U.S. victory at Estadio Azteca no longer impossible challenge
MEXICO CITY -- Is Estadio Azteca losing its mystique? It seems like a crazy question ahead of the U.S.'s much anticipated World Cup qualifier here on Tuesday against archrival Mexico (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, Univision). After all, Mexico has lost only one World Cup qualifier at the Azteca (vs. Costa Rica in 2001) in the history of the stadium, which was built in 1961. Nor has the U.S. ever won an official game here, managing just one tie in 1997.
Even today at the U.S.'s pregame press event, the giant media throng asked the usual questions about the challenges of playing here, from the sold-out crowd of 100,000-plus to the altitude (7,350 feet) to the notorious Mexico City pollution. And several of the players dutifully complied, describing what it's like to play this already-taxing sport when breathing is considerably more difficult than it is at sea level.
But take a closer look. There are a few reasons why the Azteca, while still highly formidable, isn't quite the guaranteed Mexico victory that it used to be, especially for the United States.
Take the U.S.'s DaMarcus Beasley. He lives and works in Puebla, just an hour from here, and he's familiar with playing in the Azteca these days in the Mexican league, as are his U.S. teammates Hérculez Gómez and Joe Corona (as well as several U.S. players who aren't here this week, like José Torres, Edgar Castillo and Michael Orozco Fiscal). Beasley was on the field last August when the U.S. won for the first time ever in the Azteca, a 1-0 friendly victory.
"For me, personally, I think [the Azteca] isn't as bad as it used to be when I came down at 23," the 30-year-old Beasley said on Monday. "It's not as much of a fortress. I played here against Club América a couple times, and obviously the game that [the U.S.] won. So being here now, I have more confidence that we can win here, we can play well. Obviously, Mexico is a good team and they keep the ball very well, but if we stick to our plan and what we need to do to win the game, we can get a good result here."
What's more, while the Mexico City altitude never changes, the U.S. players have trained for more than a week at altitude, getting the kind of quality practice time in the thin air that the '97 U.S. team had before tying Mexico here. And the awful Mexico City pollution? It has actually improved in recent years—a lot. Figures show that the pollution here is now about the same as it is at the Los Angeles Galaxy's home stadium. Nor will the U.S. have to worry about the afternoon sun and heat (as it did in Honduras last month), since Tuesday's game kicks off at 8:30 p.m. local time.
But what about the fearsome crowd at the Azteca? Granted, the huge throng may be the world's largest for a World Cup qualifier, and the supporters can get extremely loud; the acoustics of the towering concrete stadium are similar to those inside a beehive. But the fact remains that the Mexican fans are relatively far from the field—Costa Rica's old Saprissa Stadium was a much tougher environment, with the fans a few feet from the touchline—and the Mexican fans tend to lose faith in their team when things aren't going well.
Mexico's recent results at the Azteca haven't been very impressive, either. In El Tri's last five games here (friendlies and official games), Mexico has won just two. Last month, Jamaica—the least-regarded team in the Hexagonal—got a 0-0 tie against Mexico here in a qualifier, and the Reggae Boyz probably should have won. Even lowly Guyana scored a goal at the Azteca in a 3-1 qualifying loss last June.
Tuesday's game will be far from easy for the United States. The last thing Mexico wants to do is lose to its greatest rival in a World Cup qualifier for the first time at home, and as a soccer nation Mexico has gotten the upper hand on the U.S. in recent years. But Estadio Azteca doesn't have the same mystique that it used to have, not with the U.S. and not with other teams. If Jamaica can get a result in the famous old stadium, there's no reason the United States can't either on Tuesday night.
• After using 24 different lineups in his 24 games in charge, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann will use yet another different one on Tuesday after Jermaine Jones suffered an ankle injury and flew back to Germany. When I asked Klinsmann about the impact of Jones' loss and the options he might have, this is what he said:
"Definitely it's a tough loss for us. Jermaine Jones is one of our leaders here, and the way he played that game against Costa Rica was unbelievable. The foul he got 20 minutes into the game cut a hole into his ankle, and he got stitched up at halftime and kept going until he couldn't run anymore. He gave everything he had. It was an amazing performance by Jermaine against Costa Rica. Not having him, obviously a coach always looks for the next solutions. We have players that can step in, whether it's Maurice Edu, Kyle Beckerman, Sacha Kljestan or Joe Corona. We have a lot of good players who give us those options."
My guess is the choice is between Edu and Beckerman. I still think it's possible that Edu could get the start at center back, not least because he has the speed to keep up with the highly mobile Javier Hernández up top. (Edu also started at center back in the friendly here last August.) If Edu ends up in the central defense, I could see Beckerman taking Jones' place in the midfield.
• We're just two games into the 10-game Hexagonal, but the standings are as tightly packed as we've ever seen them:
Costa Rica 1
As I mentioned the other day, though, I tend to focus more early in the tournament on whether teams are holding serve with the cardinal rule of "Win at home and tie on the road." If you get three points at home and one on the road, you'll qualify for the World Cup with room to spare. Here are the standings based on that scale (keeping in mind that Costa Rica has played two games on the road so far while Honduras has played twice at home):
Costa Rica -1
• FIFA confirmed on Monday that it had received a formal protest from Costa Rica's soccer federation over the extreme snowy conditions in Denver during the U.S.'s 1-0 SnowClásico victory on Friday. Costa Rica is requesting a replay of the game and sanctions against the officiating crew for letting it continue. I received a copy of the protest letter from Jorge Hidalgo, the Costa Rica FA vice-president, which outlined four points of complaint:
• The danger faced by the players when play was continued during the snowstorm,
• The incursion of non-players (snow-shovelers) onto the field of play while play was ongoing,
• The disappearance of the lines on the field under the snow, and
• The inability of moving the ball normally due to the snow.
"FIFA will now analyse the content of the letter and next steps will be determined in due course," said a FIFA spokesperson.
I have a couple takes on this. First off, and most importantly, the chances of FIFA accepting Costa Rica's protest and forcing a replay of the U.S.-Costa Rica game are extremely low. Both teams had to play in the extreme conditions, and the referee and match commissioner both decided to let play continue.
Secondly, I would argue that U.S. Soccer should reconsider scheduling games in Denver in March. While weather conditions are variable in the Rockies that time of year, there was always a decent chance we were going to see a snowstorm like the one that happened. The U.S. could have trained at altitude all week, getting the benefit the team was seeking, and then played the game elsewhere where snow was less likely (Phoenix? Frisco, Tex.? Houston?). While the SnowClásico will go down as one of the most memorable games in U.S. soccer history, it wasn't a great day for the organizers.
Thirdly, I find it bizarre how much confusion there was (and is) over what is supposed to be done if a World Cup qualifier is suspended for weather reasons. Should it be restarted at a later date with the same minute and score as when play was suspended? Or should the game start over from minute zero with a 0-0 scoreline?
If you look at FIFA's official World Cup 2014 Regulations, on page 28 and in Article 6.7, games suspended due to weather should be replayed from the start with a 0-0 scoreline. But FIFA's spokesperson told me Monday that the rule was changed in a May 2012 FIFA circular to say this:
"In the case a match is abandoned as a result of force majeure for any reason after it has already kicked off, the match shall recommence with the same score at the minute at which play was interrupted rather than being replayed in full."
The FIFA spokesman said the World Cup 2014 Regulations had not been updated with the new rule, which seems kind of crazy. Again, this is a moot point when it comes to U.S.-Costa Rica, since a full 90 minutes was played. But how can FIFA be sending out such confusing mixed messages on such an important topic?