FOX Soccer Exclusive
USA preparing for hostile Azteca
On Tuesday night, the U.S. men’s national soccer team heads down into the Azteca’s heaving bedlam. One hundred thousand Mexicans will unleash their loathing onto the gringos below the steep banks of seats. Their lather will wash over the field, engulfing all those who dare enter the fray.
The Americans have played their arch-enemies Mexico at the Azteca 21 times before. Nineteen times, they have walked out with a loss. Once, back in 1997, they ground out a hard-fought draw. And once, last August, they stole a win in a so-called friendly game here when Mexican-American defender Michael Orozco Fiscal bundled in a late goal for the U.S. It was the Americans’ first ever win on Mexican soil in 25 attempts dating back to 1937. The Americans have yet to win a competitive game here.
It is a grudge match, and it never fails to combust. Its geopolitical undercurrent is unmistakable. The U.S. towers over Mexico economically and in its quality of life, but in soccer, Mexico has always had the upper hand. They see it as their birthright.
“It’s so much more than a game, because it is Mexico, our biggest rival,” said U.S. veteran DaMarcus Beasley. “We don’t want to lose just as much as they don’t.”
Every time they’ve played with something on the line, fists, elbows have flown alongside tackles. Blood has literally been spilled. Drop-kicks to the groin, kicks in the back, it’s all happened. Landon Donovan once urinated on Mexico’s field ahead of a game.
This World Cup qualifier will go some way in determining the outcome of the double-round robin hexagonal round, which sends three of six teams directly to Brazil and one into a two-game playoff with New Zealand. Two games in, the Americans sit in second place with three points – one behind leaders Honduras – while Mexico uncharacteristically lingers in fourth, the play-off spot.
On the eve of the game, the Americans downplayed the significance of winning at Azteca last year because it was a friendly, but they were nonetheless high on their chances. “By now, I think we’re ready to come here and play them on even terms,” said midfielder Michael Bradley.
"I want them to give them a real game, eye to eye and challenge them,” said head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “We want to get not only a result but we want to win here.”
And a lot of elements are favorably aligned for a breakthrough win.
Depleted by injuries to goalkeeper Tim Howard and five other regulars, including midfield enforcer Jermaine Jones, the USA will also be without captain Carlos Bocanegra, who was left out of the squad. Even so, the team is heartened by a gutsy 1-0 win over Costa Rica in a blizzard last Friday. That victory overturned the narrative of a troubled qualifying campaign – underpinned by a damning Sporting News expose in which 11 players anonymously criticized Klinsmann – following a putrid 2-1 loss in Honduras in February.
“We learned what this team was about – digging in, biting down, being hard to beat,” said Beasley. “It definitely boosted [our confidence] up a notch. It took the pressure off a little bit.”
Mexico, meanwhile, is in a bad place. El Tri have failed to take wins from either of their two qualifiers thus far. They were outplayed by Jamaica at home, drawing boos and catcalls from their own crowd, but got away with a 0-0 draw. On Friday, they gave up a two-goal lead in Honduras, settling instead for a 2-2 tie after running out of gas in the 107 degree heat. Their captain and defensive anchor Maza Rodriguez is suspended because of yellow card accumulation. Local headlines cry of “alarm,” of the team being in a “funk” and on “alert.” Head coach Chepo de la Torre is now under fire just as Klinsmann appears to have doused the flames lapping at his own employment.
“Let’s be honest, the pressure is on them,” said Bradley. “The pressure for them at home, at Azteca, to come out and not only play a good game but to win is huge.”
“For us,” continued Bradley, “If we can take things that we’ve done well against them in the past and use that, I think there’s a real chance for us. If we can start well and show early on that we’re going to make the game difficult for them, I think that will put them under pressure and the crowd can turn on them.”
Mexico’s talent is superior. Javier Hernandez, Andres Guardado, Javier Aquino and Giovanni Dos Santos comprise a fearsome attacking diamond, which the U.S. will hope to counter with Bradley’s workmanlike savvy and the dynamism of forward and newly-minted captain Clint Dempsey.
There are many variables. The altitude; fatigue from Friday’s grueling games; the predicted afternoon rain which could make the field slick, to name but a few.
Striker Herculez Gomez, whose parents are Mexican and who plays in the Mexican league, put it most succinctly: “Anything can happen.”
This is still Mexico. And it’s still the Azteca.