- The Washington Times - Friday, March 25, 2005

The big game is here. The nasty rivalry is about to resume and the hatred grows deeper. If there’s one soccer game you watch this year, it has to be this one.

It’s Mexico against the United States in a World Cup qualifier at famous Azteca Stadium tomorrow in Mexico City (ESPN2 at 1 p.m.).

This grudgefest has fermented in the last 10 years and is now just as combustible as Argentina-Brazil, China-Japan or Germany-Holland.

The proud Mexicans once claimed continental domination, while their Yankee counterparts were too busy with baseball and winning the Cold War. Those south of the Rio Grande could proudly boast their soccer talents. After all, the brilliant Hugo Sanchez — the darling of Mexican soccer — was destroying Spanish defenses at Real Madrid. The United States had General Motors, McDonald’s and even Michelle Akers, but the Mexicans ruled in the one game that mattered.

But just as Taco Bells sprouted up in American suburbs, so did soccer fields. Conversions were suddenly taking place in the sport’s last heathen outpost. The United States even held a World Cup and now challenges Mexico as the regional powerhouse. It’s enough to make you choke on your burrito.

There’s no denying America’s ascendancy. The U.S. team has reached the last four World Cups and is ranked 10th in the world. Landon Donovan, Tim Howard and Freddy Adu are part of the modern soccer lexicon.

The cracks in Mexico’s domination began in 1997, when the U.S. team traveled to Mexico City and came away with its first tie at intimidating Azteca. Then the U.S. team downed the Tricolor 2-0 in a bruising and bad-tempered game in the 2002 World Cup round of 16 at Jeonju, South Korea. Bad blood has boiled ever since.

When the U.S. (under-23) Olympic team played against Mexico in Guadalajara, boos rained down on the Star-Spangled Banner and the U.S. players left the field to chants of “Osama, Osama, Osama.”

But if American coach Bruce Arena is worried about the sixth-ranked Mexicans in a game played in smog 7,300 feet above sea-level, he’s not showing it. He has had his boys training at high altitude all week in Colorado Springs.

“I personally am not intimidated by Azteca, ” Arena said. “I think it’s a great venue to play. Obviously 110,000 fans can be intimidating.”

Mexican players were warning this week that they were “thirsty for revenge” for the World Cup loss.

“The biggest obstacle is the altitude,” Arena said. “The second obstacle is the opponent. The third is the crowd and, hopefully, the officiating doesn’t play a factor. … I’m not concerned with the attitudes of the Mexican players.”

The Americans have won six of the last eight meetings between the teams, but can they make a little history and escape with an elusive win from Mexico City?

“We will step on that field on Sunday trying to win,” Arena said. “I’m not certain that there have been many U.S. teams in the past that really believed that.”

Mexico has lost only one World Cup qualifier at home, a 2-1 loss to Costa Rica in 2001, and the U.S. team is 0-21-1 in 22 previous matches in Mexico.

But what matters most is on the field, and it’s there the Americans have improved vastly. Never has the U.S. player pool been so deep.

Arena can call on overseas-tested talent such as Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Claudio Reyna, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, as well as Major League Soccer stars Eddie Johnson, Pablo Mastroeni and Clint Dempsey. Johnson is the hottest player on the American scene, with seven goals in six games.

The U.S. faces Guatemala in Birmingham, Ala., on Wednesday in another World Cup qualifier.

Donovan back in the USA? — The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that American star Landon Donovan will leave German club Bayer Leverkusen and rejoin MLS with Los Angeles. To make salary room for Donovan, the Galaxy will send striker Carlos Ruiz to FC Dallas. Donovan left the San Jose Earthquakes to join Bayer, which owned his rights, in January.

Game notes — In a surprise move this week, Arena sent American forward Clint Mathis back to his club team. … Today marks Arena’s 101st game with the American team. The Fairfax-based coach has a record of 55-23-22. … The U.S. team is undefeated in its last 31 games against CONCACAF teams. Its last loss against a regional opponent was a 2-0 defeat at Costa Rica in September 2001.

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