Midfielder Stuart Holden went the full 90 minutes and smashed home the decisive penalty to give Houston a 3-2 victory over Chicago. Forward Brian Ching played all but the final few minutes and after arriving in Miami Monday about 18 hours after the final whistle said he did take a few extra measures to get ready.
"I get an IV put in me right after the game, then I get a light massage and also did ice packs," said Ching. "I feel good today, better than I normally do after a game."
Coach Bob Bradley has named seven MLS players to his preliminary 20-man roster, which will be cut down to 18 for the match. Along with Holden and Ching, the only other returnee from the Gold Cup final is defender Chad Marshall, who played Saturday night in San Francisco as the Crew thumped the Earthquakes, 3-0.
Regardless of who starts, who sits on the bench, and who is excluded from the final 18, the bitter memory of that 5-0 pasting in the Meadowlands still carries a sharp sting. Possible debutants and experienced veterans and everyone in between knows what USA against Mexico means.
"I was on the wrong end of that one and it's an experience I don't want to have again," said Holden, 24, who has been summoned to a qualifier for the first time. "I want to be on the winning side of that rivalry. I've seen how passionate it is and how much means to supporters on both sides. For the opportunity of being in the squad for my first World Cup qualifier and especially for it to be in Azteca Stadium, I'm very excited."
Holden scored in his U.S. debut at the Gold Cup, a 4-0 defeat of Grenada, and rescued a 2-2 tie with Haiti in the group finale by blasting a shot from outside the penalty area into the top corner. His chances of seeing time Wednesday are slim, because the roster is laden with veterans from the Confederations Cup team that stunned European champion Spain, 2-0, and led Brazil 2-0 in the final before losing, 3-2.
Most of those players start their European seasons this weekend or next; a few, like Rennes defender Carlos Bocanegra, began league play last week.
"The Confederations Cup has done a lot for a lot of players' confidence," said Ching, who had to be scratched from the roster because of a hamstring injury. "They've raised their games quite a bit for their club teams, and that's only going to help us going into this game against Mexico. Then you see all the advantages they have with altitude, and 100,000 fans, and their record at home. But I think we're going to approach this game with confidence, with tenacity."
The Confederations Cup boosted speculation that the USA could match its only success at Azteca, a 0-0 tie in a 1997 qualifier, or perhaps even win for the first time after losing the other 22 times it has played in Mexico.
"You put losses behind you, just like we did with the Gold Cup final and try to focus on the next game and the next task at hand," says Holden. "It's not easy being on the losing side, but it happens and when it does you just have to brush it aside and get on with your life."
Ching was one of a few veterans picked for the Gold Cup. Two years ago, he played the full 90 as the Americans rallied from a 1-0 deficit to beat Mexico in the 2007 Gold Cup final. Inexperience proved costly last month, when after Mexico took a 1-0 lead on a penalty kick in the 59th minute a young team conceded a flurry of goals due to panic and fatigue.
"It's a reminder that at 1-0, you don't need to bomb forward and push for that equalizer right away," said Ching. "We needed to do the things that we were doing in the first half that were successful. Being a young team playing in a long tournament, we were a little bit tired, and you saw what happened.
"All the guys are extremely disappointed with how that game went, especially after having such good performances throughout the tournament. That last game left a sour taste in all of our mouths, and it kind of overshadowed all the good that went on in the tournament. This is a great opportunity for myself and all of the guys to try and turn things around."