The U.S. Men's Soccer team takes on arch rival Mexico Saturday night in Columbus, Ohio, with the winner of the match earning the first berth from the CONCACAF region to the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The U.S. team is hoping a home crowd will help secure a spot in next year's tournament.
The last time these two teams met earlier in the final qualifying round, Mexico beat the United States, 2-1, in Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. The U.S. men have never won a game at that storied venue, which featured tens of thousands of partisan Mexican fans, as well as the pollution and altitude of Mexico's capital.
But this time the two sides, both ranked in the top 10 in the world, meet in Columbus, Ohio at the home field of Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew. Coach Bruce Arena's U.S. men have never lost in Columbus, with three wins and three draws. But Coach Arena says his players have to take every opponent seriously.
"I think all of these World Cup qualifying games are equally important," he said. "And this just happens to be Mexico this time around. So I think, you know, you can never predict results, obviously, but I think they [the players] are going to step on the field with the proper confidence and they will be prepared accordingly and play a good game. And if they can do that, they can put themselves in a position to win."
Saturday's match is a sell-out and a pro-U.S. crowd is expected to cram the nearly 23,000-seat soccer stadium. But Bruce Arena says the players on the field still have to deliver, regardless of where they are playing.
"Uh, we have no excuses. We are playing at home. We are playing in a stadium we like and we need to step on the field and win the game," he added.
Mexico leads the final round of qualifying in the North, Central American and Caribbean region with 16 points. But the Mexicans have not won a match and have not scored a goal in the United States since 1999.
The United States is one point behind Mexico with 15 going into Saturday's match. The U.S. team has matches against Guatemala (September 7) Costa Rica (October 8) and Panama (October 12) before CONCACAF regional qualifying ends.
The top three teams in the six-team group advance to the World Cup and Saturday's winner is guaranteed a berth in the 2006 tournament. The fourth-placed team in the region faces a playoff against the fifth-placed finisher from Asia for a spot in next year's tournament.