So much is unknown heading into this latest battle between the two giants of CONCACAF. Mostly, no one knows what to make of either of the sides. Who is the real United States team anyway? The team that was embarrassed for the first half of the Confederations Cup? The team that thumped Egypt, toppled Spain, and nearly beat Brazil? The team that never stood a chance in Costa Rica? The team that laid down for their biggest rival on home soil? Because of those inconsistencies, it is impossible to know what kind of performance the Americans will give. Perhaps the Confederations Cup was a turning point. Perhaps not. The answer will be on display tomorrow.
The Mexicans hope to have found their own turning point in the 5-0 Gold Cup thrashing of the Americans, ending a decade of frustration on American soil. This is likely to boost Mexican confidence in front of kickoff, but will it make any difference against a totally different lineup once the whistle is blown? The Mexicans have been ghastly so far in World Cup qualifying, finishing tied with Jamaica and advancing on goal difference in the third round of CONCACAF qualifying. Their poor performance has already cost Sven-Goran Erikkson his job, leading to the return of Javier Aguirre. A record of two wins and three losses so far in the final stage of qualifying does not bode well for one of the two CONCACAF superpowers.
This match is about pressure, but there are different kinds of pressure for the two sides. For the Americans, there is the pressure of the atmosphere itself. Azteca is terrible. The altitude, the smog, the lunatic fans: there's a reason no one wins there. Because this is an isolated one game World Cup qualifier rather than a back to back, the US will have exactly one day to get used to the atmosphere in Mexico City. Perfect. But there's also a different kind of pressure on Bob Bradley and the US players. Two decades ago there were few football fans born here in the States, and they were heard from even less. But the growth of the sport over the last two decades, as well as the growth of the internet as a way for football fans to communicate, has created expectations for the USMNT. Much was made of how surprised the team was to the hostile reaction back home to the listless 3-0 defeat to Brazil in the group stage. For most of its history, the team has never really had outside expectations. Now they do. There are fans that care passionately about American football, and that has to be a good thing. But it also means that for every failure, there will be criticism and even anger. If the United States lose in Gold Cup-esque fashion, expect some more of that anger to be aimed at Bradley in particular.
For Mexico, there is a different kind of pressure. They are playing at home against their hated rival, and they are expected to win. Nothing else is good enough. If the scoreline is unflattering getting on in the second half, will the Mexicans press and make a mistake? Take out their frustrations with an untimely tackle and red card (though no Marquez to do it)? One counterattack or opening could be just the opportunity the Americans need. Along with the pressure of an entire nation expecting a win, there is the larger World Cup picture. At the moment, Mexico sits fourth in the CONCACAF qualification table, and would play a home-and-away playoff with the fifth place team from CONMEBOL. The Mexicans surely want no part of that, as there would be a genuine possibility they would not qualify for the World Cup. For Mexico to not qualify (in CONCACAF no less!) would be completely humiliating. In the worst case scenario, if Mexico lost to the United States, Honduras defeated Costa Rica at home, and El Salvador won in Trinidad, the table would look like this after six matches:
United States: 13
Costa Rica: 12
El Salvador: 8
Trinidad and Tobago: 2
Mexico would then have only four matches to make up the necessary points and qualify for South Africa. Mexico do have a fairly favorable schedule from here on out, getting Honduras and El Salvador at home and traveling to Trinidad and Costa Rica. The Mexicans would be substantial favorites in all but the Costa Rica match. So a win against the United States and everything is likely fine as far as qualification goes. Lose, and they may well be watching the World Cup and television. And surely the Mexican players know it.
Plan on heading out to the bar for the match tomorrow, because that's always the liveliest way to go. I'll be at Chicago's finest football bar. Or you can watch it from home on...mun2?! ESPN was not able to acquire the rights to this game, so the only English broadcast of the game is on mun2, owned by Telemundo (which is owned by NBC). What is mun2? I'm so glad you asked. Thanks to this press release, I know now that mun2 is "the lifestyle cable network for bicultural Latinos 18-34...and offers popular series that include 'The Chicas Project,' '18 and Over,' and 'Reventon Countdown.'” Some of my favorites. Mun2 is also "culturally-grounded and reflects the best of both worlds – mun2 is uniquely American." I'm so glad I have press releases to tell me these things. Mun2 apparently reaches 30 million households, including my own, though I never knew I had it. For everyone else...find a football bar. This is still an improvement over the last USA-Mexico qualifier at Azteca, which had no English language broadcast at all.
Other previews: Landon Donovan is a leader. The Americans, perhaps rightfully for the first time ever, like their chances. World Cup positioning, not just qualification, is at stake. The United States looks to make history. Grant Wahl re-lives memorable US-Mexico moments. A glance at the physical and psychological toll that is Azteca. Five reasons the US can win. And in case anybody forgot, we stole Texas, which I guess is reason enough for chanting "Osama" at the US National Team.