For the U.S. men's national team, there are all other games and then there's Mexico. Regardless of the stakes or locale, matches between the U.S. and El Tri are something entirely different than any other match the USMNT can play.
And, because of that fact, Friday's clash between Concacaf's fiercest rivals is anything but a friendly. Sure, the match doesn't count for much and of course there's a long way to go before the 2022 World Cup kicks off, but it is a match with some meaning regardless.
It comes just two months after the U.S. fell 1-0 to El Tri in a tightly contested Gold Cup finale, a match where Gregg Berhalter's side saw the wheels fall off after the hour mark. Friday's clash doesn't provide a chance for revenge or anything like it, but it does provide a measuring stick. The two teams that take the field on Friday will be closer to full strength than those that collided in July, and that makes the meeting all the more interesting with the Nations League and, ultimately, World Cup qualifying edging closer.
To combat an El Tri team that now features the likes of Hirving Lozano, Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez and Hector Herrera, Berhalter will almost certainly call upon a strong lineup. There are obviously some players to manage with a friendly with Uruguay on the horizon, but this is Mexico, and that makes it all hands on deck.
Ahead of Friday's clash, Goal has three projections for how the USMNT may look from the opening whistle against El Tri. Curious about the Mexico's squad? Click here to see the potential XI. Click back an hour before the game to see what the managers have decided to put on the field.
Most likely XI
Let's start with the obvious. Zack Steffen will almost certainly get the nod in goal as the Fortuna Dusseldorf loanee continues to gain experience as the USMNT's No. 1. Those reps are vital for a player that is unquestionably the USMNT starter at the moment and, with Yahoo Sports reporting that Steffen will jet back to Germany following Friday's match, he's a safe bet to start against El Tri once again.
Ahead of him, he'll have the benefit of a duo that may just be the USMNT's best possible defensive pairing. Aaron Long's rise has been much-discussed, as the former USL central midfielder has blossomed into the team's most consistent center back. Beside him, Berhalter will finally have the ability to call on John Brooks, an actual game-changer at the international level, after the Wolfsburg defender missed out on the Gold Cup. The fullback pool remains somewhat of a question mark, but Sergino Dest is an interesting case with the Netherlands looking to steal him away.
With Christian Pulisic moving into a wide role, Weston McKennie remains in one of the two dual 10 positions alongside Cristian Roldan, while Alfredo Morales gets another chance to feature after an extended absence from the national team. With Pulisic on one side, Tyler Boyd can slot in at the other wing position, having started somewhat strong for Besiktas after joining the Turkish giants this summer.
That leaves Josh Sargent up top. The teenager scored an absolute stunner for Werder Bremen just last week and appears to be the forward of the future. Starting against Mexico would be an invaluable experience for the young striker, who could struggle as he takes a major step up in competition.
Berhalter has been criticized for some perceived favoritism, but one player that has no doubt shown well in recent USMNT appearances is Gyasi Zardes. Say what you want about the Columbus Crew forward, who has admittedly been less than stellar since the Gold Cup, but Zardes did well for himself during this summer's tournament. Starting Zardes saves Sargent for a hometown appearance in St. Louis for the Uruguay friendly while giving the USMNT a more experienced player atop the field.
Joining Zardes in the attack would be another veteran in Jordan Morris, who has stepped up for the Seattle Sounders in recent weeks. Morris' stock has certainly fallen in the past few years, but his recent performances have shown that he's still a player that can finish and can beat a player with pace time and time again. Many would like to see more of Boyd to see what he offers, but Morris is likely the safer pick.
Without Michael Bradley in the squad, Wil Trapp is the lone true No. 6 in the team. The Crew midfielder has been criticized plenty with many questioning if he's up to this level, and a clash with El Tri could be another big litmus test for him. Mexico's midfielders will almost certainly win the day, but Trapp could provide a steadying presence that prevents mistakes against a talented El Tri squad.
Instead of throwing the younger fullbacks to the wolves, Berhalter could rely on a steady presence in Tim Ream, who has been fantastic for Fulham to start the Championship season. Nick Lima, meanwhile, is a candidate to start on the other side, having shown well in Berhalter's first few matches in charge.
Play the kids
Unleashing a talented group of youngsters against your biggest rival is a big ask, but there's no better situation to truly test a youngster's mettle than against El Tri.
It may not necessarily be the lineup Berhalter starts with, but it could be one we see at some point when it comes time to get the youngsters on the field. Reggie Cannon has shown well for himself so far, but this should present an all-new test for the FC Dallas youngster with the likes of Hirving Lozano on the other side.
The same would be said of Miles Robinson in defense. The Atlanta United defender has perhaps been the best in MLS so far this season, and his first cap could really see him thrown into the fire. Playing him next to a veteran like Brooks would be wise when and if he does get into Friday's match.
In the midfield, Paxton Pomykal has emerged as American soccer Twitter's darling over the past several months thanks to his ability on the ball. The FC Dallas product has talent, no doubt, but keeping up with the pace that will surely be on display in a match against Mexico would be a major challenge.
Adding in newer faces like Sargent and Boyd in the attack, this lineup would be young, but one that could offer a glimpse of future battles between the two CONCACAF titans.