Friday, July 31, 2009
U.S. road trip to Azteca looms large
Jeff Carlisle, ESPNsoccernet
After Mexico's 5-0 demolition of the United States in Sunday's Gold Cup final, Mexico manager Javier Aguirre reminded those assembled that "You can't carry history with you." The point being that there is danger in drawing too many conclusions from past results. With a World Cup qualifying rematch set to take place Aug. 12 in Mexico City, both sides would do well to heed Aguirre's sentiments.
Cobi Jones, left, and the U.S. were down a man but ground out a scoreless draw. (Alexander Hassenstein/GettyImages)
In the case of Mexico, the conventional thinking is that El Tri's Gold Cup triumph has allowed them to shed their inferiority complex when it comes to playing the U.S. While it's true that a 5-0 victory is bound to raise the feel-good factor, it's debatable just how much more self-belief a victory over the U.S. junior varsity instills. (And for those who claim that Mexico also sent a B team, it's worth noting that 12 players that were on their Gold Cup roster have been named to the side that will contest the World Cup qualifier. The U.S. will likely use two such performers.)
That's not to say Mexico wasn't fully deserving of its win. That's not even a question. But when Giovani Dos Santos, the architect of Sunday's victory, takes the field against the Yanks in a little less than two weeks, will he be thinking about the goals he scored in the Gold Cup, or the opportunities he squandered back in February when the U.S. prevailed 2-0?
"You can come up with 100 different things to say about the [qualifier] going either way, that the Gold Cup either meant a lot, or nothing at all," said former U.S. international and current Los Angeles Galaxy assistant Cobi Jones. "I think Mexico will try to take [the Gold Cup] to heart and make the most of it, while the U.S. will look at it as a one-off situation."
Chances are both matches will be on the collective mind of Mexico. The Gold Cup may be more recent, and Mexico will also have more of their first-choice lineup available, but the opposition players Aguirre's side will face will certainly spark some unpleasant memories from last February, not to mention the fact that it represents a significant upgrade in talent and experience for the U.S.
The U.S. will also require a heavy dose of perspective. As opposed to the Gold Cup, the Yanks will be thinking of their runner-up finish at the Confederations Cup and trying to use that as a springboard for better things. It might yet work out that way, but that tournament was also preceded by some subpar performances in World Cup qualifying, especially on the road.
U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Mexico
Estadio Azteca; Mexico City, Mexico
4 p.m. ET
Which leads to the biggest reason for Mexico to be confident and the USA to follow Aguirre's advice and leave its history at home: The game will be played at the Estadio Azteca.
If the upcoming match was being played in the U.S., more of an argument could be made that Sunday's result would have an impact on the rematch. But the famed venue that hosted the 1970 and 1986 World Cup finals has proved to be a security blanket like no other for El Tri. Mexico was thought to be struggling before its March 28 match against Costa Rica, but in the familiar surroundings of the Azteca it dispatched the Ticos with little fuss, 2-0, proving once again that the combination of altitude, smog and the considerable talent that Mexico possesses is formidable indeed.
Nobody knows this better than the U.S. players, whose woeful record of 0-18-1 in Mexico City represents a history they'll be only too happy to leave behind. The only time they avoided defeat came in a World Cup qualifier on Nov. 2, 1997, when they secured a 0-0 tie that ranks among the more memorable and peculiar results in U.S. soccer history.
Suffice it to say, the reign of then-head coach Steve Sampson is looked upon with a contempt usually reserved for Ponzi scheme operators, with the team's implosion at the 1998 World Cup the most enduring memory. Yet that side was able to escape the Azteca with a point, a result made all the more remarkable by Jeff Agoos' 32nd-minute ejection for delivering what looked like a karate chop to Pavel Pardo.
"It was one of those things, going down so early in the game, that you just batten down the hatches and try to take it one half at a time," said Jones, who was in the starting lineup that day. "You know Mexico is going to keep the ball most of the time anyway, so [the red card] just made it more difficult."
Yet the U.S. survived by delivering a gritty defensive display, and it came within inches of claiming a famous victory, with Thomas Dooley hitting the post. It was an effort aided by the fact that with the MLS season ending by mid-October for most teams, Sampson was able to train many of his charges at altitude for two weeks before the game, allowing them to cope better with the Azteca's surroundings.
It was also a match that saw Mexico's fans turn on their side by game's end, whistling at their team and cheering on the USA's play, even as El Tri clinched qualification.
"We had so much going against us," said New England Revolution vice president Mike Burns, who was one of three substitutes used by Sampson that day. "And from where their fans started the game to where they were at the end of the game, it was almost like two different sets of fans. It was an incredible transformation."
The scenario ahead of Aug. 12 is very different. With the MLS season in full swing, and the European clubs in preseason, preparing at altitude for the match isn't an option. And as if the pressure weren't high enough, Honduras and Costa Rica are both enjoying solid qualification campaigns, leaving little margin for error for teams like Mexico and the U.S. One slip-up and one of the presumed favorites in the region could find itself in a playoff against a South American side for a spot next year in South Africa.
The USA's exploits in the Confederations Cup have also served to crank up the expectation level of this U.S. team, something that wasn't a factor back in 1997.
"We went into the game loosely, because we weren't expected to get anything," Burns said. "We didn't have the weight of the world on our shoulders."
Come Aug. 12, that burden is bound to be felt by both teams. At which point some new history in this long-running rivalry will be made.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at email@example.com.