EDGAR ZUNIGA - Wednesday, August 12, 2009
For the opportunity to do the impossible.
For the embarrassing loss in the 2009 Gold Cup final.
For the opportunity to add another chapter to this embattled rivalry...
If ever the US needed to beat Mexico in Estadio Azteca, the time is now.
Things are very strange between the US and Mexico right now, and, to be honest, no one knows what to expect when they meet head-on. Mexico's 5-0 thrashing of the US on American soil in the Gold Cup final gave an insecure program a shot in the arm and the Mexicans are bursting with confidence.
However, that confidence is a double-edged sword.
While it was uncomfortable to watch the US get whipped like that at home, it might serve as some modicum of consolation to remember that it was our C squad that got destroyed. The guys heading into Azteca are the same fellas that were able to overcome daunting odds to make it to the final of the Confederations Cup, which gave the US a huge boost of confidence.
Some feel that all the accomplishments of the US National Team went out the window with the massacre at Giants Stadium, but that is foolish thinking. Nevertheless, to return the favor, in the heart of Mexican soccer - Azteca - ah, that would be perfect.
What a way to exorcise the ghosts of Giants Stadium and Mexican dominance at home.
Moreover, the US might actually have the edge in this encounter. The pressure is all on Mexico - to produce the expected result and beat the US again; to win or else sink into deeper anxiety over World Cup qualification; and prove that the Gold Cup championship marks the return of Mexican supremacy in CONCACAF.
For the US, on the other hand, a loss would not be earth-shattering. They would remain in contention for a spot in South Africa 2010 with a match against El Salvador next month, in Sandy, Utah, while Mexico would have to deal with the monsters in Saprissa.
Anything else, however, would be crushing to the Mexican team. A draw would mean two "automatic" points lost at home, and more hand wringing over qualification drama, and, you can bet, a lot of criticism flung at the Mexican federation and coaches.
What about a loss?
Let us just say that hospitals better be on stand-by, because a Mexican loss in Azteca to the US would be equivalent to a massive heart attack to the nation's soccer program and fans. And, of course, a win for the US means their ticket for South Africa is all but booked.
However, when it comes to World Cup qualifying, nothing is ever easy for Team USA. Despite rising to the top of the region and being ranked among the world's best, the US still has a hard time south of the border.
We have the technology to build nuclear bombs but we still cannot figure out a way to enforce regional dominance on the road on a consistent basis. And, if you thought, the US had a hard time in Costa Rica's Saprissa Stadium, they're just as bad (or worse) when they venture into cavernous Azteca, where the US is 0-22-1.
For Mexicans, that alone, is a huge source of pride. To them and the Mexican soccer program, Azteca is more than just a cavernous stadium; it is where visiting teams come to die - an elephant graveyard of sorts. It is Mexico's safe haven and where the team comes to lick its wounds and recover from tough losses on the road.
And, although Mexicans might begrudgingly admit that the US is their greatest threat, they will never concede the US is the best in CONCACAF until they beat Mexico in Azteca.
However, every World Cup qualifying cycle brings about the opportunity to finally break through and seize this feat, which has become the holy grail of US Soccer.
It is a tall order for tall men, and the US has not stood tall in a while.
What about Bob Bradley?
Has Bob learned from the last two tournaments?
The US did make that impressive run to the Confederations Cup final. However, in the eyes of Europeans and other soccer nations, it was just two wins. What about the US C squad reaching the Gold Cup final? That team was doomed from the start, and we all had a feeling deep in our gut that the US probably was not going to be the team hoisting the Gold Cup in the end.
Granted that, in the eyes of many, the US should not have reached the finals in either tournament, they did so powered by the trademark of US Soccer - grit and determination. While Bob gets some credit for finally figuring out the correct formula to send out to the field, one thing has becoming glaringly clear from watching his schemes and formations: He is hesitant to change.
While Brazil made the correct adjustments and suffocated the US defense in the Confederations Cup, Bob made some decisions down the stretch that had us scratching our heads. Then, the same thing happened in the Gold Cup final, with Mexico making the necessary changes, but Bob was clueless as to what to do to stem the tide.
It raises the question again if he is qualified to take this team to the next level.
However, a win over Mexico at Azteca and you can bet Bob gets his own wing at the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
In recent years, we have been expecting better of the US. Forget what you saw at Giants Stadium. That was a fluke.
When things are bad, we take comfort in the thought that they could always be worse. And when they are, we find hope in the thought that things are so bad they have to get better.
The rivalry between US and Mexico is one for the ages, and you can expect a fiercely-contested match between two great teams ready to tear each other apart.
For the US, it is time to win.