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Feb 3, 2008

Sanchez downplays matchup with the U.S.

It's funny how easy it is to drive from the backseat. When he was breathing down the neck of then-Mexican coach Ricardo Lavolpe, Hugo Sanchez criticized him for bringing in naturalized players and for failing to win versus the United States in the United States.

Lavolpe never managed that feat during his four-year tenure with Mexico.

Since taking over for Lavolpe at the close of 2006, Sanchez has had two chances to lead El Tri to a defeat of the U.S., but he has fallen short in both attempts. The first loss, in a friendly in February 2007, started off his coaching tenure on a sour note. The second failure, a few months later, cost Mexico the regional CONCACAF championship, with the U.S. claiming the Gold Cup title instead.

Both times, Sanchez blustered about how the better team on the day had been Mexico, regardless of the final score. Although support for Sanchez was boosted by crucial positive results against teams such as Brazil, it is a measure of his extreme popularity with the public in his home country that he has received only a measure of criticism for losing to the U.S. Yet, if he falls short on his third shot at defeating the pesky Americans, the backlash could be dire.

Following their coach's lead, many of Mexico's star players read off the same script after the two disappointing setbacks, repeatedly insisting that they had played with more style, aggression and skill, while the Americans merely took their chances better and won.

If the lines don't change, the ending will stay the same.

That could be why Sanchez decided to make changes at some key positions. His roster for the Feb. 6 match against the U.S. (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2) includes Antonio Naelson, the same Brazilian-born midfielder Sanchez spoke of as being a "foreigner" back when Lavolpe first capped him for Mexico.

Small wonder that Naelson, nicknamed "Zinha," was surprised to get the call from Sanchez, although he recovered enough to wax philosophical about the opportunity. "Bad things should be left in the past," Naelson said, adding that he bore Sanchez no ill will and was ready and eager to help Mexico versus the U.S.

If bringing in Naelson is not quite a move of desperation, there still is a certain urgency to Sanchez's actions of ahead of what is, on the surface, a friendly match.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Mexico
Feb. 6
Reliant Stadium, Houston, Texas
9 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Mexico and the U.S. don't really play friendlies, however, at least not since the Americans started winning some of those matches. Instead, the two teams compete in important and slightly-less-important contests in which pride and bragging rights always are on the line. "It's never a friendly with Mexico -- it's always very intense," U.S. star Landon Donovan said.

The most crucial of these clashes was at the 2002 World Cup. The U.S. team's triumph on the world's biggest stage was a blow to the soccer ego of Mexico -- which has enjoyed far more international acclaim than its northern neighbor. Sanchez had vowed to restore that esteem.

Yet Sanchez now is displaying more humility than in the past, and it seems clear that the stumbles versus the U.S. have prodded this new approach. The about-face on naturalized players provides ample evidence that he is willing to risk being seen as a turncoat if it yields any competitive advantage.

At the same time, Sanchez also is trying to downplay the matchup, describing it as simply "another game" and specifically mentioning that he instead looks forward to facing rivals on the level of Argentina and Brazil. The pretense of decreasing the magnitude of a game in order to reduce the pressure on the participants is a tried-and-true tactic employed by coaches the world over.

"It's more painful to lose to them, because of the rivalry," said Claudio Suarez, a former national team player who plays for Chivas USA in MLS. Suarez, a veteran of many Mexico-U.S. clashes, also was losing to the Los Angeles Galaxy in league play until his team made a concerted effort to diminish the competitive hype, insisting the game was nothing special. It might have helped, as Chivas USA now has a winning streak against its Los Angeles neighbors.

Even as Sanchez has minimized the challenge the U.S. presents, though, he also has primed an excuse, should Mexico lose again. Sanchez told the Mexican press it was a shame the game will be played on U.S. soil, implying the Americans might get the benefit of "home cooking" on calls or via fan support, despite the fact that Mexican fans will dominate in the stands in Houston.

The Mexican squad faces a strange quandary when it takes on the U.S. Because of the historic supremacy claimed by El Tri, the team is expected to win. That it has been so stymied so regularly in recent times has led to a bit of a complex that affects the results on the field. Mexico usually plays well but succumbs to nerves on the final pass or shot, while the U.S. defends stoutly and lies in wait for an opportunity. Inevitably, the mental strain and frustration take a toll on the anxious Mexican players, and a mistake ensues that the U.S. is able to exploit. Since 2000, the comfort zone of Azteca Stadium has been the only place where Mexico's players have been able overcome those jitters and claim victory.

Perhaps that was part of the reason Sanchez called Naelson. The midfielder is a consummate pro who is less likely to be rattled by the sporting enmity between the U.S. and Mexico simply because he, born and raised elsewhere, is not consumed by it.

It's likely that neither are Giovanni Dos Santos or Carlos Vela, two young players who never have faced the U.S. at the senior level. In fact, only four players currently on the Mexican roster (now that Andres Guardado is likely out with injury) saw game action against the Americans in the 2007 friendly.

It might be pure coincidence that the current squad brings little emotional baggage to distract them from the game. It could be merely a fluke that the Mexican players have dialed down all boasting to practically nil, giving the U.S. no bulletin-board material. It might be, though, that Sanchez finally has hit upon the strategy with which his team can triumph in the rivalry: Pretend there isn't one.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.