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Zack Steffen will start, but Christian Pulisic won’t in what could be the last great U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier

"This is the date you’re circling," U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter said of the last big home qualifier in the rivalry before the nations co-host the World Cup.

Downingtown's Zack Steffen will start in goal for the U.S. men's soccer team in its big rivalry game against Mexico.
Downingtown's Zack Steffen will start in goal for the U.S. men's soccer team in its big rivalry game against Mexico.Read moreJack Dempsey / AP

CINCINNATI — In the standings, every World Cup qualifying game counts the same: three points for a win, one for a tie, none for a loss.

But in hearts and minds across American soccer, one game counts just a little more: the home game against Mexico. And now, five years and a day since the last one, it’s that time again.

“I think given what’s on the line, you know — a ticket to the World Cup — it just remains a massive fixture,” U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter said. “It’s a date that U.S. soccer fans put down on their calendar and they can’t wait for it. … This is the date you’re circling, and you can’t wait to get in the stadium and see this game because you know you can get behind your team against their biggest rival with the World Cup on the line.”

The news of the day was Berhalter’s announcement that Downingtown’s Zack Steffen will start in goal, and Hershey’s Christian Pulisic will not start in the attack. Pulisic has only just returned to action with his club team, England’s Chelsea, after being sidelined for nearly two months with an ankle injury suffered during the U.S.’ Sept. 8 World Cup qualifying win at Honduras.

» READ MORE: Christian Pulisic returns to USMNT for World Cup qualifiers vs. Mexico and Jamaica, but Sergiño Dest and Gio Reyna are out injured

“Common sense is going to tell us you can’t start a guy in a game like this when he’s only been training for four days and he’s been out for two months,” Berhalter said. “Hopefully, he’ll get some playing time; we’ll put him on the field and he can make an impact and help us get the result that we want. … He will be ready to play; he won’t start the game.”

That opens the door for Medford’s Brenden Aaronson to start in Pulisic’s spot, the left wing of Berhalter’s preferred 4-3-3 formation.

As for why Steffen will start over Matt Turner, Berhalter said, “There’s very little separating them at this stage, and we could have just as easily went with Matt. But we decided to play Zack.”

» READ MORE: Brenden Aaronson’s rocket ride to stardom hits its highest point yet ahead of the USMNT’s biggest game

In the 20 years since the U.S. turned the series on its head with its first 2-0 win over Mexico at Columbus’ old Crew Stadium, the matchup has grown into not just the most famous clash in North and Central America, but one of the great national team soccer spectacles on the planet.

There have been four more U.S.-Mexico qualifiers in Columbus since the first, all 2-0 U.S. wins until El Tri finally snapped the streak in 2016 with a 2-1 win.

The end of the Columbus streak is part of why the U.S. Soccer Federation moved this game elsewhere in Ohio. That FC Cincinnati’s new TQL Stadium has around 6,000 more seats than the Columbus Crew’s new Field is likely another part, because it will put more money in the governing body’s bank accounts after the pandemic shutdown.

But money isn’t the only consideration here, even with sky-high ticket prices. TQL Stadium’s 26,000-seat capacity is still small enough for U.S. Soccer to control who gets those tickets. That helps produce a pro-American crowd, instead of the sea of Mexican green that supports this country’s most popular men’s soccer team whenever the team plays in the United States.

Why keep this game in Ohio instead of going to other soccer hotbeds? A report on the subject by Yahoo! Sports this week noted that Columbus and Cincinnati have the smallest Mexican immigrant populations of the 22 U.S. markets with MLS teams.

But Mexico isn’t the only team whose fans can outnumber U.S. fans on American soil. Berhalter witnessed it when the U.S. played Costa Rica in northern New Jersey in 2016, and when he played against Guatemala and Honduras in Washington in the early 2000s.

“We take pride in having Latino fans, and that’s something that’s important to us, and we hope that in the future, guys like Ricardo Pepi [a son of Mexican immigrants] will help us get more Latino fans,” he said. “When you’re talking about a World Cup qualifier, it’s really important to have a pro-U.S. crowd, and whether that’s Latinos in the stands or not, we want a pro-U.S. crowd. And it’s not always easy to ensure that. … It’s not about who you are, it’s about who you support.”

» READ MORE: If you don’t know about U.S. men’s soccer rising star Ricardo Pepi yet, it’s time to pay attention

The excitement level is as high as ever, amplified by the prime-time lights of a kickoff at just after 9 p.m. Eastern time (ESPN2, ESPN+, Univision 65 and TUDN). But it’s tinged with a bit of melancholy.

Because the U.S., Mexico, and Canada are cohosting the 2026 men’s World Cup, they’re all but assured of getting automatic berths in the field. And with the tournament expanding to 48 teams at that point, enough teams from Concacaf will qualify that the regional governing body won’t be able to cap off its qualifying campaign with the round-robin slugfest that has been tradition since 1997.

On top of that, when the U.S. and Mexico meet at Mexico City’s famed Estadio Azteca on March 24, they might have already booked their tickets to Qatar — or at least be on the verge of it.

So for people who’ve been around this sport and this rivalry for a long time, this game will mean even more than usual. And if you’re new to it, sit back and enjoy one of the greatest soccer spectacles in which any American team takes part.

» READ MORE: Christian Pulisic helped make the USMNT’s Concacaf Nations League win this summer an epic chapter in the U.S.-Mexico rivalry