The United States puts its three-match World Cup qualifying unbeaten run on the line Sunday when it visits a Mexican team that hasn’t lost any of its 11 qualifiers this World Cup cycle.
The Americans have never won a qualifying match in Mexico’s famed Azteca Stadium, going 0-13-2 overall at the storied venue that sits more than 7,000 feet above sea level in Mexico City.
But after a 2-1 home loss to Mexico to begin the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, the arrival of new coach Bruce Arena and influence of teenage sensation Christian Pulisic have steadied things.
The U.S. team (2-2-1, 7 pts) has outscored opponents 9-1 over three qualifiers (2-0-1) since Arena took over for Jurgen Klinsmann, moving back into third place in the field of six.
The 18-year-old Pulisic, who plays for German giants Borussia Dortmund, has scored three of his five goals qualifying goals in that stretch, including both in Thursday’s 2-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago.
“I just think he’s a natural. He sees the game very well. He has good instincts on getting in good spots, especially his running off the ball, which is exceptional,” Arena said of Pulisic on mlssoccer.com. “As he gets a little bit better, and gets a little more experience, his ability to be a playmaker will improve. He’s certainly exceptional.”
Whether Pulisic’s individual brilliance can make the difference between this and previous trips to Azteca is unclear.
Unlike four years ago, when the Americans drew 0-0 against a team that ultimately finished fourth in the region, Mexico (4-0-1, 13 pts) is cruising under coach Juan Carlos Osorio.
Raul Jimenez and Hirving Lozano each scored their second goals of the qualifying cycle in a 3-0 home win over Honduras on Thursday.
And with Osorio routinely rotating his deep roster, there’s no reason to think the hosts can’t absorb the expected absences of contributors Miguel Layun, Andres Guardado and Rafa Marquez.
Those omissions come as Mexico is balancing qualifying with an impending trip to the Confederations Cup in Russia.
That’s the main reason the teams agreed to play two days earlier than the other four teams in the region, a factor that could bring Arena to also make multiple lineup changes.
“I think we have to see how our players recover,” he said on mlssoccer.com on Thursday. “We have a sense of where guys will be after this game tonight and realize we’ll need some new bodies on the field on Sunday. We’ve been training that way for the last week to 10 days. We have that plan in place.”