USMNT to take on nemesis Mexico in high-pressure Nations League semifinal

PARADISE, Nevada – If anyone needed a reminder of the sky-high stakes involved when the U.S. men’s national team meets chief nemesis Mexico in Thursday night’s CONCACAF Nations League semifinal a short walk from the Las Vegas strip, listen to under fire El Tri coach Diego Cocca.

Cocca has only been at Mexico’s helm since February. But should his team lose Thursday’s game to its biggest rival, it’s possible that Cocca could be fired before El Tri faces either Canada or Panama in Sunday’s third-place match.

“I know the chair that I sit in,” Cocca, who has yet to lose in five outings (2W-3T-0L) so far with El Tri, told reporters during Wednesday’s pre-match press conference. “I know there are more fans who want me gone than want me to stay.”

That’s how important Thursday’s contest is south of the border, and with good reason: Mexico hasn’t beaten the Americans in five tries since their last win in 2019. The foes most recently played to a 1-1 draw in April.

That was a friendly, though, and one in which both squads were missing most of their European-based stars. The big names are here for this one: Edson Álvarez and Guillermo Ochoa for El Tri, Christian Pulisic and new striker Folarin Balogun for the hosts. The chance to play for a trophy is on the line. The atmosphere inside Allegiant Stadium, which will be packed mostly by those supporting Mexico, promises to be electric.

“As professionals, these are the type of games we all want to play in, we all want to be part of,” interim U.S. coach B.J. Callaghan said Wednesday. “We have a great respect for Mexico and look forward to competing against them tomorrow night.”

Callaghan might not be feeling the same sort of pressure as Cocca; after the CONCACAF Gold Cup ends next month, the 2022 World Cup assistant will step aside for whoever U.S. Soccer names to lead the USMNT for the 2026 event, which will be co-hosted by North American neighbors U.S., Mexico and Canada. But there’s still plenty on the line for the U.S. beyond defending the Nations League title.

In the absence of World Cup qualifying matches for those countries over the next three years (each host nation is awarded an automatic berth) stern tests like Thursday’s take on an added significance.

“As we look down the line to 2026,” Callaghan said, “Games like this – of high intensity, high stakes, rivalry-type, knockout-type games — these are the moments that we want to prove to ourselves that we can handle.”

And both teams have plenty to prove. Mexico is just six months removed from its worst World Cup performance in decades. Pulisic and his 12 teammates who helped the U.S. reach the knockout stage at Qatar 2022 are still kicking themselves for losing to the Netherlands 3-1 in the round of 16. This as close to a second chance as they’ll get for a while, at least until next summer’s Copa America, which will also be held stateside. As many as eight starters from that one could be also be in the U.S. lineup on Thursday.

Callaghan wouldn’t say if Balogun will play from the beginning in his first match since FIFA approved his one-time switch from England. But he was effusive when asked about center back Chris Richards, who, with veteran Tim Ream unavailable because of a broken arm, is competing with Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman for a spot in the heart of the American backline. Richards missed the World Cup because of an injury.

“Chris has had a really good 10 days here,” Callaghan said. “He brings a sense of calm into the group on the field. He’s really matured from a young player into a player who I think is ready to make the next step and have a big impact for us.”

Like the decision on Balogun, it’s a big call to make for a temporary manager. As much as Cocca is feeling the heat, at least Mexico has a full-time leader. It isn’t at all ideal that a match of this magnitude comes while the USMNT is between coaches. Callaghan has only been in the top job for two weeks; he replaced another interim manager, Anthony Hudson, who left to take over Qatari club Al-Markhiya SC. As he did when he was promoted, he insisted Wednesday that the transition has been seamless.

“I’ve been here for four-and-a-half years and am fortunate to have most of the same staff and most of the same players,” Callaghan said. “So I think it’s been pretty status quo and operating as normal.”

We’ll see soon enough. There’s nothing normal about U.S.-Mexico matches, and certainly not this one, when there has to be a winner and a loser, when misery or euphoria are the only possible outcomes. 

Not when, for both of these great rivals, there’s this much on the line.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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