Just over a year ago, the Jurgen Klinsmann era officially began for the United States national team in a 1-1 draw. In the past year, the Yanks have revamped their style and faced stiff challenges in some important friendlies.
Now a year removed from a managerial position, the United States will play in what is one of the most important friendlies in their history when they face Mexico tonight at the always tough Estadio Azteca.
Historically, no sides have fared well against Mexico at Azteca. Only once has Mexico lost a qualifying match at their fabled home stadium, which was against Costa Rica 11 years ago.
There are plenty of reasons why opposing sides struggle at Azteca, which is the only stadium to ever host two World Cup finals.
For starters, there is the stadium's altitude—7,200 feet, more than a mile above sea level.
Then there are the 105,000-plus fans who will cram into the gigantic stadium and make it a hostile environment that sounds like a swarm of bees. Visiting national sides can expect various amounts of debris tossed in their direction, along with the vulgar attitude toward players.
In short, it could be considered a nightmare situation.
The United States has struggled mightily at Azteca. They are 0-8-1 all-time at the stadium. The only non-loss that the Yanks registered came in a scoreless draw in 1997. The U.S. have only once held a lead at the stadium, which came on a Charlie Davies goal in the Yanks' last visit to Azteca in 2009.
That 2-1 loss in 2009 marked a power shift in CONCACAF. Since that match, Mexico have dominated North American football and left the Yanks in the dust. Now armed with an Olympic gold and a U-17 World Cup, Mexico is on the verge of a golden generation that will elevate El Tri to the highest levels in their history.
Tonight, the Yanks will have to fight this emerging legacy by letting their play do the talking. Though the likes of Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore are unavailable with the start of the European domestic campaign around the corner, stars like Tim Howard and Landon Donovan will be available for play.
But the two lions of American soccer will have a squad that lacks the strength that nearly all American sides have contained against the southern neighbors in any sort of match.
Among the 23 players selected to play, three of them (Matt Besler, Steven Beitashour and Alan Gordon) have yet to earn a cap with the Yanks.
Defensively, the Yanks are without many of their past stars with the likes of Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Timmy Chandler, Steve Cherundolo and others are not with the squad. However, rising star Fabian Johnson will look to cement a starting role with a strong performance.
The midfield contains many notable names like Klinsmann favorites Kyle Beckerman and Brek Shea, along with DaMarcus Beasley, Maurice Edu, Jermaine Jones, Jose Torres and Danny Williams.
This midfield will be key, for their organization and creativity will be perhaps the most important part of the Americans' game plan. Against a side like Mexico, which contains players like Chicharito and Pablo Barrera, it will be important for the midfield to shut them down.
It is uncertain if Klinsmann will put Donovan into midfield. Donovan has proven himself to be an effective playmaker with the national team at the midfield position, but he could be put in at striker.
The striking core is fine without Donovan. Emerging star Terrence Boyd has already contributed two goals for Rapid Vienna in Europa League play. And there is also Chris Wondolowski, who has 17 goals for the San Jose Earthquakes this season. Wondolowski is on pace to break the MLS record of goals in a season of 27 goals, which is held by Roy Lassiter.
Though the odds are against the Americans, Klinsmann is still optimistic, telling the media on Monday, "First, they have to beat us. You never come in thinking like that. You have to be realistic, but my recent memories are of us tying Mexico 1-1 in Philadelphia."
Granted, anything can happen (matches are not held on paper), but the United States is not in the position that it was in 10 years ago, when they went to a World Cup quarterfinal at the expense of Mexico thanks to a 2-0 win in the Round of 16 in Jeonju, South Korea.
At that time, the United States was brimming with some great young talent and a strong group of veterans.
Ten years later, the United States national team still contains that promise, though they are clearly behind Mexico in CONCACAF.
What this friendly really means to the United States is that it gives another chance for Klinsmann to evaluate talent. Only an incredibly naive person would suggest that the Americans will win at Azteca tonight.
But this match's intended result will not take hold in Mexico City tonight. Instead, the result will be seen next year when the Yanks travel back to the stadium that contains so many American disappointments in what will be a critical World Cup qualifier.
Since 2000, the United States holds a 10-5-3 record against Mexico, a much better winning percentage than the all-time 15-32-12 record that the Yanks have recorded against them.
It will be important to see how each player performs. Will Boyd or Johnson have spectacular performances that will ensure starting spots on the national team? Will we see another defender rise up from obscurity to secure a spot on the 23-man squad for the World Cup qualifiers?
That is what is on the line more than anything else in this friendly.
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