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Mar 26, 2005

U.S. hopes to exorcise demons

MEXICO CITY -- Oddly enough, U.S. captain Claudio Reyna has never played in Azteca Stadium with the U.S. national team. During the side's 1-0 loss during the middle of World Cup qualification in 2001, Reyna was forced to miss the match due to yellow card accumulation.

Sure, Reyna has been here with the Olympic team, but nothing will compare to the environment that he'll experience when the U.S. takes on Mexico in an Easter Sunday matchup (ESPN2, 1 p.m. ET) that features the top two sides in CONCACAF facing off in a World Cup qualification match.

"It will be one of the greatest atmospheres I've ever played in," Reyna said on Saturday morning at the team's hotel before the Americans held their last training session for the match. "With all the caps I have, I can't remember playing in front of a bigger crowd."

There are expected to be a crowd of between 110,000 and 120,000 packed into a stadium that has always served as the ultimate snakepit for opposing teams. The numbers are staggering. Consider that the U.S. has gone 0-7-1 in Azteca in its history, scoring a mere three goals and allowing 18. In World Cup qualifiers alone, the U.S. is 0-3-1, with the lone positive result coming in November 1997 when Steve Sampson's side earned a point with a 0-0 tie despite playing down a man for the majority of the second half.

Overall, the U.S. is 0-21-1 against Mexico when playing on the road. As horrible as the record sounds, it's par for the course when you look at how the tricolores have absolutely dominated their opponents in World Cup qualifiers at home. Their record: 53-1-4.

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No wonder Arena had his team training at the same elevation (7,000 feet-plus) above sea level, in Colorado Springs, since March 10 to get the team acclimated to the climate they are about to immerse themselves in Sunday.

"We're not going to limit the effects of it entirely," Arena said, "but we hope to cut down the minutes of discomfort for our players."

Arena summoned 11 players from European-based clubs early last week, with most arriving in the U.S. on Sunday after playing in league matches over the weekend. While the U.S. Soccer Federation did not release the roster, the 11 at the team's hotel are DaMarcus Beasley, Gregg Berhalter, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Bobby Convey, Landon Donovan, Cory Gibbs, Kasey Keller, Eddie Lewis, Oguchi Onyewu and Reyna. They joined the 13 MLS-based players who made the trip from Colorado on Friday evening.

One might assume Arena would use a MLS-heavy lineup against Mexico, since those were the players that are the most acclimatized to the altitude. However, Arena made it perfectly clear that it's vital to remember how far behind MLS players are in their fitness-level to that of the European-based players who have been playing in matches for the past seven months.

"I was most interested in the conditioning of the domestic players to give them a chance to play either this game or the next game," Arena said. "You can't take six months off and then expect to play in World Cup qualifiers. That's the issue. Altitude training did more for the fitness level of our domestic level than it did for our European players."

That said, Arena is likely to play a lineup featuring only a few MLS players. Outside of usual starter Keller in goal, his options in the defense are limited with Eddie Pope and Frankie Hejduk back home with their club teams due to injuries sustained in training with the national team. He'll likely use Steve Cherundolo at right back, just as he did against Trinidad & Tobago last month. After that, he can either go with Berhalter and Gibbs as central defenders, with Bocanegra out wide as the left back, or pair Gibbs with Bocanegra and give Chris Albright his first start in a qualifier as the left back.

In midfield, the likeliest scenario has Arena putting Reyna and Pablo Mastroeni together as holding midfielders behind attackers Beasley and Donovan. Up top, Eddie Johnson will get the start, most likely alongside Brian McBride.

"We'll use our best players in this game," said Arena, playing close to the vest as usual.

Mexico is expected to play in a 3-5-2 with Ricardo Osorio organizing the back three that includes left back Marquez. Reyna mentioned that Marquez has been playing well for FC Barcelona this year.

"He's their captain and he gives them confidence," Arena said. "Not only is he a good defender, but he imposes a threat on set pieces in the air, he makes good passes out of the back and he comes forward."

Pavel Pardo is the linchpin in the midfield out of a deeper lying position than Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who sits beside the strikers. Up front, Jared Borguetti will be the main scoring threat, alongside Francisco Fonseca.

The level of smog is visibly less than it's been in the past and the humidity isn't expected to be stifling as it's been for past U.S.-Mexico matches. It has been sunny and in the 80s, a far cry from some of the environments the U.S. players have encountered in recent qualifiers.

The other main change appears to be the collective attitude of this U.S. side. Arena used the word "swagger" when speaking about his team's psyche earlier in the week, and both Reyna and Donovan backed it up when they spoke to the media Saturday. When he first came into the fold four years ago, Donovan said, he was satisfied just getting a chance to play in big matches. The players trained hard and hoped to compete with every team in the region and eke out some results here and there.

That attitude has changed dramatically after the side's recent success. To wit, a run in the World Cup as quarterfinalists and a current 16-game unbeaten streak that dates back to last February's 1-0 against Holland in Amsterdam. In addition, they have not lost in 31 matches to a CONCACAF opponent since 2001 (Costa Rica). And, yes, that includes four matches against Mexico during that span that has seen the U.S. go 3-0-1 against its biggest rival.

"Now we really believe that we should beat teams regardless of who it is," Donovan said. "We really believe we should win no matter who [it's against] or where it is."

To do just that in Azteca Stadium, Reyna believes it'll be imperative for the U.S. to try and settle the match early on.

"The first 15 to 20 minutes of the game will be very important," said Reyna, who has played in three matches for Manchester City since returning from an injury. "They'll throw numbers forward and try to intimidate us."

Donovan, 23, thinks his side can be effective by using its speed in the midfield and upfront to counter attack. He also mentioned that the all-important experience factor will come into play; he knows that the roar of 115,000 fans can make it hard for even the wisest, most battle-hardened player to keep his head.

"It is very important that we don't get caught up emotionally," Donovan said.

That venom that exists from the 2-0 victory over Mexico in the round of 16 of the 2002 World Cup surely will spill. All week long, Mexico's players have been recounting the upset loss and telling local media that they should expect something different this time around.

"I have a bad taste in my mouth, a bad memory of them, and I'm waiting to take out my anger," captain Rafael Marquez said.

"No one is going to come here and beat us," added goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez.

In Friday's edition of Record, the banner for the match on several pages included an "Aqui No!" (Not Here!) tagline.

Said Reyna: "I think it's a bit insulting to them because soccer is the one-and-only sport in this country. For us, to beat them on a consistent basis and to match up with them evenly is probably something they don't like. I think they'll use any way possible to throw us off our game."

It should make for a typical classico, as this matchup has quickly become one of the most-anticipated games in the Northern Hemisphere and is one of the most-heated rivalries in world soccer, as well as the rivalry in North America.

"This is every American's dream," Johnson said. "You couldn't ask for a better environment."

Considering that was spoken by a player who has not been a part of either the 0-7-1 and 0-21-1 stretches of years past, perhaps the fear factor is truly gone. Perhaps the shift of power in this rivalry resides with the U.S., which is 6-1-1 in its last eight against Mexico. For that to start, though, the U.S. must exorcise the demons in Azteca Stadium.

Perhaps the curse ends Sunday.

U.S. roster vs. Mexico

Chris Albright; DaMarcus Beasley; Gregg Berhalter; Carlos Bocanegra; Jon Busch; Steve Cherundolo; Brian Ching; Bobby Convey; Clint Dempsey; Landon Donovan; Cory Gibbs; Kevin Hartman; Eddie Johnson; Kasey Keller; Eddie Lewis; Chad Marshall; Pablo Mastroeni; Brian McBride; Pat Noonan; Oguchi Onyewu; Steve Ralston; Claudio Reyna; Josh Wolff; Kerry Zavagnin.

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: marc@oakwoodsoccer.com.