Tuesday, July 21, 2009

USA-Mexico in Azteca: History

On the heels of the US Men's National Team's strong showing this summer at the Confederations Cup, and the ongoing success of the "B" team at the Gold Cup, a certain anticipation and fervor is building for the USA-Mexico World Cup qualifier on August 12 at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.

Just because it's fun, let's take a look at some USMNT numbers against Mexico (according to the records on the US Soccer official site):

15-29-11 all-time record dating back to 1934
13-7-8 record since 1990
10-2-2 record in the last 14 meetings
9-0-2 undefeated streak on US soil
1-0 record in World Cup Finals matches (dos-a-cero!)
0-22-1 all-time record on Mexican soil

Hmm, let's take a look at that last record, shall we (or maybe not). Ouch.

Now obviously the old records don't mean much, and even the results of 1998 World Cup qualifiers have little meaning due to the vastly different teams. With that in mind, and in light of the divergent directions the two country's programs have been headed recently, many fans are readying themselves for the first victory on Mexican soil (certainly have heard that before).

Estadio Azteca has long been a house of horrors for the US, with its altitude, the smog, and the searing heat, just a wonderful place to play. Azteca opened in 1966 and the first US match there was a 1-3 loss, with the worst losses being a 1-5 World Cup qualifying loss in 1980 and a 0-4 beating in the 1993 Gold Cup before 120,000 fans. Let's take a closer look at the four most recent matches and see if anything can be gleaned from it:

March 27, 2005 - USA 1-Mexico 2. The last World Cup qualifier in Mexico was also met by anticipation among US fans that this could be the year the Yanks finally break through at the Azteca. The final score does not do justice to the gulf between the teams on the day, as the US simply did not come out to play, particularly in the first half. Starting in his first big road qualifier, Oguchi Onyewu showed some inexperience and lost striker Jared Borgetti, who headed open the scoring after 30 minutes. Naelson doubled the score, and Eddie Lewis got the US back into the game after 59 minutes, but the US never really threatened to find an equalizer. Players that featured on that roster who will likely play important roles this year included Landon Donovan, Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi, Steve Cherundolo, and unused sub Clint Dempsey. Other current fringe players who were there included DaMarcus Beasley and Eddie Johnson. While Brian McBride was able to come off the bench that day, the lack of depth was evident when Bruce Arena's two attacking substitutions in search on an equalizer were Steve Ralston and Pat Noonan.

July 1, 2001 - USA 0-Mexico 1. Coming off a tie in the last WC qualifier at the Azteca, US had some thoughts toward getting another result. However, thorn in the US side Jared Borgetti headed home past Kasey Keller from Alberto Garcia Aspe's free kick for the only goal of the match only 16 minutes in. Keller played well and kept the Mexicans off the board for the rest of the game. This match featured a number of players bridging the 1998 WC debacle to the 2002 WC run (McBride, Tony Sanneh, Earnie Stewart, David Regis, ack, Joe-Max Moore, and that sexy beast and he of the awesome own goal, Jeff Agoos). Many of the key players from the 2002 WC did not play, including youngsters Donovan and Beasley, and veterans Claudio Reyna and John O'Brien (beach soccer superstar!). A young Cherundolo did feature, however.

August 1, 1999 - USA 0-Mexico 1 (OT). In a Confederations Cup semifinal, Mexico needed 97 minutes to break the US resistance. Keller again starred, only to be beaten after an unlucky bounce sent him the wrong way, opening the goal for that theatrical, diving humpback Cuauhtemoc Blanco. Tired US attackers rarely threatened the Mexican goal, playing on only two days rest.

November 2, 1997 - USA 0-Mexico 0. Before an estimated 114,600, the US manages its lone tie on Mexican soil. A team that featured players bridging the squad that broke through to the second round at the 1994 World Cup with 1998 team held its own after injured star Tab Ramos predicted the US could hold out a 0-0 game and go for the tie. With monstrous Brad Friedel playing behind Eddie Pope, Agoos, Alexi Lalas, Cobi Jones, and John Harkes. Jeff Agoos continued to show why he should always be counted on in the big games, receiving a red card.

So what does this history lesson teach us? If nothing else, the US is likely to play it tight, more conservative, keeping the score close, and counter-attacking more than we've seen at the Gold Cup and Confederations Cup. The US will talk about needing to play their game, and trying to score early to take out the crowd and disrupting Mexico's rhythm, but that's been a constant refrain in past, unsuccessful away matches. The game probably won't be a blow-out, as its been 16 years since Mexico scored more than two goals in a game against the US. The US probably won't win without Tim Howard making a few game changing saves. The US probably won't put the Mexican goal under siege, and will need to capitalize on a small number of opportunities. And its very possible that a few key players in the 2010 WC won't even play a role (with Jermaine Jones already heading that list). Mexico appears desperate, changing the mid-week game to a mid-day game to gather any and all advantages playing at the Azteca. While I won't give a more thorough game preview and prediction until closer to game day and with knowledge of the rosters, I can say that the feeling leading up to this match is different, with less hopefulness and more confidence and impudence, and that can only be a good thing in the USA's attempt to break with history.

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