Make or break match for U-23s
The scenario for the men's Under-23 National Team is simple:
Beat Mexico on Tuesday night, and move on to the Olympics in August. Lose to the Mexicans, and buy your own tickets to the Athens Games this summer. As fans.
It would mark the first time the U.S. hasn't qualified for the Olympics since 1976. (The Rick Davis-led team in 1980 qualified for the Moscow Games, but didn't get to play since the U.S. boycotted the Summer Olympics entirely.)
After a year-and-a-half of preparation that has taken a pool of over 40 players all over the world, this is what it's come down to for Glenn "Mooch" Myernick's side. A one-off against their fiercest rival in front of a jam-packed Estadio Jalisco in Guadalajara, Mexico.
It's not exactly an easy task.
"The Mexican team will start the game with 12 players, because of the 60,000 (fans)," said Myernick, whose team went 3-0 last week to win Group A and reach the semifinals of the CONCACAF Olympic Tournament. "But none of them are allowed to kick the ball, so that's an equalizer. We knew that coming here that we were going to face a very good team; it didn't matter whether it was Costa Rica or Mexico in the semifinal.
"Getting to the Olympics is a big prize, and it shouldn't come easy, and it won't. I think it's a great opportunity for our young players to get international experience playing in big games like this in Mexico, because if they're to continue to have an international career, they'll play in big games like that all the time. We're excited about it; we're not apprehensive about the game at all."
While the U.S. won't have the crowd on its side or a full-roster at its disposal with a quadriceps injury to starting left back Zak Whitbread and a suspension to Jose Burciaga from his red-card on Saturday in the 4-3 victory over Honduras, Myernick will have has best players rested. Going into the Honduras match already assured of reaching the semifinal round, the U.S. played without Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey, Brad Davis, Ed Johnson, Chad Marshall and D.J. Countess. All seven of those players are expected to start on Tuesday night with four days of rest since the team's second match that came last Thursday against Canada, which is of the utmost importance in a tournament where three matches in group play was completed over a mere five-day period.
"I think it will help us a lot, to get our legs back and recuperate," said Beasley, who started the team's first two matches and recorded an assist in the team's tournament-opening 4-3 victory over Panama on February 3. "I think the guys that start the game on Tuesday will be fresh and ready to run for 90 minutes, and even more with extra time or whatever."
The Mexican players should be well-prepared for this match, as well, not having to over-extend themselves too often in this tournament. The mighty Tricolores downed Trinidad & Tobago 3-1 last Tuesday, and manhandled Jamaica 4-0 two days later before tying Costa Rica 1-1 on Saturday. Despite the surprising result against the Ticos over the weekend, which gave Costa Rica first-place honors in Group B due to goal-differential, Mexico's unbeaten streak in U-23 qualification now stands at 19 games that extends all the way back to 1992 when they lost a 3-0 affair to the Claudio Reyna and Alexi Lalas-led U.S. squad in Bethlehem, Pa. (goals came from Steve Snow and Chris Henderson, and a clean sheet from Brad Friedel).
Myernick says not to read too much into Mexico's recent results, though, as Group A was much more difficult to get out of than Group B.
"I personally felt that our group was a much better group," said Myernick. "And I think that Mexico's first two games in their group weren't much of a test for them. I don't mean any disrespect to Jamaica or Trinidad & Tobago, but they simply weren't up to the same standard as some of the other teams in the tournament, and certainly not to the standard of the teams in our group. I just think Mexico has really only had one hard game in their group. But the game (on Tuesday) is going to be very, very good."
The player to watch on Mexico is playmaking midfielder Luis Ernesto Perez. The 23-year-old has been a standout for both Necaxa and his current club, Monterrey, for the past four years, which has earned him time with the full National Team. Most recently, Perez was part of the Mexican side that beat Brazil to win the CONCACAF Gold Cup last summer, and started against the U.S. last May in Houston when the squads played to a hard-fought scoreless draw. In this tournament, the diminutive midfielder has scored two goals and set up several others while playing in all three matches.
Juan Pablo Garcia, who wears the Number 10 shirt for Mexico, is also someone who also could wreak havoc for the U.S. defense. San Jose Earthquake fans might remember the Atlas midfielder from last month's Interliga when Garcia had a goal and an assist in his club's 2-2 with Club America. Mexico is strong in the net with Atlas goalkeeper Jose de Jesus Corona, who played as a backup for the National Team in both the Gold Cup last summer and in that match against the U.S. earlier in the spring.
For the U.S. to defeat Mexico and move on to both the Olympic Games and the tournament final against the winner of Honduras-Costa Rica, it must get strong play out of its backs. With Whitbread and Burciaga out, Myernick will have only five players who are mainly considered defenders. The back four will likely consist of 2003 Hermann Trophy winner and recent Columbus Crew draftee Chris Wingert and Ricky Lewis of the L.A. Galaxy playing as outside backs, with Marshall and Nat Borchers (Colorado Rapids) manning the central defense.
The key for the U.S., as always, will be the play of its National Team trio of Donovan, Beasley and Convey, who combined for five goals and four assists in the team's first two victories. With four of the goals, Convey currently leads the tournament in scoring. The success of the three longtime standouts comes not only from their respective professional and international experience, but also the time they've played together over the past several years.
"Landon, DaMarcus and I know where each other is going to be," said Convey. "We've played together enough, it's easy for us to know where each other is going to be."
Donovan said much of the same when commenting on the success Convey has enjoyed from the attacking midfielder position he's played in during the tournament.
"Bobby plays attacking mid(fielder) the way I like to play; he makes runs from deep," said Donovan. "I always want good service when I'm making those runs, so when he makes those, I make sure to give him service. He's just playing really well right now; he's just so confident.
"It's like with Beaz, too. We all know each other. And usually when we score goals, one of us has assisted on it. They've assisted me, or I've assisted Beaz, or Beaz has assisted Bobby and so on. We've been together for years and years, so it's no coincidence."
What Myernick has to decide is who to pair with Donovan up top. Alecko Eskandarian played with the San Jose Earthquake standout in the team's opening win against Panama, while Dallas Burn striker Ed Johnson got the nod in the second match against Canada. Though Johnson is seemingly the favorite to get the start against Mexico since he was rested against Honduras, Myernick might go with the "hot hand," so to speak, as Eskandarian lit up the Catrachos for three goals on Saturday.
What will be a given is the environment. The rivalry that exists with the full National Teams remains the same with these two sides. For Mexico, it is payback time for the 2-0 spanking the Americans put on them at the World Cup in 2002, not to mention the 5-1-1 record the U.S. has enjoyed against them since June of 2000.
"I think part of it is that it's the two best teams in CONCACAF, at least since I've been alive," said Wingert, who has been the only college player to be a regular on the U-23s since the current group came together in 2002. "I think part of it is that the full teams have had some great battles, so that kind of carries over to the Olympic and youth teams. Now that we're here in Mexico, that just adds to the excitement, to the rivalry."
Said Donovan: "I don't know how to compare it to something in American sports, maybe Yankees-Red Sox. I don't know. When you get to the biggest stage and a berth to Athens is on the line, there's nothing bigger, especially playing in Mexico."
Much in the same fashion Larry Bird used to enjoy silencing crowds with three-pointers more than hearing the cheers at the Boston Garden, the 21-year-old striker is looking forward to being in the hostile environment.
"As fun as it is to win a game at home in front of a lot of people," said Donovan, "there's nothing better than beating a team on their home turf, especially to go the Olympics. It would be indescribable. I can't picture a better scenario. If we win, you couldn't write a better script. It would be awesome."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com.