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Points, and pride, at stake in Azteca
by Ridge Mahoney, August 12th, 2009 7AM

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[MEXICO-USA] How best to deal with the heat, smog, altitude, fans and Mexican national team that is nearly unbeatable in Estadio Azteca?

Brian Ching, for one, has never played there yet regularly travels with the Houston Dynamo to Denver to play the Colorado Rapids at altitude. He believes a form of ignorance is bliss.

"From what I hear, you don't want to be there from between two and 10 days," he says of the USA flying into Mexico City a day before Wednesday's game (TV: Telemundo/mun2, live, 4 p.m. ET). "That's when it affects you the most with the altitude. When we go to Colorado, we fly in the day before, play the game the next day and then fly out.

"Not much you can do about the pollution. I think the more you focus on it, the more it probably affects you. We just try to do what we normally do. The less you think about it, the better, and it's not something we concern ourselves with. It's not something we can change."

What the Americans certainly want to change is the 5-0 thrashing inflicted by Mexico two and a half weeks ago in the Gold Cup final, and the smug assurances from players such as Andres Guardado, who forecasts a 3-0 win for the host.

"That's for him to worry about, he's the one who said it, not any of us," said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, who will play in Azteca for the first time, as will most of his teammates. "No one can predict the score line, so  we'll see what happens."

Whatever happens won't likely resemble the two recent meetings.

In February, Mexico lost by the customary 2-0 scoreline in Columbus under the stewardship of Sven-Goran Eriksson, who has since been replaced - along with a few players - by Javier Aguirre. Both teams fielded weakened teams for the Gold Cup, and after a good run of games with a mostly MLS team, the USA took a belting in the final.

"We want to get a result, especially after the last game and last result against Mexico," says Ching, one of only two U.S. players to play in both the 2-0 win and 5-0 loss. "We make no bones about it; we're looking to turn things around. The Confederations Cup has done a lot for a lot of players' confidence.

"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. We know it's going to be an extremely difficult task, we've never won there, and we're under no illusions that we're anything like the favorites in this game."

Securing the flanks against Giovanni dos Santos and Guardado, who was injured and missed the Columbus game, and containing Carlos Vela, who scorched the Americans repeatedly as a halftime sub in the Gold Cup final, are only part of the tasks.

There can't be any soft spots or big holes in the middle of midfield. Though this Mexico team lacks a dynamic ball-winner and distributor a la Alberto Garcia Aspe, it does possess enough bite and pace to convert turnovers into attacks quickly, and sufficient skill to knock the ball around.

Yet the Mexico midfield and backline aren't especially adept at switching gears when possession is lost, and so early balls played wide to Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, or shuttled up top to the forwards can prise open the opponent.

Getting those turnovers, though, will require lung-busting work from, presumably, Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark in the middle, and the forwards, who could be Ching and Charlie Davies.

Though they are not superb defensively, the Mexican defenders can control and pass the ball to devastating effect if not put under pressure. And in the smog, heat, pollution and searing noise generated by drums, horns and human throats, it will be impossible to pressure effectively without commitment and cohesion from all 10 field players.

Those Mexican fans might turn on their players if they don't score fairly early, which might be after 30 or 35 minutes, or concede one during that time.

The Americans' task will be greatly complicated if Aguirre uses Cuauhtemoc Blanco, whose occasional tantrums and sulks overshadow a burning competitive zeal and experience gleaned from many games in Azteca for his country and Club America.

Either as a starter or a sub, Blanco can change the game, and despite Howard's pronouncements that he doesn't expect thin air to complicate his job, the keeper has yet to see the twisting, swerving, dancing balls that Blanco has conjured up more than a mile in the sky.

Blanco may not thrive in the sweltering, noxious air, having played in Chicago for the past two years, and is coming off a league game in Houston on Sunday, but he certainly knows from past experience how to best deal with the conditions, as do most of his teammates.

Four years ago, defenders Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu, along with Donovan, debuted at Azteca in a 2-1 World Cup qualifying defeat. Steve Cherundolo played in that game as well as a prior encounter in 2001, and he has regained full fitness after missing all of June and July through injury.

No one else on the roster has gone through the experience, and neither has Bob Bradley.

"This will be my first trip to Azteca," said Bradley, "but I have talked to Bruce Arena, and Pierre Barrieu's, who handles our strength and conditioning, has been there. As I mentioned, earlier we have communicated with a number of people around the country that have expertise in this area. When you talk about the soccer part of it, I think it's important as a team to stay together. You don't want a game that gets stretched all over the place, it's very important to have a good solid base of organization and then the ability to play from that."

ROUND 1
Concacaf World Cup 2010 Qualifying
Feb. 11 in Columbus, Ohio
USA 2 Mexico 0. Goals: Bradley 43, Bradley (Donovan) 92+.
USA -- Howard, Hejduk, Bocanegra, Onyewu, Pearce, Dempsey, Bradley, Kljestan (Clark, 86), Beasley, Donovan, Ching (Altidore, 83).
Mexico -- Sanchez, Galindo, Salcido, Marquez, Osorio, Augusto, Medina (Naelson, 60), Pardo, Ochoa, Castillo (Martinez, 34), dos Santos (Bravo, 72).
Yellow card: USA -- Howard 67.
Red card: Mexico -- Marquez 65.
Referee: Carlos Batres (GUA).
Att.: 23,776.

ROUND 2
Concacaf Gold Cup Final
July 26 in East Rutherford, N.J.
USA 0 Mexico 5. Goals: Torrado (pen) 57, dos Santos 64, Vela 70, J.A. Castro 79, Franco 90.
USA -- Perkins, Heaps, Marshall, Goodson, Pearce, Holden, Pause (Quaranta, 64), Beckerman (Cronin, 81), Rogers, Ching, Arnaud (Cooper, 64).
Mexico -- Ochoa, J.A. Castro, Valenzuela, Magallon, Pinto, Torrado, Juarez, I.Castro (Esquivel, 89), dos Santos, Sabah (Franco, 70), Medina (Vela, 46).
Yellow Cards: USA -- Heaps 24, Pause 27, Heaps 88, Cooper 90+; Medina 45+, Sabah 64, Franco 73, Castro 80.
Red card: USA -- Heaps 88.
Referee: Courtney Campbell (JAM).
Att.: 79,156.



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