BY MIKE WOITALLA
in Mexico City
Teams that venture into Mexico City encounter a slew of infamous obstacles. ThereÆs the 7,800 altitude, the huge fan support, heat and lung-burning air pollution.
No doubt about the altitude, and ôair quality is expected to be unsatisfactoryö at game time tomorrow, according to the Metropolitan Commission for Prevention & Control of Air Pollution.
But the USA arrived on Saturday to comfortable 70 degree weather and a cloudy sky. The big question is whether the fans will show up tomorrow. Only 30,000 attended MexicoÆs last home game -- the 2-1 loss to Costa Rica that marked MexicoÆs first World Cup qualifying loss at home.
So far, MexicoÆs hopes are high that Azteca could fill to near 115,000 capacity for the noon kickoff.
About 50,000 tickets were sold by Wednesday evening and the cheapest seats ($10) go on sale tomorrow. The appeal of the rivalry with its northern neighbor is credited with reviving fan interest in El Tri. Also, new coach Javier Aguirre welcomes up to six players from Cruz Azul, which lost the Libertadores Cup final to Boca Juniors on penalty kicks despite a 1-0 second leg win in Buenos Aires on Thursday.
The Cruz Azul players are being hailed is heroes; Mexico President Vicente Fox called them ôtrue champions.ö In particular, forward Francisco Palencia is expected to revitalize the Mexican attack.
The USA hopes to add to the 13 points it has garnered from its first five Hexagonal games and notch its first win against El Tri ever in Mexico.
ôI think weÆre capable of winning,ö U.S. coach Bruce Arena, whose team beat Mexico, 2-0, in Columbus, Ohio, Feb. 28.
On Nov. 2, 1997, the USA had its best result in Azteca Stadium, a 0-0 tie with Mexico that put the Americans on the way to France æ98, along with Mexico and Jamaica. Before that game, the USA had lost six games at Azteca Stadium.
This time, Mexico faces a must-win situation, having on four points from its first five Hexagonal games. ThereÆs much less pressure on the first-place Americans.
ôWeÆre going to qualify at some point,ö Arena said. ôIt wonÆt be tomorrow [because itÆs not mathematically possible]. But maybe it will be with game 7, 8 or 9. IÆm pretty sure weÆll qualify.ö
Kasey Keller will start in goal in front of a backline of (right to left) Steve Cherundolo, Carlos Llamosa, Jeff Agoos and David Regis.
Claudio ReynaÆs yellow-card suspension means that either Earnie Stewart or Joe-Max Moore will play in the attacking midfield spot. If itÆs Moore, expect Sanneh on the right, Stewart on the left and Armas as the defensive midfielder. If Stewart plays in the middle, Cobi Jones is likely to play wide left.
Jovan Kirosvki and Ante Razov are set to start upfront.
ôTheyÆve [Mexico] made so many changes,ö Sanneh said, ôwe donÆt know exactly what to expect as far as personnel. But we know theyÆre desperate and that itÆs going to be intense. TheyÆll come out hard and weÆll just have to hold things down, get the ball, try to keep possession and take the fans out of it.ö
Aguirre says, ôThis game is life and death for my future and for Mexican soccer. I donÆt even want to think about the possibility of Mexico not being in the next World Cup.ö
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