By Charles Boehm - WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 9, 2012) US Soccer Players -- It’s the week before the Mexico - USA game at Estadio Azteca: Do you know where your loathing is?
Just seven days remain until the National Team enters perhaps the most daunting venue in world soccer for their first friendly on Mexican soil since 1984. Yet, a curious intersection of scheduling quirks seems to have muted the anticipation and intensity that accompanies this classic rivalry.
Granted, the run-up has surely been tempered by coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s preference to release his roster for this match a bit later than the norm. Ample time remains for fans on both sides of the “2-0 Border” to yank their attention away from the Olympics, MLS, and Liga MX and build anticipation for next Wednesday’s international friendly.
This month’s congested sports calendar has distracted many of those who would usually be anxiously awaiting another opportunity against their team's most intimate adversary, especially given that it will be months before these two squads can meet in World Cup qualifying. Perhaps the recent kickoff of Mexico’s revamped domestic league and the impending onset of the European season have overshadowed this game a bit as well.
US fans must also contemplate a particularly uncomfortable notion, one that is the most aggravating sensation possible when it comes to rivalries of this intensity. Mexico may just have better things to do.
On Tuesday, El Tri’s Olympic squad continued its impressive play in Great Britain, defeating Japan 3-1 in the semifinal stage of the Men’s soccer tournament to assure itself of becoming the first-ever CONCACAF nation to win a medal on the men's side. Mexico is now 4-0-1 in this Olympiad. While Brazil presents a highly imposing obstacle in the gold medal game, there’s little doubt that this summer’s run represents another positive step for the program as a whole.
What’s more, thanks to the Mexican Federation’s consistent emphasis on youth development and regeneration of the senior squad, the Olympic team bears fairly close resemblance, both in terms of personnel and style, to the group that should lead El Tri through World Cup qualification with minimal fuss.
In light of all that, attempts to contrast the currently robust state of the Mexican camp with that of their Yanqui adversaries risk becoming exercises in negativity. As we know all too well, the United States Under-23s couldn’t even reach the knockout stages of a CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tourney held on home soil and a year into his reign, the growing pains of Klinsmann’s shift in style and philosophy linger.
That places him and his team in a tricky situation next week. Their hosts figure to be in a triumphant mood regardless of the result in Saturday’s gold medal decider at Wembley Stadium. That will only increase the understandable confidence borne of Mexico’s perennial dominance at the mighty Azteca. Even if the always-vocal home fans in Mexico City somehow feel magnanimous enough to save the bulk of their angst for a USA visit that truly matters, say during the Hexagonal stage, the venue’s imposing aura and thin air remain.
Few national teams on earth make better use of a position of strength than Mexico, as shown by their tendency to score goals in bunches and turn tight games into routs. Witness last year’s 4-2 Gold Cup final in front of a pro-Mexico crowd at the Rose Bowl, the 4-0 Olympic qualifying semifinal fiasco in Guadalajara in 2004, and any number of other past meetings that have slipped away from the US in such stomach-churning fashion.
Will Klinsmann approach this challenge as a bonding occasion for the core of his first-choice lineup, or perhaps expose less experienced members of the squad to the Mexico City cauldron via a hybrid first 11? He’s clearly keen to raise his team’s expectations and hack away at preconceived notions of what’s possible, yet it’s unclear where the possibility of a troublesome friendly figures in his calculations.
MLS stars are presently negotiating that league’s midsummer congested schedule, and European-based Nats are working their way through preseason. With that in mind, Wednesday looks like the perfect moment to give Mexico-based players like Herculez Gomez, Jose Francisco Torres and Joe Corona a chance to shine in a familiar setting. Those selections might trigger a more expansive tactical approach, which could expose the Yanks back line to the kind of undressing that El Tri has made a habit of late. Then again, grinding defensive battles at Azteca aren’t easy to conjure up, either.
So, the decision to schedule this match at this particular moment has to be described as classic Klinsmann: bold, ambitious (perhaps to the point of naïve) and consciously unorthodox.
Based on the most recent USA roster, you could almost construct an entire starting 11 from players who weren’t even born the last time the Yanks crossed the border for an Azteca friendly. The risks outlined above prove that’s no coincidence. The new boss might just have a trick or two up his sleeve. Given the history of Mexico - USA at Azteca, he’d better.
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