MEXICO CITY — If the only issues playing soccer at Estadio Azteca were the heat, altitude and air quality, the U.S. national team surely would have won a World Cup qualifying match there by now.
Or if the stream of insults — as well as objects — hurled by the some 90,000 fanatics were all that stood in the way, the Americans probably would have escaped the historic cauldron with something better than two scoreless draws in official competition since 1972.
And if the Mexican team, the famed El Tri, weren’t so darn good at this game, the eternal hand-wringing by U.S. soccer ahead of the periodic visits would’ve ceased ages ago.
Individually, each of those influences is manageable. Collectively, they have conspired to inflict defeat and, at times, embarrassment in what has become one of soccer’s fiercest rivalries.
Emboldened by their new coach (Bruce Arena) and sensational teenager (Christian Pulisic), the Americans will try again Sunday evening.
The latest showdown is, by no means, a must-win in the trek to Russia for the 2018 World Cup. With a 2-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago on Thursday in suburban Denver, the pressure has eased — and room for error has grown — since last fall’s disastrous start to the six-nation regional competition for three automatic berths.
The Americans (2-2-1, seven points) stand third behind runaway leader Mexico (4-0-1, 13) and Costa Rica (2-1-2, eight), and after Sunday, they will have played their most troublesome games. The Soccer Power Index, formulated by Nate Silver, rates the U.S. qualifying chances at 83 percent.
One subject, though, has continued to gnaw at the U.S. program: winning a qualifier at Azteca. It did win a friendly there in 2012, the only victory at the mammoth venue in 12 visits. Additionally, since 1997, the United States has managed two ties and lost four meetings by one goal.
Since the countries first met in 1934, Mexico boasts a 19-1-2 series record in its capital city. The mark includes victories at Azteca in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and FIFA Confederations Cup.
Mexico flipped the script on U.S. soil last fall, winning, 2-1, after four consecutive 2-0 qualifying defeats in Columbus, Ohio.
Is it America’s turn?
“The expectation is not to get anything in Mexico,” former U.S. star Landon Donovan said in an interview this week, “so maybe that makes it the right time to do it.”
Although no factors work in the their advantage at Azteca, the Americans do seem fairly well-positioned to steal at least one point with a draw.
They are close to full strength, though the short gap between matches (two days instead of three), coupled with travel and altitude, will prompt lineup changes. They have performed markedly better since Arena succeeded Jurgen Klinsmann in December.
And they believe they’ve made the proper preparations to cope with Mexico City’s 7,350-foot elevation. The group gathered in Denver (5,280 feet) on May 28, moved operations to Park City, Utah (7,000) ahead of a friendly in the Salt Lake City area (4,400) and returned to Colorado for the qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago. The team arrived in Mexico City late Friday.
U.S. Soccer Federation officials declined to detail the altitude regimen, saying only that it emphasized nutrition, hydration and sleep.
“The altitude issue is a real issue,” said Arena, who, during his first tenure as U.S. coach from 1998 to 2006, lost three one-goal matches at Azteca. “We believe we’ve done all we can to be ready.”
Over the years, the USSF has tried other methods. Under Arena in 2005, the group acclimated in Colorado Springs and Albuquerque before losing, 2-1. Four years ago, the team followed the same pattern as now — a qualifier in Commerce City, Colo., ahead of a qualifier in Mexico City — and came away with a home victory and away draw.
On other occasions, the team has arrived the day before a game to minimize the altitude punch.
The oxygen-deprived environment affects players in “bizarre ways,” former U.S. forward Eric Wynalda said. “It’s not when you’re running; it’s the time right after you stop. You try to take a deep breath and you go dizzy and lose concentration. It’s like you lose a few seconds and, before you know it, you get beat on a corner kick.”
Mexico City’s air quality has improved in the past decade but remains a factor for athletes.
Former players vividly recall Cobi Jones coughing up a gruesome mass.
“What flavor Gatorade did you drink?” Wynalda asked him.
“That’s not Gatorade,” Jones replied. “It’s blood.”
Said Donovan: “You get back to the locker room at halftime, you feel like you don’t have the energy to go back out there. We’d have oxygen masks. You can’t catch your breath. For someone who prided himself on being fit, like I did, it’s really frustrating because it’s impossible to feel normal.”
An intense summer sun takes a toll on weekend matches. This time, however, kickoff is in the evening — a compromise after Mexico asked to move up the day of the game before traveling to Russia this coming week for the Confederations Cup. The game-time forecast calls for 74 degrees and a chance of thunderstorms.
While the Americans have been proactive in preparations, there isn’t much they can do about Azteca’s intimidating backdrop. The site of two World Cup finals (1970 and 1986), the stadium features an enormous upper deck that lurks over the field. The enclosed design harnesses the noise.
A visiting player preparing to serve a corner kick must be wary of projectiles.
It’s menacing for any visitor, and with political tensions between the United States and Mexico at the forefront, the volume and vitriol is sure to rise.
“I’m sadistic, so I enjoy the crazy madness of it,” veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “It’s like nothing else in the world when you’re an American and try to get a result.”
United States at Mexico
Where: Estadio Azteca, Mexico City
When: Sunday at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
TV: Fox Sports 1, Univision, Univision Deportes.
Online: Fox Sports Go, Univision Now, univisiondeportes.com, foxsoccer2go.com
(Through five of 10 matches)
Mexico 4-0-1, 13 points
Costa Rica 2-1-2, 8 points
United States 2-2-1, 7 points
Panama 1-1-3, 6 points
Honduras 1-3-1, 4 points
Trinidad and Tobago 1-4-0 3 points
Other group matches
Honduras at Panama, Tuesday, 9:35 p.m. (beIN Sports)
Trinidad and Tobago at Costa Rica, Tuesday, 10 p.m.