-changing save in the first half.
One area to watch will be whether Naomi Girma gets further evaluation at center back. Girma, even as a first-year professional with San Diego Wave FC, is the best attack-minded center back the U.S. has in the pool right now, a player comfortable dribbling out of pressure even as the last defender and one also capable of breaking pressure with an accurate long ball. She did that Thursday, assisting on Smith's first goal.
There's a push-pull in these final group games when semifinal qualification (and in this case, a World Cup berth) is already clinched. There remains an important Olympics spot to earn, and only the winner is guaranteed a berth to Paris (second- and third-place teams will go to a playoff in 2023). Further rest could be helpful for starters who did not get it against Jamaica, but there is also a need to keep the starting group sharp. Expect a near-full-strength XI on Monday. -- Kassouf
Mexico needs a miracle. Will it get one?
Mexico hasn't had an ideal start to the W Championship. Two calamitous losses in their first two games of the group stage -- at the hands of Haiti and Jamaica -- means that El Tri Femenil will now need to defy the odds and defeat the heavily favored U.S. in order to keep their hopes alive for an invitation to a preliminary playoff competition for the 2023 World Cup.
Can they pull this off against an undefeated and daunting rival?
For Mexico manager Monica Vergara, her problems in the tournament so far stem more from a lack of a defined best XI than an actual lack of talented options. We've seen this in the two recent defeats that El Tri Femenil suffered through altered XIs and questionable spots on the bench for marquee names like Alicia Cervantes and Lizbeth Ovalle.
After hearing Vergara talk plenty in recent days about aiming to learn from mistakes, a place in the XI for top-performing attackers such as Cervantes and Ovalle would be an instant fix. In net, Vergara should consider benching Emily Alvarado, who has let in four goals in her past two appearances, and bring in former Sevilla goalkeeper Itzel Gonzalez between the sticks.
Perhaps more important than any roster fine-tuning will be the atmosphere at the Estadio Universitario on Monday. Along with fellow W Championship venue Estadio BBVA Bancomer across town, both stadiums have looked barren in the group stage, with little promotion or advertisements toward local fans who regularly pack both venues for Liga MX and Liga MX Femenil matches.
That said, there's no overlooking an official match between Mexico and the United States, especially when you consider what's on the line for El Tri Femenil. A boisterous and raucous atmosphere, at least just once in the tournament, might be the twist of fate that leads Mexico to a much-needed miracle.
The last time the United States faced its southern neighbors for a World Cup qualifier in Mexico? That ended in a 2-1 win for El Tri Femenil in 2010. -- Cesar Hernandez