Claudio Reyna #10 of the USA and Gerardo Torrado #6 of Mexico clash in mid-air during their 2006 World Cup Qualifying match at Crew Stadium on Septermber 3, 2005 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
After two months off, the U.S. men's national soccer team heads south of the border to face Mexico at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City tonight.
Problem: The U.S. men are 0-23-1 all time in Mexico.
Not a typo.
It's been three years since the last time the U.S. played in Mexico, a qualifier for the 2010 World Cup at Azteca, which Mexico won 2-1. That loss broke a stretch of U.S. dominance in the rivalry, as the Yanks had gone 10-2-2 in the previous 14 meetings dating to 2000.
Mexico hired Jose Manuel de la Torre after the 2010 World Cup, and the team has been on fire since, posting a 16-2-4 record under the new manager.
The changing of the guard in North America became official last June, with Mexico shredding the U.S. in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final, overcoming a 2-0 deficit to win 4-2 and secure a berth in the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup.
While tonight's match is only an exhibition, it's a major one for this U.S. side, which will want to gain back some momentum in the rivalry.
That might be a bit easier if the match weren't in the lion's den that is Azteca, one of the world's most daunting venues.
"Imagine putting a treadmill in the middle of Mile High Stadium and having a blow-dryer blast hot ashes into your face," former U.S. international Eric Wynalda once said of the stadium, which seats approximately 104,000 fans.
"It is a totally unfair advantage," Wynalda added. "It is impossible to adapt unless you are used to it. In the past, myself and other guys have coughed big black chunks; half of the team would throw up and many ended on an intravenous drip. You go in knowing it will be horrible and that you're going to lose a day of your life."
Said ESPN's Bill Simmons of his trip to Azteca in 2009:
"The stands hug the field, shoot straight up and couldn't be more intimidating, especially in the corners, where fans shower opponents with beers, sodas and LTYDEWTKWTA (Liquids That You Don't Even Want To Know What They Are) on every corner kick. The lower section of the stadium is fenced, with a guarded, waterless moat (seriously, a moat!) with a second fence above it that prevents fans from racing onto the field."
On the pitch, the rivalry is as fierce as ever.
U.S. players and fans alike don't care for what is perceived as disrespect and dirty play from the Mexicans. In recent years, we've seen:
- Rafa Marquez going spikes-up on goalkeeper Tim Howard.
- Gerardo Torrado choking out Benny Feilhaber (see right).
- Oswaldo Sanchez trying to slide-tackle Eddie Johnson after a goal.
- Assistant coach Paco Ramirez smacking Frankie Hejduk after a match.
"The way they treat us sometimes, you want them to be miserable," Landon Donovan said before last summer's Gold Cup final. "It's not just another game for me. I clearly, desperately want to beat them."
After that match, a frustrated Howard spouted off about the largely pro-Mexican crowd at the Rose Bowl: "I think it was a (expletive) disgrace that the entire post-match ceremony was in Spanish. You can bet your ass that if we were in Mexico City, it wouldn't be all in English."
Mexico is 3-0-1 in the last four meetings, the lone draw being U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann's first match in charge last August.
Now obviously, the best way to "make them miserable" is to win. But with the rosters we're looking at for this friendly, the U.S. is going to find that an even taller task than usual.
This U.S. squad is missing regulars Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra, Michael Bradley, Steve Cherundolo and Jozy Altidore. Three of the 23 players haven't earned a cap, and six others have five appearances or less.
Mexico is without Giovani Dos Santos and Carlos Salcido, both of whom were on the team that just won a gold medal in London. Otherwise, the squad is mostly full, highlighted by Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, as well as wingers Andres Guardado and Pablo Barrera, both of whom scored in Mexico's 4-2 win against the U.S. in the 2011 Gold Cup final.
An inexperienced back line for the U.S. is going to have a difficult time keeping up with the pace of the Mexican attackers, with Geoff Cameron and converted midfielder Maurice Edu expected to start in the middle of the defense. On the bright side, El Tri is yet to go up against U.S. left back Fabian Johnson, who has dazzled in the last few matches and has the speed to keep up with the opposing wingers.
Best-case scenario: The U.S. plays a gritty game and somehow manages a draw.
Unfortunately, the more likely outcome tonight is a blowout, with the surging Mexican side exploiting the patchwork U.S. defense, writing another chapter of misery for the Americans.
By Jesse Yomtov