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U.S.-Mexico rivalry takes center stage once more

We can tell only so much from a friendly. Head coaches may learn a bit about certain combinations. They can add a detail or two to the dossiers of individual players, helping nominally to sort out who can keep pace internationally.

But, really, with so little at stake, it's like a wedding rehearsal. You may walk through the steps, but you still don't know who may go wobbly and fumble their lines at the moment of truth.

It's the paradox of the friendly: Teams need them, despite a muted value. Show up. Play. Learn a little. Rinse. Repeat. It's all a bit humdrum.

With one big exception. U.S. Soccer and the Mexican federation have seen the value, financial and otherwise, of a high-profile set-to once a year, usually early in the calendar. It's the one occasion when the pressure of a friendly reaches critical mass -- nearly enough to simulate the weight of a match that truly matters.

And that's why everyone should savor U.S.-Mexico. Any U.S.-Mexico.

So what if the game won't affect either team's standing in World Cup qualifying? So what if no one is likely to lose his job over the result. (Well, it is Mexico, so you can never tell.) This match means something, as the two biggest bullies on the CONCACAF block (keep trying, Canada!) skirmish anew in the fluid claim for regional supremacy. More than 53,000 tickets have been sold for the shootout inside Houston's mammoth Reliant Stadium.

U.S. coach Bob Bradley acknowledges that certain friendlies do weigh more heavily than others as he continually rearranges the player pool pecking order. This is one of them. It's not so much that Bradley is enamored with extending his team's recent dominance; the United States is unbeaten in its past nine matches (eight wins and a draw) on home soil against El Tri.

The second-year U.S. coach isn't one to energize the hype machine. He's pretty much all business. It's another chance to tinker, one that will surely test his men more than a recent win over Sweden. The quality of opponent is what matters for Bradley.

"You always put a little more weight on bigger games, more important games, when the stage is bigger," he said. "We were fortunate that we had a lot of those games last year."

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

Most of those were in summer tournaments. Bradley closed his first year in charge with a series of friendlies. And he started the 2008 campaign the same way, prevailing over a deflated Sweden with his own B-listers. Now, in the first 2008 test of his full squad, he wants the American players to recognize the challenges Mexico presents and to respect that facing El Tri demands a higher level of energy and ideas.

"From a soccer standpoint, [I] have a great deal of respect for Mexico, for their players, for the way they play," he said. "We know when we come up against them it's going to be a tough challenge."

Business aside, Bradley recognizes and appreciates the rivalry. He's certainly tuned into Mexico's personnel. When he watches Barcelona these days, you better believe he's scanning to see if teen star Giovanni Dos Santos is on the field. Same for Nery Castillo at Manchester City or Andres Guardado at Deportivo, although the latter pair will miss Wednesday's match due to injury.

Bradley approaches everything about his job with a steely professionalism. For instance, here's a term that's reverberating in his brain these days: "single fixture date." That's a fancy way of saying that players will convene, engage and then scatter quickly.

It affects the European-based players most -- there are a dozen of them in Houston. They flew over Sunday or Monday and will hop right back across the Atlantic on Thursday. The United States had only two of these one-and-done dates last year. One was against Mexico in a 2-0 U.S. victory (on goals by Jimmy Conrad and Landon Donovan). Later in 2007, Bradley's men did the single-fixture shuffle in Sweden in a match that worked in reverse; it was the MLS-based talent forced to navigate tough travel.

"It's important to understand the demands of a single-fixture date," Bradley said Sunday, just before boarding a plane out of L.A. bound for Texas. Getting hold of that tricky nuance is important because the U.S. players and coaches will be up against it later this year as World Cup qualifying begins.

Twelve players are here from Europe, whereas last year Bradley called just four from abroad for the Mexican matchup. But don't read too much into that; it has more to do with individual circumstances. In short, there are fewer players this year with good reasons to remain with their clubs.

For instance, recent Fulham signing Eddie Johnson is essentially on trial with the London club. He needs to be there. Several players were tied up similarly last year, and it sometimes doesn't make sense to uproot them.

Coach Hugo Sanchez is certainly bringing a strong team from Mexico. Bradley says Sanchez's selections didn't influence his own late picks; the U.S. coach announced which European-based players would travel only on Saturday, two days after Sanchez unveiled his roster.

In Mexican up-and-comers like Dos Santos and Carlos Vela (from Spain's Osasuna), Sanchez faces some of the same issues Bradley faces regarding players like Jozy Altidore, Benny Feilhaber and Michael Bradley (who continues to be a scoring machine at Heerenveen in Holland). Both coaches must determine how quickly to bring the youngsters along.

After all, they will form not only the core of their squads going forward -- they'll form the new face of the region's top rivalry.

"We know who all these players are, on both sides," Bradley said. "We haven't had a game between the teams yet where we've seen all these [new] guys, or as many of these guys. But I think that's coming. Whether we get a little taste of it [Wednesday]? That's possible. But certainly, down the road, we'll see it. That's what I mean when I say it'll be a new level for the rivalry."

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.