With a lifetime record of 0-21-1 on Mexican soil, you'd think the members of the No. 12 ranked U.S. men's soccer team would be a little concerned heading into Wednesday's World Cup qualifier (4 p.m. ET) against the side that spanked them 5-0 last month in the final of the Gold Cup at Giants Stadium.
And you'd be right.
Despite sitting four points within the CONCACAF qualification zone during the final round of qualifying for the 2010 Cup, playing at Mexico City's infamous Azteca Stadium presents some unique challenges. Said former U.S. national team Eric Wynalda:
"Imagine putting a treadmill in the middle of Mile High Stadium and having a blow-dryer blast hot ashes into your face."
Between the history, the altitude (nearly 8,000 feet above sea level), the thick, big-city smog and heat and the 105,000 fans rooting against them, coming away with points won't be easy for this team of Americans.
"Playing in Mexico was an amazing crash course in international soccer for me," said Wynalda's former U.S. teammate, Marcelo Balboa. "I remember in the early days, I was standing by the post on a corner kick and someone just came up and smacked me in the [groin].
"People were taking cheap shots all the time, stepping on people's feet and doing whatever they could get away with. Tackles from the side and the back, with studs up, were flying in."
But this time, the standings look a little different. The Americans are in second place halfway through the 10-game, round-robin qualifying series with 10 points. The top three teams will qualify for South Africa. Mexico sits in fourth.
"When you look at the final round, this is the first game of the second half," said U.S. head coach Bob Bradley. "[This is] a game that we knew all along would be important in terms of the goal of qualifying.
"We felt we had a good stretch with the Confederations Cup [where the Americans beat then world-No. 1 Spain and led Brazil 2-0 at halftime in the final before falling 3-2]," Bradley continued. "We've talked a lot about the Gold Cup [with] a different group of players, a group that I think came together very well and did well to advance to the final. Obviously some lessons were learned in the last 35 minutes of that match [when the U.S. allowed all five Mexico goals]. [They're] all things that we'll use as we prepare."
Experienced U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, who earned the Golden Glove award at the Confed Cup as the tournament's best goalkeeper, is unbeaten (3-0-2) against Mexico and has posted five shutouts in seven all-time World Cup qualifying appearances. Howard agreed that the recent Gold Cup loss may be in the back of U.S. minds, but he knows that the upcoming match is a different kind of priority.
"We don't have the luxury of looking back," Howard said. "They won the game fair and square, and that's fine, but it's in the past and we have our minds focused on Wednesday night and for us at the moment that's the most important issue to think about.
"The 90 minutes we have to play on Wednesday is really our total focus and is, at this point, most important."
Longtime national teamer Landon Donovan, the U.S.'s all-time leader in both goals and assists, leads a potent strike force into Azteca, and that may be one area in which the Americans are stronger than normal.
Along with Donovan, 19-year-old Jozy Altidore (the leading U.S. scorer so far in CONCACAF qualifying), fellow lightning-fast youngster Charlie Davies (who starred in the Confed Cup), leading MLS scorer Conor Casey and U.S. veteran Brian Ching could all get some time up front for the Americans.
"Over the next 24 hours or so, we have to make some difficult decisions," Bradley said happily. "We count heavily on those guys, players that I think understand what these kinds of games are like — players that are capable of scoring goals in big games."
It's that big-game experience that, Howard suggests, may give the U.S. an edge it hasn't previously had heading into important qualifiers on foreign turf.
"There's a little bit of a different attitude," Howard said, "because this summer … we've been in quite a few very tough matches as a group. That can only harden you, and give you a lot of experience. Our aim is to take the lessons that we've learned and put them to good use going forward, not just for the Mexico game but for the rest of qualifying. That's why we play the big games, and hopefully we can learn those lessons."
"So when you put it all together," Bradley said, "we're excited. And I guess it's a complement to the growth of our team and the things that have happened over the years in U.S. soccer to think that this is our best chance [to win at Azteca Stadium]. Hopefully we can take advantage of it."
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