U.S. prepares for altitude, attitude of Azteca
MIAMI -- American soccer players have a pretty good idea of what to expect at Wednesday's World Cup qualifier at Azteca Stadium, even if only four of them have played there before.
"Any top professional will tell you they're not afraid to go into big atmospheres like that, because that's why you work so hard, you want to get the highest level," goalkeeper Tim Howard said Monday. "You can play in front of 10,000 if you want, but if you want to get to where it really counts, it going to be hostile. That's part of the whole test that's going to present itself to us."
More than 100,000 fans are expected to be in the stands at Azteca, at 7,200-feet altitude with smog likely. The United States will come to Azteca with 17 players from the team that finished second to Brazil in the Confederations Cup earlier this summer, but will not be bringing defender Frankie Hejduk and midfielder DaMarcus Beasley.
After the team trained in Miami on Monday morning, coach Bob Bradley said the single-fixture date made it challenging to both train and assemble a squad. Twelve of his 20 players came in from Europe and will go straight back after the match.
"There's always many factors, and again, single-fixture dates make everything extra difficult because you don't have that full week of training to really look at everybody," Bradley said. "We do our homework, we're constantly checking on players, watching games. The fact that this has been preseason for some of them makes it a little bit more difficult, but I think that we have a good group."
Six players were absent from Monday's training session, including 19-year-old striker Jozy Altidore, who was being granted a British work permit and completing his loan move to Hull. When the six rejoin the team later this week, they will look to break a dismal skid in Mexico's capital; The U.S. has never won in Mexico.
"It takes a real team effort," Bradley said of playing in the stadium. "Certainly the crowd, the altitude, the air quality, those are things that the players understand are not perfect. But nonetheless, when the team mentality is strong, when the focus is right, then you have a chance. And that's what we are talking about."
Costa Rica (4-1) leads the finals of North and Central American and the Caribbean with 12 points, followed by the United States (3-1-1) with 10, Honduras (2-2-1) with seven, Mexico (2-3) with six, El Salvador (1-2-2) with five and Trinidad and Tobago (0-3-2) with two. The top three nations qualify for next year's World Cup, and the No. 4 team goes to a playoff against the No. 5 nation from South America. Fifteen members of the U.S. team have previously played against the Mexican team.
"There's no bigger game for an American player than to play Mexico," said Howard, who has faced the team before but never in Azteca. "It's a fantastic rivalry. What can you say about Mexico? They're an amazing team. We have a lot of respect for them. I think it goes both ways, as I've always said before, respect shows itself in different ways sometimes -- passion, hatred. But at the end of the day, they respect us and we respect them."
Wednesday's qualifier comes less than a month after Mexico beat the United States 5-0 at East Rutherford, N.J., to win the CONCACAF Gold Cup on July 26 -- but nearly all the players in that match were backups. The Americans proved they could be formidable opponents in the Confederations Cup in June, upsetting top-ranked Spain and taking a two-goal lead against Brazil in the final before losing 3-2.
"We're definitely confident," U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said. "We showed we could play with the best teams in the world and beat them as well. As far as cocky or complacent, no. We know we still have a lot of work to do, and it's not easy, whoever you're playing."