Thirty-one straight matches. Thirty-one. That's the current unbeaten streak by the United States versus CONCACAF opposition heading into this Sunday's World Cup Qualifier away to Mexico.
Above every other statistic and fact — four straight appearances in the World Cup a quarterfinal round finish at Korea/Japan 2002 a record of 6-1-1 against the Tricolores since the decade began — this run of 31 exemplifies how the balance of power has truly shifted in the Confederation. There's simply no denying the reality that the United States currently possess the top side in CONCACAF.
No longer the underdog the outsider or the disrespected the U.S. now has a realistic chance to accomplish something that has never been done in their history — defeat Mexico in Mexico. Unlikely perhaps. But certainly no longer unthinkable.
Of course a loss by the U.S. in Mexico City on Sunday will not hurt their standing in any way. It will only go towards building the case that winning a match as the away side at Estadio Azteca is among the most difficult things to do in the sport.
In the history of World Cup qualification Mexico has lost just once at home 2-1 versus Costa Rica in 2001. The U.S. can claim only a scoreless draw in 1997 as the lone positive against a record of 21 defeats. Even if the U.S were the defending World Cup champions they would still not be favored in this match. The aura of Azteca is just too strong.
But having claimed three points in their opening match of the final round of qualification for Germany 2006 the U.S. is now actually in a pressure-free situation. Regardless of their current standing and form the U.S. is not expected to win this match. A draw would be seen as a magnificent result. A one-goal loss would be considered a strong showing. Eight qualifiers remain after this one with plenty of still points to be claimed. For the U.S. this is truly a no lose situation.
As for Mexico well the scenario is of course much much different. Despite being inexplicably ranked ahead of the U.S. in the latest FIFA Rankings (#6 to America's #10) the Tricolores and their fervent supporters realize that they have been overtaken by America at the international level. Just look at the results and it's nearly impossible to argue otherwise. A loss at Azteca to the U.S. and the word 'nearly' gets removed from the equation. It may not ultimately matter in their quest to reach Germany 2006 but for Mexico this is a must-win match. Defeat at home to America and the pieces will start to fall beginning with manager Ricardo Lavolpe.
There is without question enormous pressure to perform in Mexico City and all of that pressure is on the home side.
A golden opportunity for the U.S. is then the unlikely case in the renewal of this bitter soccer rivalry. America has never entered a match in Mexico more confident more talent-laden or in better form. And never has the U.S. entered Azteca with less to prove. Of course a loss would not be welcomed by Bruce Arena but it certainly wouldn't be devastating either. Not even close.
At worst the U.S. will finish Sunday with three points from the first two matches of this qualifying round leaving them in prime position as they head into Wednesday's match at home to Guatemala in Birmingham. By contrast the worst case scenario for Mexico sees them also with three points through the opening two matches but with a nation turned against them and the entire federation in turmoil. A loss by Mexico to any CONCACAF nation in Mexico City is unacceptable. In World Cup Qualification doubly so. Against the United States in a qualifier and you can multiply the legitimacy of this statement by 100.
So much then for the fearsome Azteca Stadium site of countless brilliant performances by Mexico. On Sunday the U.S. should enter knowing that they truly have nothing to fear. The conditions will no doubt be both brutal and intimidating but the match is just not that crucial for America. Fear will reside solely with the Tricolores as they understand that failure is simply not an option.
Who would have thought that the magic of Estadio Azteca could actually work against Mexico? But then who would have thought that the U.S. could reel off 31 straight in CONCACAF without a loss?
Sunday's qualifier versus Mexico is a free-pass for the United States with nothing really to be lost and only great things to be gained. Of course this match matters greatly to America and of course they want to perform well. But the real upside is that there is no downside for the United States. They're not supposed to win or even draw against Mexico in Mexico City. It's just too tough of a place to play. With nothing then to prove the U.S. may just be able to gain a shock result and ironically continue to prove to the world that they are a legitimate power in the sport.