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USMNT coach Berhalter: We've discussed playing 'B' team vs. Mexico but we're aiming to win

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Will Berhalter play his strongest USMNT XI vs. Mexico or Panama? (2:26)

Herculez Gomez and Sebastian Salazar debate whether Gregg Berhalter will save his best USMNT XI for Panama. (2:26)

MEXICO CITY -- While United States coach Gregg Berhalter wasn't willing to divulge any details about the starting XI he'll use in Thursday's World Cup qualifier against Mexico, he downplayed the idea Wednesday that team is willing to play for a draw at the Estadio Azteca.

"We want to win all three games [in this window]," he said. "We're going to put a team on the field in Mexico that is going to try and win the game."

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Berhalter didn't dismiss the idea that the team could field a "B" squad, with the goal of staying fresh for Sunday's pivotal game against fourth-place Panama in Orlando. He acknowledged he took the idea to his staff and they debated its merits.

"I think it was an important exercise to do for us," he said. "We came out with our answer, and you'll see tomorrow. Certainly, there's no harm in looking at both sides of this thing."

The United States has never won a competitive match at the Azteca and is 0-3-3 all time in the venue in World Cup qualifying.

"Our record here is horrendous. The odds are against us getting something out of the game," Berhalter said. "We know that. We realize that. That's just how it is and we're focused on going in and being difficult to play against."

U.S. star attacker Christian Pulisic also wasn't willing to concede the Americans will be content not to chase three points.

"It would mean everything [to win at the Azteca]," he said. "We know it's not going to be easy. Of course, we've got the better of them in the last couple of games, but that means nothing coming into tomorrow's game. So we're going need to battle, we're going to need another top performance and continue to do the things that we have been doing in the past games against them.

"We're going to need an amazing performance to win again tomorrow."

The weight of the upcoming encounter hasn't been lost on Mexico manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino either, despite an attempt to minimize it after a 1-0 win over Panama during the previous qualifying window.

"Probably yes," Martino said when asked if the match vs. the United States will be the most important in his time with El Tri. "I think that the previous Panama game was very, very important [too], especially because it was the last of a three-game run. We had the urgent need to win it. I think it was the most important game in our management [of Mexico], and I think in this one, it has a similar element.

"If we achieve a victory tomorrow, it would almost bring us close to a World Cup," he added.

Whether Martino and his men have the unquestioned support of their fans, remains to be seen. In defiance of how Mexican soccer has been governed, sporadic online campaigns have pushed for the return of anti-gay chants that have previously resulted in punishments for the Mexican Football Federation by FIFA.

The Argentine manager was asked if he had any concerns about these chants ahead of Thursday's match.

"I already expressed myself," Martino said. "I've always said that I would like to see it [the Estadio Azteca] full with Mexican fans, cheering for their national team."

Following sanctions by FIFA for previous anti-gay chants from supporters last year, the FMF brought in new protocols that were given a test run with a limited attendance at the Estadio Azteca's two previous home qualifiers. Part of the new measures is to place a five-year ban on attendees who take part in the chant. With 50,000 expected at the next qualifier, Mexico will now attempt to fully roll out the protocol system.

The United States and Mexico enter the final round of CONCACAF qualifying tied with 21 points, behind first-place Canada (25 points). In the first meeting between the rivals during qualifying, the U.S. won 2-0 for its third straight victory in the series, including wins in the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup finals.

After the game against Panama, the U.S. will travel to fifth-place Costa Rica (16 points).

The top three teams in CONCACAF qualifying will receive an automatic place at the Qatar World Cup, with the fourth-place team needing to beat the OCEANIA champion in a one-match playoff in Qatar in June.

With the U.S. seeking to avoid the disaster of missing out on a second straight World Cup, Berhalter said he had left his staff no doubt as to what's at stake over the next three games.

"One thing I told the staff in our meeting as we started camp was this is probably the biggest week of our lives as professional coaches," he said. "And that's just honest. I've coached in Columbus and I've coached an MLS final and stuff like this, but this is bigger than that."

Later Wednesday, the U.S. squad announced the defender Reggie Cannon was held out of training due to an inconclusive COVID-19 test.

ESPN reporter Cesar Hernandez contributed to this report.