Albright eager for Azteca showdown
MEXICO CITY -- Chris Albright has heard the horror stories.
And despite having competed for his country in the World Youth Championships as a U-20, the Olympic Games in Sydney, and now over a dozen times for the full national team, the 26-year-old defender knows that he's abut to enter an environment he's never comes close to encountering before when the U.S. side steps inside the cauldron of futbol horrors that is Azteca Stadium to take on Mexico on Sunday afternoon.
"I understand it's going to be a zoo," says Albright in the same fashion someone describes a wild party they about to get ready for, rather than someone who has been losing sleep over the thought of playing in what is one of the toughest places for a visiting side to win in the world.
Albright's hardly naïve about the task at hand, either. He knows that the U.S. hasn't won a match at Azteca in eight tries getting outscored an abysmal 18-3, and that the combined hazards of playing at 7,000 feet above sea level in one of the most smog-filled and polluted environments this planet has to offer is hardly ideal. But for a player who is just starting to achieve "regular" status with the U.S. national team, his calm and confident demeanor about this all-important World Cup qualifying match reflects that of the other players that Bruce Arena has integrated into the lineup during his six-plus years as U.S. manager:
They just don't seem to get intimidated. By anything.
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In fact, they almost relish going into the Lion's Den, which is exactly heard in the tone of Albright's voice.
"I can't wait to experience it all first-hand, really," says Albright. "The one thing that some of the players I've talked to mention about playing in Azteca is the constant drone of horns. You have 120,000 fans packed in there, and every other one of them is blowing a horn."
Albright has also heard about the bags of urine that have been known to be flung down on the field during matches, along with beer bottles and, as his former teammate with the L.A. Galaxy told him, batteries.
"Alexi Lalas one time told me a story about how he picked up the ball on the sideline and was just about to throw it in when all of a sudden a battery rifled into the back of his head," he says. "I guess you got to be ready for anything there."
For Albright and his teammates, that meant training for several weeks in Colorado Springs, Colo., at about the same altitude that they'll be in on Sunday. The Philadelphia native said that it got a lot easier running in the thin Rocky Mountain air after a few days of getting used to it and acclimatizing. He says he's been taking iron supplements and multivitamins every day at lunch, as well, to help his body deal with the lack of oxygen.
While that's been a focus of the team and its importance is paramount come Sunday, Albright has had bigger things on his mind. Like getting his first start in a World Cup qualifier. Since Eddie Pope is unavailable for this match due to a strained hamstring, Arena will likely have to use Carlos Bocanegra and Cory Gibbs as his two central defenders, leaving the position of left back open.
In the recent past, Arena has used both of the aforementioned centerbacks in that position, along with Greg Vanney and even Bobby Convey. Vanney is not on the roster, and Convey hasn't been seeing any meaningful action with his club team in England (Reading FC). In addition, Albright has been playing on the left side the past three matches. First, as a left midfielder during the second half of the 2-1 victory over Trinidad & Tobago last month to kick off the final round of World Cup qualifying. And then as a left back - as a marking back in a 3-5-2 formation, and the other time as a wing back in a 4-4-2 system - in the past two friendlies against Colombia and Honduras.
This position change came about after Arena initially moved the longtime striker and midfielder to right back last year. That move, or "experiment" that Albright says he called it at the time, resulted in him playing as a right back for the L.A. Galaxy last season, as well. Arena has been pleased enough with the results to try him out on the left.
"At every camp, Bruce has a five-to-10 minute meeting with every player," says Albright. "In our last meeting, he told me that he was happy with my progress, and said that I have grown as a defender. And I agree, because it's not just about making the tackles and playing further back on the field. What took me time to develop was the whole defensive mindset where you step out onto the field with the goal to not let the other team penetrate the defense and get to your goal, rather than to go out there and score a goal."
Now that he's comfortable back there, he says that moving to the left isn't as difficult as one would think it is.
"At this level, the guys are all two-footed, so it's not as much about using the left foot," he says. "Where it differs is in your set-up touch before you strike the ball. Using your right to play to your left. Doing that quickly in the back when forwards are closing on you is something that's really important and is something I work on."
While he fully calls himself a right back now after going through that Tony Sanneh-ish type of metamorphosis throughout 2004, he knows that being versatile will help him continue to keep getting selected for camps and, ultimately, getting onto the field.
"As many different positions as I can play is only going to help me, and the team," he says. "It doesn't matter to me. I'll play wherever I am needed."
In order to exorcise the demons of U.S. Soccer past at Azteca Stadium on Easter Sunday, that's the type of outlook every one of Arena's players will need to have.
Even if that job entails getting hit by a battery on, of all days, Easter Sunday.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.