It’s El Clásico Time
|Midfielder Jermaine Jones #13 of the United States and midfielder
Ariel Rodriguez #13 of Costa Rica battle for the ball during a FIFA
2014 World Cup Qualifier match between Costa Rica and United
States at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on March 22, 2013
in Commerce City, Colo.
The U.S. men’s soccer team overcame a blizzard that stunted visibility and turned the soccer field into a bed of snow to beat Costa Rica, 1-0, Friday night at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park just outside of Denver.
That was the easy part.
Tonight at 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN, Univision), the team takes the field in altitude, in front of an expected 110,000 fans, and in one of the most intimidating venues in the world: Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. The task? To beat 15th-ranked Mexico in Mexico for the first time in a World Cup qualifying match.
“There are very few stadiums in the world like the Azteca,” said U.S. forward Herculez Gomez, who was born in Los Angeles to Mexican-American parents and plays for the Mexican club Santos.
“You have 110,000 people, and you throw that in with the smog, the altitude and your opponent and it’s a crazy combination. It’s a unique home-field advantage. Some could see it as an intimidating place, but I see it as a great venue.”
The venue’s historic significance is not in question. Neither is Mexico’s historic dominance on home soil.
In history, the United States is 1-23-1 while playing against Mexico in Mexico, including 0-13-1 in World Cup qualifying. At Estadio Azteca, the United States is 1-8-1 and 0-5-1 in World Cup qualifying.
There is reason for optimism, though. In the last meeting between the two teams in a friendly back in August, Michael Orozco Fiscal scored late to give Team USA a 1-0 victory at Azteca. The victory marked the first time in 75 years that the United States had beaten Mexico in Mexico.
|Fans of the United States national team cheer, wave a flag, and sing
as snow falls during a FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier match
between Costa Rica and United States at Dick's Sporting Goods
Park on March 22, 2013 in Commerce City, Colo.
“The intensity is what makes (the rivalry) so special,” said Gomez, a veteran of the 2010 World Cup who played through the 90th minute against Costa Rica. “For a long time Mexico had the upper hand, and then we had our golden era. Now it’s been so close that things are intensified and magnified. It’s a rivalry. It’s something that we look forward to and our fans look forward to. It’s a great show.”
And true to form, the game tonight has big implications.
The two CONCACAF powers come into tonight not necessarily in danger of missing the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, but at the very least both are a bit shaken by recent results.
The United States, ranked No. 33, opened the final round of World Cup qualifying with a 2-1 loss in Honduras. However, the win over Costa Rica bumped Team USA up to second in the standings.
Down in Mexico the situation has more urgency after El Tricolor opened the Hexagonal round of qualifying with a shocking 0-0 draw at home against Jamaica before tying Honduras, 2-2, on the road. Mexico sits fourth in the CONCACAF standings.
The top three teams automatically will advance to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, while the fourth-place team will compete in a two-leg playoff against the champion from the Oceania Confederation.
There is still plenty of time for things to even out, as the game tonight is only the third of 10 for each team — including a USA-Mexico rematch Sept. 10 in Columbus.
Both sides enter the game tonight with injury issues. Mexico will be without starting left back Jorge Torres Nilo and starting center back Francisco “Maza” Rodríguez due to yellow-card accumulation. For the United States, Jermaine Jones is out after he sprained his left ankle against Costa Rica. The United States also remains without starting goalie Tim Howard and its all-time leading scorer, Landon Donovan, who took a break from the sport but plans to return to his MLS team, the Los Angeles Galaxy, by the end of March.
When the game kicks off in Mexico City, however, the 11 players on the pitch for each team will certainly understand the significance of this game. Several of the U.S. players have strong ties to Mexico. Defender Omar Gonzalez, for instance, holds passports for both the United States and Mexico and his uncle played for Monterrey in the Mexican Primera Division. Midfielder Joe Corona was born in Los Angeles to a Mexican father and Salvadoran mother and plays for Club Tijuana.
|The United States celebrates a goal with, (L - R) Michael Bradley,
Jermaine Jones during a FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier match
against Costa Rica at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on March
22, 2013 in Commerce City, Colo.
“It’s El Clásico,” said DaMarcus Beasley, a midfielder and defender who also plays professionally in Mexico for Puebla. “This game means something despite the World Cup implications. It’s a great experience and something you have to embrace as a player. It has so much history. All the great players have played here at Estadio Azteca, and there have been so many historic games.”
While the blizzard game Friday in Denver has become controversial with Costa Rica appealing the outcome, the U.S. team got exactly what it wanted out of its visit to Colorado.
Not only did the team get to play in front of an energized sold-out home crowd and earned those three critical points in the CONCACAF standings, but Team USA also got to prepare for Mexico in similar altitude that makes Estadio Azteca such a home-field advantage.
“Altitude was one of the main reasons for being in Denver,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “How much it helps us at the end of day to adjust to higher altitudes in Mexico City, we will see that on Tuesday night.”