Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Qualifier preview: USA at Mexico

With apologies to Germany and Croatia and Honduras and Belarus and the other 10 sides playing, this is the biggest World Cup qualifying match of the eight being played on Wednesday.

The United States vs. Mexico at Estadio Azteca.

Not only is it critical to the course of World Cup qualifying in Concacaf, this game matches the two greatest rivals in the region. Whenever they play, even if it were in a "friendly" in an empty stadium, it is sure to be a match of high energy and high emotion.

Among the story lines for this one ...

--Mexico's panic. El Tri, as Mexicans refer to their team, is in trouble in Concacaf qualifying, and everyone in the country knows it would be a scandal if its team doesn't advance to South Africa. Mexico stands fourth in Concacaf qualifying standings; the top three in the group are assured berths in the 2010 World Cup; No. 4 goes into a home-and-home series with the No. 5 out of South America, which will be the hard way to get to South Africa. Mexico cannot (in its fans' minds) finish behind Costa Rica and Honduras as well as the hated Yanqis.

--America's drought. The U.S. has not won a match in Mexico in 23 tries and is 0-18-1 at Azteca. All it has to show for all those matches is a scoreless tie in 1997. American players very much want to erase that zero from the 0-22-1 south-of-the-border record.

--American revenge. Mexico just annihilated the U.S. 5-0 in the championship of the Gold Cup, the hemispheric championship. Granted, neither team was at full strength (the U.S. fielded a second team from front to back), but that sort of overwhelming result rankled in the States, and the Yanks will be keen to expunge the memory.

--American goals. The U.S. stands on 12 points halfway through qualifying. A road victory would be an enormous boost in the push to South Africa. In fact, were the Yanks to vault to 15 points, with Mexico stuck at 6, it would create a situation in which it would be difficult to envision the Americans not qualifying, even with four matches still to play.

--The Azteca Factor. Mexico City's big stadium is one of the most difficult venues in the world. (Mexico has lost a World Cup qualifier in Azteca only once, to Costa Rica in 2001.) Visitors must deal with altitude (7,200 feet, or 2,200 meters), severe air pollution, highly partisan crowds of 100,000-plus and, of course, a Mexico team that is convinced it cannot lose. Also, Mexican federation officials have added one more bit of gamesmanship to this one, scheduling kickoff for 3 p.m. (11 p.m. GMT), on a weekday, which can only be a hope that temperatures will be uncomfortably high for the oxygen-deprived visitors.

--Who is No. 1? Mexican fans are hard-wired to believe that El Tri is the elite team in the region. Even though the U.S. is 13-8-8 vs. Mexico since 1990. Even though the U.S. eliminated Mexico from the 2002 World Cup. Mexican fans -- and players -- need that Azteca victory fix to keep on believing. "They're a rival to be respected, but we know how they play," Mexico keeper Guillermo Ochoa said of the Americans. "Furthermore we're physically fitter and better players."

--International relations. The U.S. and Mexico have a long and complicated relationship, and for the most part the Yanqis have dominated Mexico economically and militarily, and that leads to antipathy south of the Rio Grande River, where the citizenry is convinced that America exploits and abuses Mexican immigrants (illegal or otherwise) to the States. That sort of collective animus is never far from the surface of the relationship.

The U.S., naturally, has recalled its best players. That includes Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard, Fulham midfielder Clint Dempsey, AC Milan defender Oguchi Onyewu and Landon Donovan, top scorer in U.S. soccer history and the most accomplished American in Major League Soccer, with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Mexico also will be close to full strength. Gifted young forwards Giovani dos Santos (Tottenham) and Carlos Vela (Arsenal) lead the expanding list of Mexicans who are succeeding overseas, which also includes defenders Ricardo Osorio (Stuttgart) and Rafael Marquez (Barcelona), though the latter is out with an injury. Cuauhtemoc Blanco has been called in, too, and the Chicago Fire midfielder often gives the Yanqis fits.

Mexico prefers to believe that it is back on track now that native son Javier Aguirre is back at coach, replacing the Swede Sven-Goran Ericksson.

Matches in this rivalry tend to look rather alike, especially over the past few decades, with Mexico pressing from kickoff and the U.S. looking to counterattack.

And the way these matches tend to finish is, if Mexico scores early, it can pull the Americans out of their defensive posture and win by a score as big as, say, 5-0. However, if the Americans score first, Mexico tends to overreact, loses its composure and rarely catches up.

The conflict of styles makes for interesting football, and the qualities of the players are at odds, as well. Mexico's players tend to have significantly greater skill on the ball, prefer to play it on the ground, have a quicker first step and tend to score in the run of play. The American side inevitably is bigger and might be faster in a long dash, enjoys playing in the air and is likely to score on restarts.

Almost always, it makes for great drama. It is unlikely to be matched by any other qualifier being contested on Wednesday.

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