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Feb 9, 2009

U.S. heavily favored but still wary of Mexico

For all the success the U.S. men's national team has enjoyed at home against Mexico, there have been few, if any, occasions when the Americans have been considered solid favorites. Crowds in the U.S., with a few notable exceptions, have tended to be pro-Mexico, and "El Tri" usually has had more of its first-choice lineup available. But with Mexico short-handed heading into Wednesday's World Cup qualifier against the U.S., and with a boisterous home crowd set to fill Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, it is the Americans who look primed for victory. Or is it? Further inspection reveals that the difference between the two sides isn't as large as it might seem. Granted, on the surface, little is going right for Mexico. The visitors are beset by injuries to Andres Guardado and Jonny Magallon, as well as suspensions of Carlos Vela, Gerardo Torrado and Fernando Arce. Mexico's attack has found goals hard to come by of late, and overall, the team looks incapable of ending its 10-match winless run against the Yanks on U.S. soil. In fact, so skeptical is the Mexican public that a paper in Mexico has taken to selling voodoo dolls so fans can stick pins into their most reviled opponents. But what seems to be a perfect scenario for the U.S. looks every bit like a potential ambush to the American players. That's why, to a man, they aren't buying the pity party being held on Mexico's behalf. "Mexico has a tremendously deep talent pool," U.S. forward Brian Ching said. "Any players they put on the field, especially for this game, you expect that they're going to be playing really well. It's going to be difficult, even if they are going to be missing some of their big players." Besides the quality and ferocity of the opponent, there are some other compelling reasons to ignore Mexico's Jedi mind trick. Right back Steve Cherundolo is out with a hip injury, meaning energetic but offensively limited Frankie Hejduk likely will take his place.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Mexico
Wednesday
Crew Stadium; Columbus, Ohio
7 p.m. ET, ESPN2 HD, ESPN360
U.S. manager Bob Bradley faces an even bigger puzzle on the left flank. It's been months since midfielder DaMarcus Beasley played in a competitive match. Will Bradley risk putting talented but inexperienced Jose Francisco Torres in Beasley's place? There also is concern at left back. Heath Pearce has been idle for an extended period of time, with his last league appearance with Hansa Rostock occurring back in December. That could open the door for Jonathan Bornstein, who logged some effective minutes in last month's friendly against Sweden before fading late in the match. After enduring an injury-hit 2008, Bornstein said he was "just happy to be back in the mix." But the fact remains that the Chivas USA defender would add some pace to the U.S. back line. Plus, he has had some past success against the kind of skillful attackers that permeate Mexico's roster. It all adds up to some difficult decisions for Bradley. "Sometimes, in a training session, it's not that you get a great answer, but you get a gut feeling [about a player]," Bradley said on Monday's conference call. "In other cases, you're going on track record and experience. There's no set way to make those decisions, but certainly the fact that some guys haven't been playing as much is a concern." Bradley's lineup questions aside, some other factors are beginning to break Mexico's way, as well. With moderate temperatures in the 50s being forecast for the Columbus area on Wednesday, it appears that "The Cold War" (or "La Guerra Fria," as it's being called in the Mexican media) will be warmer than originally expected. In terms of personnel, things also are looking up for Mexico. Defender Rafa Marquez and midfielder Pavel Pardo have overcome their injuries and look set to play. The recovery of Pardo, in particular, could have a huge effect on how the game plays out. His likely pairing in the center of midfield with Leandro Augusto will see him go up against the relatively inexperienced pairing of Michael Bradley and Sacha Kljestan, and Pardo's veteran savvy, courtesy of his 142 caps, no doubt will prove an immense challenge for the young duo. "The center of the field is important, and we hope to make it hard for them in that part of the field," Bradley added. "Certainly that's something we've done well in some of our important games to this point. We know that Pardo is an incredibly important player for them, so we need to close him down quickly, put him under pressure and make the game difficult for him." Both Bradley and Kljestan have had some good performances for the U.S. in the past year, but those matches tended to occur against teams that took a defensive posture against the Americans, allowing them to dictate the tempo. When teams have applied pressure further upfield, the U.S. has struggled. Given the rivalry between the two sides, as well as Mexico's preference to carry the game to its opponents, it's imperative that Bradley and Kljestan play mistake-free soccer.
U.S. vs. Mexico
Last five home World Cup qualifiers

Sept. 3, 2005 -- W, 2-0, Columbus, Ohio

Feb. 28, 2001 -- W, 2-0, Columbus, Ohio

April 20, 1997 -- T, 2-2, Foxborough, Mass.

Nov. 23, 1980 -- W, 2-1, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Oct. 3, 1976 -- T, 0-0, Los Angeles
That doesn't mean the Americans will need to take the same kind of attacking initiative as Mexico. In the past, simply disrupting Mexico's rhythm, while being opportunistic on counterattacks and set pieces, has proved to be a recipe for success, and that formula is one the U.S. will look to duplicate Wednesday. "Defensively, we have to have a good shape about our team," Bornstein said. "And then play quickly when we get [possession] and get the ball to the guys who we want to have it. But closing Mexico down quickly will make the game easier for us and help us play it on our terms." That requires getting the ball to Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, whose solid play at club level gives the U.S. something Mexico doesn't have at the moment: two in-form attackers capable of creating something out of nothing. Combined with Ching's dirty work up top, the American offense is operating closer to its peak than its Mexican counterpart. That isn't to say El Tri doesn't have talented attackers. Players such as Antonio "Zinha" Naelson, Omar Bravo and Nery Castillo have shown they have the ability to unlock any defense, even when time with their clubs has proved scarce. The question is: Can Mexico get enough of them playing well together to pose a threat to the Yanks? "Even if [Mexico] has been struggling in past games, soccer is a game where you can never count someone out," Bornstein said. "At any given time, guys can score and create very good plays. We can't take them lightly, and we have to be prepared for whatever comes our way." If the Americans can apply that kind of mentality Wednesday, perhaps they'll live up to their billing as favorites. Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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