There is a difference between needing and wanting.
For instance, the Under-23 U.S. Men’s National Team needs to beat its fierce rival on Wednesday in order to take first place. The team wants to do so by piecing together a better performance.
The U-23 USMNT is set to close out the group phase of its Concacaf Olympic Qualifying campaign on Wednesday night, and it will do so against none other than arch-nemesis and tournament host Mexico. The outlook for the Americans is straightforward: only a victory at the Estadio Jalisco in Guadalajara will be good enough to take Group A’s top spot. Anything less will result in a second-place finish, which still secures advancement to the crucial semifinals fixture but, theoretically at least, vs. a tougher opponent.
As such, prevailing vs. the Mexicans is crucial. The USMNT does not want to achieve that just any which way, though.
“We feel that we have not really gotten to reach our potential. We do not really feel like we have put together a full game that we are capable of,” said U-23 USMNT head coach Jason Kreis on a teleconference on Tuesday. “Now having said that, we definitely have put together moments in both of the first two games where we were really quite good and really playing to the level and the style that we want.
“The answer is: we want both. We want to play in a particular way and we believe that if we play in that particular way results will come. There is a clear mindset in this group that we need to continue to improve.”
⚽️ Goal! Jackson Yueill!
— Concacaf (@Concacaf) March 22, 2021
The Americans might prefer to play more proactively rather than be defensive-minded and scrape by, but they have largely struggled from the run of play through three of the four halves of soccer they have played in this competition. The good news is that the team is coming off its best 45 minutes of action, as the USMNT mauled the Dominican Republic to the tune of 4-0 on Sunday after scoring all of the goals after the 60th minute.
Of course, finding a way to perform well against an underdog is one thing. Doing it against arguably the tournament favorite, in its home, in what is sure to be a heated contest, is quite another. Never mind the fact that most if not all of Mexico’s players are in midseason form while the majority of the USMNT is still shaking off preseason rust.
“At the end of the day there is really no excuse,” said winger Jonathan Lewis. “The way I see it for our team is we have a challenge that is in front of us — a really, really strong Mexico team — but we know that we are just as talented so we have to find it in our inner selves to go out there and try to be mistake-free and try to work as hard as possible.
“I think that is the biggest key: just working as hard as possible, basically running until you cannot breathe and using every ounce of energy that we can because that is what it is going to take at the end of the day. Whether in midseason form, preseason form, or the end of the season, it is going to take every ounce of concentration, every ounce of energy to beat teams like Mexico and these quality teams that we are going to face in Concacaf and other tournaments.”
⚽️ Goal! 🇺🇸
— Concacaf (@Concacaf) March 22, 2021
The topic of the starting lineup will also be a big one here. Kreis fielded teams that were largely very different in the two victories, and just which combination of players he goes with in this table-topping fixture is unknown.
He has plenty to consider, too, ranging from form to fitness levels to the fact that the looming semifinals match on March 28 — not this one — will be what makes or break the Americans’ hopes of reaching the Olympics for the first time since 2008.
“I have been coaching a long time and I would tell you this is a unique situation,” said Kreis. “I can never remember having so many considerations going into one game, and you add into that just how short the timespan this is for us here and a limited roster. There are so many variables here to work with that we just have to make our best decision.”
The Americans are hoping their best decisions before and during the game lead to their best performance to date in the tournament. Yes, from a results standpoint the USMNT has been perfect until now, but stylistically from the run of play there has been much left to be desired.
That might make it all the more better then for the Americans that a clash with Mexico awaits. After all, it may not only be what they want but also what they need.
“We have qualified ourselves for the semifinal, which we know is the most important game to get to,” said Kreis. “Now we face a very, very good opponent in Mexico, a huge challenge, and I think a little bit of a measuring-stick opportunity for us to see how we compare to a very strong team.”