Photo by Michael Janosz/ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
MEXICO CITY– The U.S. Men’s National Team is preparing to play in a stadium where they have never won a World Cup qualifier, a place where only one other team has ever won a World Cup qualifier, and they are ready to face a crowd of more than 110,000 anxious Mexican fans that will turn Estadio Azteca into an imposing cauldron.
Despite all that, you don’t get any sense of pressure from the U.S. team on the day before Tuesday’s vital World Cup qualifier between the United States and Mexico. A confident bunch of Americans have made their way south following Friday’s epic and snow-covered victory against Costa Rica, and the message is clear. With three points in the bank after Friday, the Americans are not the ones really facing pressure on Tuesday.
“Look, let’s be honest, the pressure’s on them,” U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said of Mexico. “The pressure for them, at home, at Azteca, to come out and not only play a good game, but to win, is huge.”
Mexico has just two points from two matches so far in the final round of qualifying. They dropped points at home by tying Jamaica in February, and squandered two points when they saw a two-goal lead evaporate in the San Pedro Sula head against Honduras. Anything short of a win will likely leave Mexico in the bottom half of the qualifying standings after three matches.
That frightening reality has put heightened expectations on the Mexican team heading into Tuesday. For Mexican soccer fans, losing to the United States in Mexico is unacceptable, but with qualifying off to a shaky start, the stakes are even higher.
“This is their life,” said U.S. forward Herculez Gomez, who plays in Mexico for Santos Laguna. “There is no Hollywood here. There is no NFL, no MLB, no NHL, NBA, NASCAR, any of that. It’s football. It is what they breathe and die for.
“When their national team plays the whole country stops,” Gomez said. “I think externally they have a lot of pressure on them. They know the importance of this.”
The U.S. team enters Tuesday’s match confident, not only because of the Costa Rica win, but also because of the team’s stigma-reducing 1-0 exhibition victory against Mexico at Estadio Azteca last August. That win, coupled with their impressive first half in the 2011 Gold Cup Final, and their strong start in the last qualifier played between the two teams in 2009 (which Mexico rallied to win after trailing early)
“If we can take things that we’ve done well against them in the past, whether it’s in 2009, or the positives from the (2011) Gold Cup Final, whether it’s the win here in August, and use some of those things I think there’s a real chance for us,” Bradley said. “If we can start well, if we can show them early on that now we’re going to close them down, that we’re going to make the game difficult for them, that we’re not just going to sit so deep and let them have the ball the whole time, I think then that it will start to put them under pressure.
“At a certain point there’s a chance the crowd could turn on them and so, look, we have to understand the situation and know that there will be big pressure on them to come out and play a good game from the start, so we have to know how to deal with that.”
The Americans played a very defensive-minded game in holding off Mexico, 1-0, last August, but any concerns about the Americans bunkering on Tuesday seemed to be put at ease by comments from Bradley, who believes the U.S. can go toe-to-toe with the high-flying Mexicans.
“By now when you look at the development of our team, I think we’re ready to come here and play them on even terms,” Bradley said. “I think we did that in August. I think we did that in the (2011) Gold Cup Final.
“Obviously you win one game and lose the other, but the point is when you look at our team, when you look at our players and our growth, I think it’s important for us to come here and feel like, while they’re a good team and we know they’re going to have the ball at times, we have to know how to deal with that and be tactically organized and disciplined at those moments.
“At the same time, know that there’ll be opportunities for us to have the ball and put them on our terms in the way that we move and keep the ball.”