Veterans go to war in U.S.-Mexico
Archrivals U.S. and Mexico resume their rivalry on Wednesday in Columbus, Ohio
Veterans on both sides of the ball have long histories in main CONCACAF rivalry
Landon Donovan, Rafa Márquez, DaMarcus Beasley, Oswaldo Sánchez all are key
War. In heated rivalries, you can't get around that word when describing the competition of two archrivals battling each other. On Wednesday, the U.S. and Mexico resume their heated relationship in Columbus, Ohio, as the final round of World Cup qualifying begins.
As long-time soccer foes, both countries have veterans who will be expected to carry the banner for their squads on the field. Even as new players transition into the squad, those with experience have a particular understanding of the moments that can turn a game.
Landon Donovan began his career with a Mexico match, in an August 2000 friendly in which he scored his first international goal. The speedy midfielder/forward, now on loan to Bayern Munich, seems to have taken an inspirational cue from that first game. He has a track record of playing particularly well against Mexico and will be one of the players Bob Bradley will count on in Columbus.
At 26, Donovan is still young enough to threaten defenders with his quickness, but he's also the most-capped player (105) for the Americans. Mexico's players know well he's a threat. Yet the U.S. squad is balanced enough that concentrating heavily on Donovan, as Mexico has sometimes done, leaves other players with more time and space to do damage.
In contrast, the work of Mexico's top player, Rafael Márquez, is all about limiting damage. The defender has developed during his years with Barcelona into an accomplished player who has curbed somewhat his youthful temper without sacrificing his competitive intensity. At 29, he marshals the back line with the cool, assured knowledge of a player who has faced down the best in Europe on a regular basis.
A threat on headers, Márquez has scored 10 goals for Mexico and serves regularly as captain of the team. At times, the center back seems a bit too eager to intervene for the sake of his national squad, running cover for his younger and less-capable teammates on defense and getting slightly out of position. Yet when he focuses on the job at hand and sticks to what he does best, he remains at the top of his game. Márquez is widely respected on the Mexico squad for his success abroad and his leadership on the field.
Four years ago, the last time Mexico faced the U.S. in Columbus in a World Cup qualifying match, DaMarcus Beasley scored the team's second goal in a 2-0 win. His fast runs and attacks tortured the Mexican defenders all game long, and they resorted to pushing fouls on multiple occasions, which generated set-piece chances for the U.S.
Though in a somewhat more circumspect way than Donovan, Beasley has proven himself in the regional derby many times. He seems to have fallen heir to the Cobi Jones role of a fleet-footed and athletic player who annoys and frustrates Mexico easily. A current issue with Beasley, however, is a lack of playing time at his present club, Rangers, may have him less than game-sharp. It could hamper his ability to play his usual role of pesky winger.
Pável Pardo's long-time function for Mexico has been as the steadying force of the team. The calm and capable defensive midfielder is closing in on 150 caps for Mexico. After many years in the Mexican league, he joined Germany's Stuttgart and won the '07 Bundesliga championship with the squad.
Pardo's importance to El Tri is at times most notable when he doesn't play, as it's clear his technical skills and tactical savvy are crucial for many games. That is part of the reason why a recent leg injury with Club América, his current team, was such a concern. Pardo made the roster for the Columbus game, though, so it's likely that he has recovered, or has the will to manage through any lingering physical issues.
The oldest player on the U.S. team may still be one of the liveliest. At 34, Frankie Hejduk is the personification of unbridled enthusiasm on the field. He has exhibited more drive than absolute skill throughout his career, but he also had a knack for timely runs and isn't afraid to impact any game. Hejduk scored against Mexico in the '99 and '00 U.S. Cup, when the U.S. was just starting to emerge as a legitimate contender to the CONCACAF giants.
Though Guillermo Ochoa is considered Mexico's bright future in goal, 35-year-old Oswaldo Sánchez likely will start. At nearly 100 caps, Sánchez can be counted on for big game experience. On a personal level, though, he has always made it clear how badly he longs to defeat the U.S. Sometimes this spills over from heated competition, as it did in a friendly two years ago in Arizona, when he kicked out at U.S. forward Eddie Johnson, who was merely running past him to celebrate a goal with his teammate.
The intensity Sánchez exhibited in that match, which was ostensibly a mere friendly, encapsulated the grudges and friction between the teams. The metaphors of combat are fitting, because if these warriors have anything to say about it, it will be a hard-fought match on Wednesday.
Andrea Canales is chief editor of Goal.com USA.