By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
HOUSTON, Feb. 5 -- U.S.-Mexico soccer matches have become commonplace, an annual clash that has tilted in the Americans' favor of late and bordered on becoming a back-alley brawl. But when the national teams collide Wednesday night in a friendly match at Reliant Stadium, the bitter rivalry could open a refreshing new chapter with the introduction of young players largely untouched by the storied history.
"This signals a little bit of a new era," U.S. Coach Bob Bradley said Tuesday. "It will be exciting for fans to see what the rivalry evolves into."
A crowd expected to approach 70,000 -- and provide Mexico with the majority of the support -- might see Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore, who blossomed at the Under-20 World Cup last summer, enter the U.S. lineup. It will see the return of the coach's son, Michael Bradley, a Netherlands-based midfielder and another U-20 graduate who has emerged as one of American soccer's top exports, as well as Olympic hopefuls Maurice Edu and Benny Feilhaber.
Mexico has the option of offering a pair of 18-year-old forwards from Spain's famed La Liga, Giovani Dos Santos (Barcelona) and Carlos Vela (Osasuna). If not for injury, Coach Hugo Sanchez would have turned to Andres Guardado, 21, and Nery Castillo, 23, who rocketed onto the international scene last summer in the Gold Cup and Copa America.
The neophytes from both sides were selected not just because they need the experience, but because the coaches believe they can contribute just as much as the veterans.
"This game is the start of something new. We haven't had a game where we've seen many of these guys," Bradley said. "I think that time has come, [and] over time, we will see it more often."
With regional qualifying for the 2010 World Cup beginning in June, Bradley has started to narrow his player pool. Last month, in a 2-0 victory over Sweden, he relied primarily on players from MLS. But with the Mexico match falling on an international fixture date -- which clears the calendar for European-based players to rejoin the national team -- Bradley has at his disposal much of the top talent from overseas as well as select MLS contributors.
Seven players who appeared in the Gold Cup final, a 2-1 U.S. victory over Mexico in Chicago, have been recalled, but the roster also includes Adu, 18, the former D.C. United prodigy who has made steady progress since joining Benfica of Portugal in August, and Altidore, an 18-year-old New York Red Bulls forward projected to leave for Europe later this year.
They will be available to help the Americans continue their success against Mexico. Historically the Mexicans have dominated, but since 1990, the U.S. team has a 12-7-7 record. And in nine meetings this decade at U.S. sites -- which usually provide Mexico with a home-field advantage -- the Americans are 8-0-1 with just one goal conceded.
After Wednesday night, the teams are likely to meet again twice in 2009 during the final round of World Cup qualifying (assuming both advance past this year's first round and semifinal groups).
The animosity between the sides has intensified over the years, with matches often disrupted by incidents and injuries. Mexico, once the lone power in the region, has played down the U.S. victories, blaming themselves for setbacks rather than crediting the Americans.
"It's fun because we are winning," said U.S. forward Landon Donovan, who has four goals in nine games against Mexico. "These are games you don't have to worry about being motivated for."
Though there are no trophies or World Cup berths at stake Wednesday, everyone recognizes the long-term implications.
"At the end of the day, it doesn't account for anything -- we know that," Donovan added. "There are psychological advantages, there are mental advantages, there are confidence advantages when we play them for real. If we beat them again, we keep pushing them down, keeping them down, and that is big for us."