Work cut out for U.S. men in Mexico

Conditions, history, anger on host's side in qualifier


March 27, 2005|By Chris Cowles | Chris Cowles,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MEXICO CITY - There's never a dull moment when the United States and Mexico meet in men's soccer, and today - in the 50th encounter between the teams - another chapter will be added to what is becoming one of the sport's greatest rivalries.

Although not quite of the epic proportions of England-Germany or Brazil-Argentina, U.S.-Mexico remains the region's biggest matchup and today (ESPN2, Telemundo, 1 p.m.), when they play in Mexico City in what is their most significant matchup since the 2002 World Cup, it will be the host team that has something to prove.

Considered one of the top games of the 2002 finals, the Americans' emphatic, 2-0 victory effectively signaled the end of Mexico's domination of the region while catapulting the United States to a level of respectability on the world stage only four years after the embarrassing, last-place finish in France '98.

"Clearly, that was the biggest game we've ever had against [Mexico]," said U.S. captain Claudio Reyna. "That might be the biggest game for the next 100 years because it was the World Cup, it was watched globally and, more than any other time, the stakes were higher."

Reyna, who is expected to return to his place directing the attack from central midfield after an extended layoff due to injury, said much is being made out of the qualifier, especially since it is being played at the cavernous Azteca Stadium.

"I think they will throw a lot at us," he said. "They're going to throw numbers forward and perhaps try to intimidate us, but it's important for us in the first 15 minutes to stand up to any of their pressure. From then on, as we always do in games, we create enough chances to get a result."

Mexico City has long been a challenging place to play, no matter who the visiting team is. In all-time home qualifiers, the Mexicans have lost only once (53-1-4) while outscoring opponents 226-25. The lone loss came against Costa Rica in a 2001 qualifier at Azteca.

The U.S. team has been outscored 18-3 at the stadium and gained its lone point in a 1997 qualifier when the two sides drew, 0-0.

With the playing conditions - smog-filled air at 7,300 feet above sea level, midday temperatures hovering around 80 degrees and nearly 115,000 fervent fans - U.S. coach Bruce Arena called playing at Azteca a "lopsided home-field advantage" for Mexico.

Despite the fact the Mexicans are 22-0-1 at home against the United States and 7-0-1 at Azteca in qualifiers, the Tricolores will be feeling the pressure of the World Cup loss, as players and fans alike expect nothing but a victory over the Americans. Mexico is ranked sixth in the world and the United States is tied for 10th with Italy.

"I have a bad taste in my mouth, a bad memory of them and I'm waiting to take out my anger," defender Rafael Marquez said last week.

Mexico goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez was even blunter: "No one is going to come here and beat us."

It's anticipated that Mexico will use a five-man midfield, led by Pavel Pardo, in a fast-paced, counterattacking style of play. Jared Borguetti and Francisco Fonseca form a dangerous combination up front, with Cuauhtemoc Blanco pushing into the attack from midfield.

U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan, who scored the second goal in the World Cup win over Mexico, says this is the game the Mexicans anticipate the most.

"They're going to be extremely emotional," he said. "So, we have to do what we are here to do and let everything else go away. I think we have all played enough high-quality matches to know that you can't get caught up in it."

"The winner of this match will gain sole possession of the top position in the six-nation group, in which the top three finishers advance to the 2006 finals.

"We're mentally and technically prepared," Arena said. "We'll roll the ball out tomorrow and see what happens."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.