By Charles Boehm - WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 15, 2012) US Soccer Players -- We can all recite the Mexican capital’s challenges by rote: severe altitude, smog, highly skilled opponents, sprawling stands packed with home fans. Their combined effect poses as tough a challenge for visiting teams as any in the global game, and they’re always turned up to maximum settings when the Yanquis arrive.
And still. United States National Team fans are doubly programmed to believe that the Mexico City skid has to end sometime. Years, even decades can fly by between El Tri losses at their favorite home venue, but it’s been done.
On June 17, 2001, Costs Rica came back to win a World Cup qualifier 2-1 at fabled Azteca. Catching Mexico during a low ebb in their overall fortunes, Costa Rica weathered an early storm of pressure, rallied with savvy substitutions after the break (most notably the insertion of Mexican league veteran and eventual match winner Hernan Medford) and earned an achievement rare enough to hold a special honorific: El Aztecazo.
So why not tonight?
All it will take is a series of events and breaks, harmoniously converging in a fashion intricate enough to shift the odds for one game.
The USA knows what needs to happen even with a hybrid lineup. Work rate, an opportunistic approach in their attacking third, and probably a bit of luck They need this kind of performance to unfold in concert with an off-night from El Tri, who are riding as high as they ever have for a meeting with the United States thanks to two-plus years of ascendancy and the Olympic team’s just-acquired gold medal. Think about that for a second. Mexico's gold medal winners will use halftime of a game against the United States to reintroduce themselves to the home fans as champions.
There’s little sign that the sold-out stadium will offer anything but a rapturous reception for the first domestic appearance of their national colors since their young stars knocked off Brazil to claim Olympic glory on Saturday. An early goal, or two, is the only truly effective weapon against that six-figure crowd. Severe weather can equalize matters a bit, so the US might have already gotten a minor break in that mild temperatures and a 30 percent chance of thunderstorms are predicted for this evening.
Despite being anchored by a young, unproven back line with erstwhile midfielder Maurice Edu at its heart, the US must maintain their defensive shape and deny space where it’s most efficient to do so, pressuring the ball aggressively enough to disrupt Mexico’s rhythm without expending excessive energy in the rarified air some 7,350 feet above sea level. Keeping all 11 players on the field for 90 minutes is crucial, of course, and the Yanks would do well to commit their inevitable fouls on the skillful Mexicans in forward areas rather than around their own penalty box.
Mexico knows quite well how to roll up resounding wins over entrenched visitors at Azteca: probe for individual mismatches, circulate the ball constantly, especially towards wide areas and into space behind opposing defenses, then push the tempo and rack up goals in bunches when the game opens up.
Ask the many MLS players whose teams have been undone in CONCACAF club play in Mexico. It’s profoundly frustrating to hang tough for 30, 40, even 50 minutes or more, then see the game suddenly slip away when one mistake, usually made under duress as the thin air takes its toll, snowballs out of control.
Mexico City’s altitude affects visitors more subtly than you might think, usually manifesting itself not on their first run of the game, but on the subsequent recovery process. A player sucks in the breath that normally speeds fresh oxygen to their muscle tissue to fuel the next sprint, only to find that this time, there’s not enough air to be had. The head throbs, muscles gasp for replenishment and concentration is broken.
Based on both tactical and physiological grounds, most of Klinsmann’s Mexico-based contingent probably needs to feature prominently tonight, due to both fitness and familiarity with the lung-searing locale. It will be essential to keep some kind of handle on the game’s cadence, so the possession maintenance skills of players like Jose Francisco Torres and Herculez Gomez offer much-needed relief from successive waves of Mexican attacks.
This extends to gamesmanship as well. The quest for a maiden victory at Azteca probably necessitates slowly-taken goal kicks, lethargic restarts after fouls and as many clock-eating substitutions as Klinsmann can manage. The US will have to find ways to give themselves a breather, because El Tri certainly won’t do so.
Asserting themselves in this area can open up opportunities for the USA elsewhere, as a choppy flow frustrates the hosts and spawns breakdowns on set pieces and the like. Klinsmann and company can only hope the Mexicans lose their composure in the fashion that has damaged them so badly in other border battles of the past decade.
Playing up Mexico's chances on a night of celebration for their game is easy enough, but it might just overlook an unlikely opportunity for the United States.
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