Tuesday, August 11, 2009

ATH: USA v Mexico

Scouting Report: Mexico By Clemente Lisi

The simmering rivalry between the United States and Mexico will reach a boil Wednesday when the two sides meet at the legendary Estadio Azteca.

The stadium will undoubtedly be a pressure-cooker for the Americans. With over 104,000 fans packed to the brim inside the steamy cauldron, the US players will have to perform under a stinging afternoon sun and the smog-filled skies of Mexico City at an altitude of over 7,400 feet. Business as usual when Mexico hosts a World Cup Qualifier. The Americans have spent the days leading up the game training in Miami, although even the steamy Florida summer pales in comparison to the conditions they will find once they land in Mexico.

In Monday's media call, US coach Bob Bradley stressed the short acclimation window, backing the thinking that it's better to go in late. That means the United States traveling on Tuesday to play on Wednesday afternoon.

The strategy is a risky one. If the Americans put together a weak performance, the lack of training leading up to the contest could be blamed. For instance, 14 players arrived in Miami over the weekend, with six more – including potential starters Brian Ching, Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber and Jozy Altidore – arriving just 48 hours before the match.

Bradley said the team would be prepared.

“As far as the number of days of training, we’ve learned throughout the qualifying process what it means to come in at times and only have a couple of days, that’s the way every single-fixture date works,” he said.

The Mexicans, meanwhile, have been together for nearly a week, with those playing overseas arriving Sunday. Mexico coach Javier Aguirre likes to use a 4-3-3 formation and has a mix of young players and veterans at his disposal. He rewarded 12 players – many of whom play domestically and are used to the conditions -- who were on the team that defeated the US 5-0 three weeks to win the Gold Cup with a spot on the roster this week.

In addition to those 12 players, Aguirre also named veterans Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Rafael Marquez. Blanco, 36, said last year that he had retired from international play, but returned when Aguirre replaced Sven-Goran Eriksson earlier this year. Marquez, who was shown a red card when the US defeated Mexico in qualifying this past February, has been sidelined since he suffered a knee injury in April.

The Americans face several obstacles. Aside from the fans, heat, smog and altitude, Bradley’s players will face a Mexican team with a renewed sense of confidence. Add to that history (the Americans have never won in 23 previous attempts in Mexico, posting a 0-22-1 all-time record there) and all the ingredients are there for a US loss.

The Americans could learn a lot from that one-sided spectacle last month at Giants Stadium. After a scoreless first half, the US back line came apart at the seams, giving the Americans its worst loss since a 5-0 defeat to England in 1985.

“If they think the next game is going to be like this, they have another coming,” US forward Brian Ching said following that game.

The rivalry was further inflamed when Aguirre blasted Bradley and his players, saying the Americans fielded players who only excelled at set plays and used its defense to try and squash opponents into a lull.

“They play eight in the back and hope that the other team makes a mistake,” he said during a news conference. In the run up to Wednesday afternoon, Mexico's Andres Guardado has already predicted 3-0 win for the home side.

All of that said, the Gold Cup version of team USA has very little to do with the World Cup Qualifier version. The US defense is less likely to fall apart given the return of big man Oguchi Onyewu, playing in his first National Team game since signing last month with Italian powerhouse AC Milan, and the gritty Jay DeMerit. The centerback combo turned out to be a success at the Confederations Cup. It could work again in Mexico.

Bradley has options, including midfielder Jose Francisco Torres and his experience playing his club ball in the Mexican League. Torres was on the Confederations Cup roster, but saw no playing time. There's also the return of first choice players all over the field, most of whom played a part in that Confederations Cup run.

Hopefully, Bradley and his players can use the experience of a busy summer to beat Mexico. The Americans have shown that anything is possible, and that could include their first win at Azteca.

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