Mexico scraped through its semifinal qualifying schedule under Swedish coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, whose patchwork results and ready acceptance of players not native-born has rankled fans and observers. Of course, had Mexico rolled over its semifinal foes and not finished second to Honduras, and not lost its final preparation match, 1-0, to Sweden two weeks ago, muted criticism would have barely trickled out.
Instead, injuries to Andres Guardado and Jonny Magallon, suspensions for Carlos Vela, Gerardo Torrado and Fernando Arce, and a Mexican record of no wins, two ties, and eight defeats in its last 10 away games against the U.S. have fans nervous and journalists ready to pounce.
U.S. coach Bob Bradley refuses to be swayed, noting that Nery Castillo, who scorched the Americans and set up a goal for Guardado at the 2007 Gold Cup final the Americans rallied to win, 2-1, and Barcelona defender Rafael Marquez are just two players capable of reversing that trend.
"When I watch them," says Bradley, "I still see the qualities of all the good Mexican teams: players that are good on the ball, mobility and the way they do things as a group. There are some individually talented guys, so we prepare for that."
Just as they were 2 ½ years ago when these nations last met in a qualifier, the Americans are favored. By beating Mexico, 2-0, at Columbus Crew Stadium in September, 2005, the Americans clinched their World Cup 2006 place with three qualifiers still to play.
This time, the qualifying starts against Mexico in Columbus, and on the U.S. team are veterans of the rivalry as well as several players projected to play important roles at the 2010 World Cup - assuming the USA gets there - yet still untested in a Hexagonal.
"The qualifiers are a different beast," says midfielder Sacha Kljestan, whose busy schedule in 2008 included starts in all three Olympic matches as well as eight games with the senior team, six of which were qualifiers. But he's never played in a Hexagonal nor against Mexico.
"I see just in meetings the older guys, how serious they are, and on the field the effort you have to put in for the whole 90 minutes. We want to dictate the way the game is played, we want to play the game on our terms."
The last time the teams met in Columbus, there were strong games from Landon Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu, DaMarcus Beasley and Frankie Hejduk. All are on duty in Ohio.
But also in the starting lineup that night were Kasey Keller, Gregg Berhalter, Eddie Lewis, Claudio Reyna, Chris Armas, Brian McBride and one of the goalscorers, Steve Ralston. None will be on the field Wednesday night, and another of the linchpins, Pablo Mastroeni, is suspended.
Bradley looked at more than 60 players since taking over in October, 2007, and the process of evaluation and building chemistry and cohesion is far from finished. In the 2007 Gold Cup final against Mexico, for example, Mastroeni and Benny Feilhaber formed the central midfield pairing. When the rivals played a 2-2 tie in Houston a year ago, Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark started in the center.
If Bradley picks Bradley and Kljestan, they will have to contain midfield pivot Pavel Pardo, a crafty two-way player adept at slipping and spraying balls to a potent array of Mexican attackers. That is just one area of the field the USA must control to stamp its authority on the game.
"We're starting to know each other's strengths and weaknesses and that's part of building a team," says Hejduk, who is contending with Marvell Wynne to start at right back in place of injured Steve Cherundolo. "We're definitely getting there, but it's the first game of the final around and everybody has to be ready for it."
Several probable starters are short of game sharpness. Hejduk hasn't played a competitive match since the Crew won MLS Cup 2008 in November; left back Heath Pearce and Beasley have been in and out of the lineup for their European club teams; Kljestan and Brian Ching sliced up Sweden during a 3-2 win Jan. 24 in their only game of the past two months, but the Mexicans will be faster, fitter, and tougher.
"This is the game all the guys look forward to," says Kljestan. "It's probably been on our calendars for a long time."
Captain Carlos Bocanegra, who missed the 2005 match but has played in the last three USA-Mexico games, says the record of success against Mexico in this decade is encouraging but far from definitive. "Those games are in the past," said Bocanegra, a fixture in the Rennes' defense since leaving Fulham during the summer.
"We have to go out and earn it Wednesday night. As much as the scores of late have been dominant, we know we're going to have to work. We have to play hard and be organized to beat these guys."