If it seems like last February's World Cup qualifier between the United States and Mexico happened in another lifetime, it's because in soccer terms, it did. On that stormy night in Columbus, the U.S. was brimming with confidence while El Tri was in disarray. Ahead of Wednesday's return encounter in Mexico City, the Yanks find themselves with a bit more swagger following their run to the final of the Confederations Cup. But they will also be facing a very different Mexico side at the Estadio Azteca.
The most obvious change for El Tri is at the top, where Javier Aguirre has returned for his second stint, replacing Sven-Goran Eriksson. It hasn't all been roses for the former Atletico Madrid manager, as witnessed by his side's 2-1 World Cup qualifying loss in El Salvador back on June 6. But the team's Gold Cup triumph, albeit one that came at the expense of a U.S. B/C team, has injected a bit more self-belief into the side.
"I think [Aguirre] is an experienced coach," said U.S. coach Bob Bradley during Monday's conference call with reporters. "They've now put together a few good results, and I think some of the different players he's brought in have taken advantage of the opportunity, and that makes them a team that is moving forward in this whole thing."
Among those new players are four who were unavailable during the first qualifier. Back in February, midfielder Andres Guardado and defender Jonny Magallon were both injured, while attacker Carlos Vela and midfielder Gerardo Torrado were suspended. While the loss of defender Rafa Marquez due to a left calf injury is a big blow, the other four are now available for Wednesday's match, giving Aguirre more options than his predecessor.
The additions of Torrado and Guardado are especially significant. With Pavel Pardo not among Aguirre's list of favorite players, it will be up to Torrado to provide the requisite bite in midfield, while also linking attack and defense. As for Guardado, his pace has done plenty to unhinge the U.S. in the past. When combined with players like the mercurial Nery Castillo and Gold Cup hero Giovani Dos Santos, El Tri have the kind of skill to make it a long day for the U.S. defense.
"They're not the biggest guys in the world, so they're not going to be doing much in the air," defender Jay DeMerit said in a telephone interview. "But on the floor, Mexico are as quick as anybody with their little one-two passes in and around the box to get people in. As a defender, ultimately, that's just being switched on to try and anticipate and react to make sure we're not giving them a lot of time to play those kinds of passes in the box and in our final third."
Of course, keeping up with such a varied attack will be even more difficult given the altitude and smog that accompany games at the Azteca, not to mention the afternoon 4 p.m. ET kickoff. That could mean the U.S. employs different tactics than it did at Crew Stadium six months ago. Back then, the Yanks pressed high up the field in a bid to take Pardo out of the match, and it worked to perfection, with U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley enjoying a man-of-the-match performance.
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U.S. vs. Mexico
Estadio Azteca; Mexico City, Mexico
4 p.m. ET, Mun2
But with the U.S. arriving just the day before the game, and having little time to acclimatize, a more conservative approach could be in order.
"[At the Azteca] you try not to think too much about conserving your energy," defender Carlos Bocanegra said via e-mail. "We are fit enough to play 90 minutes. The challenge is that you don't recover as quickly at altitude, so sometimes you have to be clever about your movement off the ball. It is really important to play as a team."
Despite all of these obstacles, the U.S. feels that this is as good a chance as it has ever had to finally end its Azteca hoodoo and walk away with its first-ever win. With five players in the current squad who traveled to the same fixture four years ago, and with the majority of the players on the roster plying their trade in Europe, the side has a nice blend of youth and experience. Their exploits at the Confederations Cup have also filled the side with confidence, although there is an awareness that those memories will only carry the team so far.
"I think all of us are happy to be back and you can see that confidence is still there," DeMerit said. "But because it's a different situation, it's important for us to take what we can from South Africa, and know that Mexico is a totally different game, and we'll have to be prepared for [the intense] atmosphere as well."
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That said, the Yanks' experience at the Confederations Cup can provide a blueprint for success. Down in South Africa, the U.S. employed a counterattacking style to good effect against Spain and Brazil, and given the difficult environment the U.S. will face, it's an approach that could serve them well on Wednesday.
Another factor in the Yanks' favor is the stakes involved. As the final round Hexagonal progresses, the pressure on the top four teams to defend their home turf becomes immense. A loss on Wednesday for the Yanks would be far from fatal, and if the U.S. were to snake a draw, the point gained would be dwarfed by the two points that Mexico would drop. The U.S. could essentially book its tickets to South Africa while Mexico could begin planning its trip to Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay, or some other inhospitable clime. It amounts to a huge test, but one with plenty of upside.
"We're under no illusions that it's a big challenge ahead," DeMerit said. "It's just a matter of us trying to ride that wave of confidence, and knowing we've competed and played with the best now in the last couple of months. We need it to continue."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at email@example.com.