My View: Can USA Qualify With Flair?

The USA won't have much trouble qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, but we should expect more. Getting its first win in Mexico and playing impressive soccer would be nice.

It was in the 69th minute of the USA's game in Mexico City's Azteca Stadium in 1997 that the Americans pulled it off. They got the Mexican fans, who numbered 114,000, to turn on their own team.

The Steve Sampson-coached Americans lost defender Jeff Agoos in the 32nd minute to a red card from Argentine referee Javier "The Sheriff" Castrilli for elbowing Pavel Pardo. But the Mexicans could not take advantage.

And late in the second half the Mexican fans began jeering El Tri - not even sparing the popular goalkeeper Jorge Campos when he picked up the ball. They shouted for the ouster of Coach Bora Milutinovic.

When Castrilli awarded Mexico a throw-in after the Americans appealed it was theirs, they booed The Sheriff. And they chanted "Ole!" to each U.S. pass.

The game ended in a 0-0 tie, the best result ever for the USA in Mexico City, where the USA has lost all its other 19 games against El Tri dating back to 1937.

The USA and Mexico, which also tied on U.S. soil before the Azteca draw, both qualified for the 1998 World Cup. In the next two qualifying campaigns, with Bruce Arena as U.S. coach, the Concacaf region's two giants each won their home games against the other and both qualified.

This time around, as the USA aims to reach the World Cup a sixth straight time, it begins the final round of qualifying by hosting Mexico Feb. 11 in Columbus, Ohio.

For sure, opening in the USA has to be the worst-case scenario for the Mexicans, who have recently been in poor form. In the semifinal round, Mexico went winless in its last three games and only advanced to the Hexagonal ahead of Jamaica thanks to goal difference. And Mexico is winless - eight losses and two ties - at the USA since 2000.

There's something about facing the USA north of the border that frays the Mexican players' nerves. Perhaps the prospect of losing to the nation with which it shares a 2,000-mile border - and where more than 20 million people of Mexican descent reside - drains their confidence.

How else to explain that, in 2007, Mexico lost to the USA, 2-1, in Chicago in the Gold Cup final, then three days later defeated Brazil, 2-0, in Venezuela at the Copa America, which Brazil ended up winning?

It's why psychologists have gone on Mexican TV to discuss the failings of the Mexican mentality when the national team faces the USA.

Besides having to travel to Ohio to start the Hexagonal, the Mexicans are also hurt by how the draw placed their home game against the Americans. They host on Aug. 12, which is a Wednesday. In the past, Mexico has welcomed the Americans on Sundays, when they can play at noon, in the midday sun.

The fact that more Mexican players than ever are playing in Europe - El Tri fielded as many as eight European-based players in the semifinal round - has actually become a handicap. Fielding mainly domestic players in the past enabled El Tri to hold lengthy training camps with a full squad.

The foreign-based players will be late arrivals for Mexico's home game. And flying in from Europe means their adjustment to playing at altitude will be just as challenging as it is for their opponents.

Only once has Mexico lost a World Cup qualifier at Azteca, in 2001 when Costa Rica won, 2-1. The time is ripe for a first-ever U.S. victory at Azteca.

Regardless of the results between the two archrivals, they'll both get to South Africa. Of the Hexagonal teams, three qualify automatically, and the fourth-place team faces South America's No. 5 for a spot.

In the last three qualifying campaigns, the USA has clinched a spot before their last Hexagonal game. It qualified for Germany 2006 with three games left.

For however much U.S. players and coaches like to talk about how difficult it is to play on the road against Central American and Caribbean opponents - invoking bad fields and hostile crowds - it ain't that tough.

Including the earlier rounds of 2010 qualifying, the USA has traveled to 11 Concacaf countries in World Cup qualifying this decade. Not including games after which it had already clinched passage into the next round or the World Cup itself, the USA has lost only to Mexico and Costa Rica. And at home, the USA has lost only once over the last two decades, covering 30 World Cup qualifying games.

After its Feb. 11 game against Mexico, the USA travels to El Salvador, which hasn't qualified for a World Cup since 1982 and has never beaten the USA in qualifying.

The third opponent is Trinidad & Tobago, which qualified for its first World Cup in 2006, finishing fourth in the Hexagonal to earn a playoff with Bahrain. The USA dismantled T&T convincingly, 3-0, in Illinois last September in the semifinal round. The Americans had already advanced when Coach Bob Bradley sent an experimental squad out in Port of Spain for the rematch the Soca Warriors won, 2-1, for their first ever qualifying win over the USA. They shouldn't pose any problems for the Americans in the Hexagonal.

Aside from the drama the Mexico opener promises, playing at Costa Rica on June 3 - the game has been moved up a week to free  the USA to head for the Confederations Cup - provides the most exciting challenge for Bradley's team in the first half of the Hexagonal.

Besides Mexico, the Ticos are the only team with a winning record against the USA in qualifying and are notoriously strong at home, where they now play on artificial turf. They would be favorites to finish in the top three along with the USA and Mexico were it not for Honduras, which finished ahead of Mexico, Jamaica and Canada in the semifinal round.

Honduras beat the USA in Washington, D.C., in 2001 after falling to the Americans in San Pedro Sula. But for however troublesome the Catrachos and Ticos can be for the USA, they tend to slip up against other opponents.

Judging from past qualifying campaigns, including the semifinal round last year that included a dour 1-0 win at Cuba, the USA is likely to grind out the results it needs on the road, play a bit more impressively at home, and book a ticket to South Africa.

When they claw their way to collecting the points they need to qualify, the players will explain that these games are "battles" and not meant to be "pretty."

But this time around, the bar should be set higher. The USA should be able to outplay their opponents regardless of the venue with superior soccer - a possession game, clever buildup, and flair.

The true measure of Bradley's team will be if it offers better soccer than what we've seen in the last three qualifying campaigns. It isn't too much to ask for a sign of real progress - and for a win in Mexico.

(This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)  

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