The fiercest rivalry in North American soccer – and surely one of the most colorful in the world – will be renewed in a high-stakes setting at Estadio Azteca on Tuesday night when the US national team visits border rivals Mexico in the thin, smoggy air of Mexico City.
Two big fish constantly vying for supremacy in a relatively small pond, CONCACAF's giants are accustomed to intense meetings and this one promises to add another memorable chapter to the annals.
Mexico are fuming after last month's 0-0 home draw with Jamaica and a 2-2 result in Honduras on Friday (a match El Tri were leading 2-0 before wilting down the stretch) effectively added up to four dropped points and a fourth-place spot in the CONCACAF Hexagonal round. Meanwhile, their northern neighbors have traveled a bumpy qualifying road of their own and still have much to prove, even after Friday's wild 1-0 win over Costa Rica.
Time: 10:30 pm ET
TV: ESPN (English: broadcast begins at 9:30 pm ET), Univision (Spanish)
Live chat on MLSsoccer.com
There's so much of it, it's hard to know where to begin. Mexico own the superior win-loss record in nearly every category of this matchup: El Tri are 32-16-12 all time and 15-5-5 in World Cup qualifiers against the USA. But high-profile Yank victories like the 2-0 win in the 2002 World Cup stung El Tri badly over the past 15 or so years. More recently, the nation to the south has struck back with crushing victories in the 2009 and 2011 Gold Cup finals and a sweeping resurgence at the youth levels.
Azteca's home-field advantage in qualifiers is legendary and the US hold an 0-13-1 record in WCQs at the imposing bowl. The Yanks are also 1-23-1 all-time on Mexican soil, and 1-8-1 at Azteca. But that one victory was earned on their most recent trip to the capital city, a 1-0 friendly win in August. That breakthrough result has poked substantial holes in the venue's mystique as the northerners prepare for their latest venture into the cauldron.
UNITED STATES OUTLOOK
Nothing solves problems better than winning, so Friday's victory in snowy Colorado has put off many of the questions and concerns facing Jurgen Klinsmann's team. Securing their first points of the round, and thus leaping up the standings, has removed a great deal of the pressure surrounding the squad.
They traveled to Mexico City on Sunday with bright spirits and modest expectations for their toughest road trip of the Hex, quietly confident in the knowledge that their hosts are under more scrutiny from fans and media than they are. Yet an ankle injury to Jermaine Jones, one of Friday's more lionhearted performers, leaves a hole in the lineup that Klinsmann must fill carefully as he ponders whether to defend and counter, or play more expansively as some in the camp have hinted.
On Monday he mentioned four midfielders – Maurice Edu, Kyle Beckerman, Sacha Kljestan and Joe Corona – as candidates for Jones' central midfield role alongside Michael Bradley. The first two names are destroyers and anchors at heart, while the latter duo offer more creativity. Klinsmann's choice for Tuesday could reveal a great deal about his approach to this clash.
It's a sign of their nation's towering expectations that El Tri find themselves under the gun after two draws to open their Hex campaign. As with Klinsmann's team, many observers have been unsettled by the disjointed play on offer as much as the results, with coach José Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre's tactics and selections widely dissected.
As has been the case in Mexico for many decades, qualification is assumed as a bare minimum and must also be accompanied by fluid, attractive play and domineering results, especially at the beloved Azteca. Towards that end, Chepo will likely field the attacking trio of Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, Gio dos Santos and Andrés Guardado which inflicted so much damage on the US in Mexico's 4-2 Gold Cup final win in 2011.
The latter duo's one-on-one abilities and combination play around the opposition's penalty box will be a constant menace for the gringos' backline and Chicharito possesses the predatory instincts to finish the chances his teammates create.
El Tri's boss must replace suspended defender and usual team captain Francisco “Maza” Rodríguez, with Tigres UANL center back Hugo Ayala the most likely candidate to get the nod.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
USA – Herculez Gomez
Gomez Gomez played an important role in Friday's victory with a smart, hard-working stint on the left flank. He'll, of course, be keen to stamp his mark on the proceedings in front of the Mexican audience that watches him every week with his Liga MX club Santos Laguna. If the Mexico backline marks Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore as the USA's attacking dangermen, Gomez could be the one to profit from space elsewhere.
Mexico – Guillermo Ochoa
Chepo turned a few heads on Monday when he not only named Ochoa his starting goalkeeper for the US match, displacing usual No. 1 Jesús Corona, but also handed him the captain's armband in Rodríguez's absence. “Memo” is a talented shotstopper with many backers among El Tri fans and pundits, yet he now finds himself cast into a glaring spotlight at a tenuous moment in the Hex journey. Anything less than a top-shelf display from him could set off a firestorm of controversy.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Aston Villa/England), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS (6): Tony Beltran (Real Salt Lake), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City/England), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Clarence Goodson (Brondby/Denmark), Justin Morrow (San Jose Earthquakes), Michael Orozco Fiscal (Puebla/Mexico)
MIDFIELDERS (10): DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla/Mexico), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Michael Bradley (Roma/Italy), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana/Mexico) Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Maurice Edu (Bursaspor/Turkey), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht/Belgium), Brek Shea (Stoke City/England), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
FORWARDS (5): Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar/Netherlands), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna/Austria), Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur/England), Herculez Gomez (Santos Laguna/Mexico), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders FC)
GOALKEEPERS (3): Guillermo Ochoa (Ajaccio/France), Jesús Corona (Cruz Azul/Mexico), Alfredo Talavera (Toluca/Mexico)
DEFENDERS (8): Severo Meza (Monterrey/Mexico), Jonny Magallón (León/Mexico), Francisco Rodríguez (América/Mexico), Héctor Moreno (Espanyol/Spain), Hugo Ayala (Tigres UANL/Mexico), Diego Reyes (América/Mexico), Jorge Torres Nilo (Tigres UANL/Mexico), Carlos Salcido (Tigres UANL/Mexico)
MIDFIELDERS (7): Jesús Zavala (Monterrey/Mexico), Gerardo Torrado (Cruz Azul/Mexico), Jesús Molina (América/Mexico), Héctor Herrera (Pachuca/Mexico), Javier Aquino (Villarreal/Spain), Andrés Guardado (Valencia/Spain), Ángel Reyna (Pachuca/Mexico)
FORWARDS (5): Giovani dos Santos (Mallorca/Spain), Oribe Peralta (Santos Laguna/Mexico), Javier Hernández (Manchester United/England), Omar Bravo (Atlas/Mexico), Raúl Jiménez (América/Mexico)