By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Aug 14, 2012) US Soccer Players -- The USA returns to action on Wednesday where it will have to grapple with the altitude and pressure of the famed Estadio Azteca in a rare away friendly against rivals Mexico. This is the first exhibition game between the two nations on Mexican soil since 1984, a real opportunity for both squads a month before World Cup Qualifiers resume.
“It is always significant to play against the United States,” Mexico coach Jose Manuel de la Torre said. “This is a game that was planned long ago. We played (in the United States) last year and this game is meant to reciprocate that gesture. This game will go a long way in helping us prepare for World Cup Qualifying. (The US) is a strong team that always makes us work hard and that will help us.”
The game comes just days after Mexico captured the gold medal at the Olympic Games in London following a 2-1 victory over highly-favored Brazil at the famed Wembley Stadium. Indeed, the Mexicans seem to be in the midst of a golden generation. While none of those Olympians will feature against the United States, it is clear that Mexican soccer is going through a fine moment, something that bodes well for the future of its senior squad. As my colleague Charles Boehm pointed out last week, the Mexican Federation’s emphasis on youth will help the National Team as it goes through the process of qualifying for Brazil ’14.
For the United States, this offers coach Jorgen Klinsmann the opportunity to test his players against a CONCACAF opponent on the road. The Americans have never won a game at Azteca – going 0-23-1 all-time – and Klinsmann is keen on putting on a good showing. Klinsmann's 23-man squad arrived in Mexico City on Sunday for two days of intense training.
Exactly who those players are will be a factor in the end. Since the game falls on an official FIFA date, both teams can feature European-based players. Nevertheless, Klinsmann chose to give many of those who are based in Major League Soccer the nod. As a result, the Americans will be without familiar faces such as captain Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Oguchi Onyewu, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore.
Instead, Klinsmann tapped three first-timers. San Jose Earthquakes teammates Alan Gordon and Steven Beitashour along with Sporting Kansas City’s Matt Besler could make their National Team debuts in the biggest game in CONCACAF. Besler, a center back, could start given Onyewu’s absence, while Beitashour could feature at left back. Both will have to contend with a Mexican frontline that knows how to effectively move the ball and create an abundance of chances. In goal, veteran Tim Howard will offer some assurance.
In making his selections, Klinsmann is also keen on showing Mexico that his player pool is just as deep while exposing younger MLS players to tense environments such as the Azteca.
“It’s a huge opportunity for those players coming now to Mexico City,” Klinsmann said on Sunday during a conference call with reporters.
Klinsmann also injected some experience and familiarity into his roster, calling up six players who are based in Mexico’s domestic league. Those players, defenders Edgar Castillo and Michael Orozco, midfielders DaMarcus Beasley, Joe Corona and Jose Torres and striker Herculez Gomez, have experience playing at the Azteca during league matches.
As for Mexico, the players who won the gold medal in London this past Saturday have been given a rest, but de la Torre has no shortage of talent at his disposal. His 18-man roster is a blend of domestic and European-based players. Headlining the group are several players the Americans are very familiar with, including goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, midfielder Pablo Barrera, and forward Javier “Chicarito” Hernandez.
The Mexicans are solid in the back, possess great team chemistry and know how to expertly move the ball forward using the wings. De la Torre likes to use a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, depending on the situation, with Hernandez the go-to man in attack. A lethal goal scorer who has given Mexico that world-class striker it hadn’t seen since the days of Hugo Sanchez, Hernandez moves past defenders with speed and ease. The Manchester United star has scored 25 goals in 38 appearances for Mexico for an impressive scoring rate of 0.65 goals per game. He has already scored two goals in five games for Mexico this year.
Another big factor not to be overlooked when playing in such adverse conditions as the Azteca is the crowd. The fans will certainly be in a festive mood following what happened in London and will come out in large numbers to support El Tri. The Mexicans are passionate about their National Team and that patriotism will be on full display. A sellout crowd of 104,000 is expected, organizers said, and the advantage of the so-called “12th man” can certainly influence the referee and the way the Americans respond should they go concede a goal early. Advertisements for the game plastered on walls across Mexico City featuring the phrase “We play for pride” say it all.
“This rivalry means a lot to us,” admitted de la Torre. “It serves as a barometer on how well we are playing and how things are going for us. That is important as we try and qualify for the World Cup. We need to play games against the United States.”
The United States has not played at the Azteca since the 2-1 loss in World Cup Qualifying on August 12th, 2009, a game where the Americans had taken the lead thanks to Charlie Davies. The Mexicans defeated the USA 2-1 on October 17th, 1984 – the last time the teams met in a friendly on Mexican soil – in a game played at the Estadio Neza ’86. In their last meeting, the teams played to a 1-1 draw last Aug. 10 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, a game that marked Klinsmann’s debut as USA coach. A year later, Klinsmann has the chance to measure his improvements and show that the Americans can compete against a quality side in one of the most intimidating environments in all of world soccer.
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