The U.S. men's soccer team has two upcoming World Cup qualifying matches, with the first one on Sunday at a place where the Americans have never won -- Mexico City's Azteca Stadium. However, the U.S. team is hoping to reverse that trend.
To say there is bad blood between the U.S. soccer team and Mexico would be an understatement. During a 2004 Olympic qualifying match in Guadalajara, Mexican fans taunted the American players by chanting "Osama, Osama", after al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Fans in Mexico city have been known to throw batteries, coins, and other objects on the field during matches against the United States.
The U.S. Soccer Federation scheduled World Cup qualifiers against their southern neighbor in frigid Columbus, Ohio, with the most recent one, a 2-0 U.S. win at minus two degrees Celsius in 2001 being dubbed "La Guerra Fria", the Cold War. By the luck of the draw, the U.S. men faced Mexico in South Korea in the knockout phase of the 2002 World Cup and ousted the Mexicans, 2-0.
But this Sunday the two teams face one another in the altitude and pollution of Mexico City's Azteca Stadium, which is more than 21-hundred meters above sea level and holds more than 100-thousand fans. The stadium has witnessed several historic moments, including Pelé's exploits in the 1970 World Cup and Argentine hero Diego Maradona's famous "hand of God" goal in football's premier event in 1986.
But one thing that has never happened at Azteca -- the United States has never beaten Mexico there. U.S. Coach Bruce Arena says his team has no misconceptions about the home field advantage Mexico enjoys for Sunday's game.
"You can liken it (the venue) to La Paz for the Bolivian team and other venues that are played at altitude. Altitude is a major advantage for any team. The Mexican team has only lost a couple of games in 30 years at home," he said.
The best the U.S. team has managed is one draw against 21 losses at Azteca. But Bruce Arena's young players have beaten Mexico six of the last eight times they have played. The Mexican players are vowing to reverse that trend, but Coach Arena says the rivalry with Mexico is no larger than with any other team.
"They certainly are an outstanding team," he said. "They are a top-10 team in the world. We are playing them in one of the great venues in the world. But at the same time, it is a soccer game. It is the next opponent that is standing in front of us trying to prevent our ability to get into the next World Cup. That's the way I look at it. It is a fantastic challenge, but I do not lose a lot of sleep over it."
Last month, playing on the road, both teams won their first of 10 final round qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup. Mexico beat Costa Rica 2-1, and the United States downed Trinidad and Tobago by the same score. The two rivals are tied atop the six-nation North, Central America and Caribbean region's standings with three points each.
After the Mexico game Sunday, the U.S. team hosts Guatemala on Wednesday in Birmingham, Alabama. Only three teams from the region advance to next year's World Cup in Germany.