MEXICO CITY, March 26 -- With an enormous challenge awaiting Sunday at Azteca Stadium, the U.S. national soccer team will gladly embrace any little omen that may signal the end of its 68-year futility in this soccer-mad country.
The players' arrival at the airport Friday night was unusually uneventful. The notorious traffic backups didn't materialize. The lobby of their hotel was eerily quiet on this Easter weekend, leaving an outfit of bored security guards to chat amongst themselves as some of the U.S. staff sipped Coronas at the bar.
American Claudio Reyna, right, signs autographs for fans at the Radisson Hotel in Mexico City, Mexico.
(Claudio Cruz - AP)
_____U.S. vs. Mexico_____
What: World Cup qualifier.
When: 1 p.m.
Where: Azteca Stadium, Mexico City.
TV: ESPN2, Telemundo.
Records: United States 1-0, Mexico 1-0.
The players opened their curtains Saturday morning to see deep blue skies and a clear view of the distant mountains -- a rare spectacle in a sprawling metropolis of 20 million accustomed to smog.
Maybe this visit to Mexico won't be so bad, after all.
"Physically our players are there, mentally they're prepared and tactically they're prepared," U.S. Coach Bruce Arena said. "We'll roll the ball out tomorrow and see what happens."
Things aren't likely to be as peaceful come game time, when about 110,000 spectators are expected to fill Azteca to witness what is becoming one of the fiercest rivalries in not only world soccer, but international sporting competition as well. Mexico dominated the rivalry for decades, but the United States has a 6-1-1 record in the teams' past eight meetings and has perhaps its greatest opportunity to win at Azteca after years of humiliation.
"For such a long time they dominated us, but over not only the last five or six years, but the last 10 years, it's been pretty equal," U.S. captain Claudio Reyna said. "I think it's a bit insulting to them because soccer is the one and only sport in this country, and for us to beat them on a consistent basis, it's probably something they don't like."
Sunday's meeting is a World Cup qualifier, the second match for each team during a 10-game schedule. Both won their openers on the road and are heavily favored to advance to the 2006 World Cup in Germany from a relatively weak North and Central America and Caribbean region (three of the six finalists will earn automatic berths and a fourth will enter a special playoff in the fall). But that doesn't diminish the enmity between the Americans and Mexicans.
The rivalry is "pretty nasty and it's very important that we don't get caught up emotionally because they're going to be extremely emotional," midfielder-forward Landon Donovan said. "Our key is to stick to what we're here to do."
Which is to win in Mexico for the first time following 21 losses and a tie. In preparation for this game, the Americans have tried to address each of the challenges they'll confront at Azteca. Some are obvious, such as taming the crowd by absorbing the expected early pressure and preventing a quick goal.
But others took careful planning. The team prepared for Mexico City's 7,300-foot altitude by staging training camp in the Colorado Rockies for 3 1/2 weeks. However, only the MLS players were available for the entire camp, leaving the Europe-based players just a week to get acclimated.
Arena said he believes all the players are in the same physical condition because, although the MLS players were in Colorado longer, they have not had a "steady diet of soccer" like the European-based players have had over the last eight months in league play. (MLS has been off since November.) Arena will be without central defender Eddie Pope (groin injury) and outside defender Frankie Hejduk (ankle), and because his team will play again Wednesday against Guatemala in Birmingham, he could unveil some surprises Sunday. Only Reyna, Donovan, forward Eddie Johnson, goalkeeper Kasey Keller and defenders Carlos Bocanegra, Cory Gibbs and Steve Cherundolo seem certain to start.
No matter who is chosen, the U.S. chemistry likely will remain intact. The Americans are enjoying the longest unbeaten streak in their history -- 11-0-5 dating from a 1-0 exhibition loss at the Netherlands early last year -- and have not lost to a Central American or Caribbean opponent since September 2001 (24-0-7).
"I think [the Mexicans] feel a lot of pressure to come at us and score and beat us," Donovan said. "For us, we want to win the game, but we don't have to go out and attack them and impose ourselves on them. We can be patient. . . . If they get some possession and come at us, we're going to wait and then, going the other way, they'll have a lot to deal with [in the U.S. attack], so they've got to be careful."
U.S. Notes: Donovan declined to address reports that he will soon leave German club Bayer Leverkusen after just a three-month stay to return to MLS. A Los Angeles Times story said talks are underway for him to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy after spending his entire MLS career with San Jose. The Galaxy would have to trade star forward Carlos Ruiz to Dallas to complete the complicated deal.
"I definitely am worried about the next four or five days [with the national team] and, to be perfectly honest, probably Wednesday night I'll start thinking about a serious decision about what's going to happen," he said.