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Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Odds against U.S., but Azteca win is the aim

By Scott French

MEXICO CITY -- El Tri has never lost to the United States in 20 meetings at Estadio Azteca, they're soaring following their under-23 team's gold-medal triumph at the London Olympics, the last competitive meeting between CONCACAF's powers was a full-on rout, and they've got a strong, representative side ready to take on a young, incomplete American team in what could be a full house at North America's most iconic soccer venue.


What hope could the U.S. possibly have in Wednesday night's friendly?

“Expectation, I would say, is relatively low, all things considered ... ,” Landon Donovan said. “But it's still a good opportunity. We want to try to make the most of it.”

Actually, the Yanks want to do more than that. They might be missing more than half their first-choice lineup, and Mexico surely has taken the lead in the region's more rabid rivalry, but head coach Jurgen Klinsmann insists this is more than just a tuneup to prepare for the next steps in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.

“This test means a lot to us,” the German legend said at a news conference in advance of the match (ESPN and Univision, 5 p.m. PT; coverage begins at 4:30). “We have a lot of respect for the Mexican side. We have a lot of admiration for what Mexico has achieved the last couple of years. ... But we're not coming here to defend or looking good, we're coming here to win this game. And we're going to give Mexico a tough one.”

Victory might appear impossible. The best the U.S. has done at Azteca, at an elevation higher than 7,300 feet, is a scoreless draw in a World Cup qualifier 15 years ago. But all four meetings since have been tight -- Mexico claiming four one-goal wins -- and Klinsmann's edict, central to his culture-changing approach since taking charge in July 2011, is that the Americans do not back down.

“I think we can compete with the best in the world,” he said. “Maybe not with Spain right away, because I think Spain still is at a different level. But the next level underneath Spain. We gave France a game [last November], only lost, 1-nil, and we could have tied the game. We won in Italy in February and surprised some people. We challenged Brazil in June -- the result maybe looked a little different, 4-1, you'd think they outplayed us. I thought we actually gave them a very good game.

“Now we want to match ourselves with Mexico. And we respect what they did and we have admiration, but we're coming here to win.”

There's plenty against the U.S., starting with the venue -- 110,000-seat Azteca, where the mix of altitude, air quality and atmosphere provides El Tri probably the best home-field advantage in international soccer. “Everybody told me it's going to be crazy,” said German-born defender Fabian Johnson.

“I've played there a couple times with [Club Tijuana],” said midfielder Joe Corona, one of six Mexico-based players on the U.S. roster. “What I tell the guys is that altitude plays a very big role here. I mean, they have to get a good sweat in before the warm-up. And the ball travels way more in the air than it does in regular altitude. I know [Azteca] will be impacting at first, but once we start playing, it will go away.”

Then there's Mexico itself. El Tri has evolved into one of the best national teams on the planet behind a tremendous generation of young players, led by Manchester United's Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, one of five European-based stars on Jose Manuel de la Torre's roster.

“It's still 11 versus 11,” said U.S. forward Herculez Gomez, who plays for reigning Mexican club champion Santos Laguna. “It's still a game where it's 90 minutes, anything can happen. ... We understand it's going to be difficult for us. We have a very young, very inexperienced squad. They have a very veteran group. They're riding a wave of success that Mexico hasn't seen in I don't know how long. So they're feeling very good.

“We understand we have a lot against us, but what we have going for us is that spirit that, you know, we like being the underdogs. That's a good style for us to have, and it's going to be a good atmosphere, and hopefully we can translate all that energy they have into motivation for us.”

Klinsmann was asked what he hopes to get out of the game -- what pluses might await in a loss.

“Well, I never think like that. If we lose,” he said. “First, they have to beat us. We're going to give them some trouble to do that. ... I am not thinking we are going to lose.”