After the USA’s “Winter Wonderland” victory over Costa Rica in Denver on Friday, the team migrates south to meet Mexico in the Azteca on Tuesday. Although “win at home, draw away” is the CONCACAF WCQ mantra, things change in the Azteca, where the mantra becomes “put in a decent performance and do your best to deal with whatever Mexico throws at you” (literally, and figuratively).
Most USA fans are well aware of the pressure that the USMNT faced coming into this pair of qualifiers. Brian Straus’ highly publicized interviews with several current USMNT players painted a picture of a national team in serious trouble, with players questioning Jurgen Klinnsman’s methods and their teammates’ loyalty and dedication to the USA. Fans and media alike were anxious to see how the team performed on Friday. What we saw was a team willing to battle through a blizzard to squeak out a positive (if somewhat lucky) result, relieving much of the pressure that had built up in subsequent weeks. For the USA, a win in the Azteca would be fantastic, a draw would be impressive, and a loss in which the USA plays cohesively and with the “never say die” spirit we attribute to the team would probably feel pretty good too.
Things aren’t so rosy on the other side, however. I’ve been fortunate enough to convince Sergio Tristan, a founder of the USA-based Mexican national team supporters’ group Villas Army, to describe the enormous significance Tuesday’s match has for Mexico. Sergio gives some great insights into the pressure Mexico is under from its rabid fan base and highly critical media, and how that pressure might be starting to undo the team at its seams.
Pressure, Pressure, and More Pressure: A Look at Tuesday’s Mexico v USA Match from a Mexican Fan Perspective.
Note: Sergio Tristan is a founder of Villas Army, a Mexican supporters’ group for fans living in the USA. While his choice of national teams is questionable, he knows his stuff and is a great source for keeping up with all things Mexican soccer. Be sure to give him a follow on Twitter (@SergioGoal).
Mexico returns home after a drawing 2-2 against Honduras in San Pedro Sula on Friday, where the field temperature at kickoff was between 110 and 115 degrees. For any team in CONCACAF a draw in Honduras is a good result, but for Mexico this draw feels more like a loss. El Tri had three points in hand and lost it all in three minutes. The debacle in Honduras has made Tuesday’s game much more important for Mexico. Here’s a look at some of the main factors for Mexico heading into the U.S. match at El Estadio Azteca:
Fan and Media Pressure
The average American sports fan does not follow soccer. The U.S. win on Friday was not on the front page of any major U.S. newspaper, even with the insane weather conditions in Denver. If the U.S. fails to reach the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, it is possible that this news will barely make it onto SportsCenter. In contrast, in Mexico the entire country eats, sleeps, and breathes their national team. The Mexican fan base is one of the most dedicated fan bases in the world, with fans often traveling with one way tickets just to see their team play. With that level of fan dedication, however, comes great expectations. Mexican fans are very demanding. The fans are not the only ones to put pressure on the Mexican national team – the Mexican press do their part, too. Their coverage is extensive and sometimes extremely critical, and serious conflict between the Mexican Federation and the press is very common.
Mexico enters the match against the U.S. under huge amounts of pressure from fans and the media. El Tri has two points in their first two CONCACAF hex matches, the worst start ever for the Mexican team. As a result, the Mexican media have been very critical of head coach José Manuel de la Torre, aka El Chepo, and the team. The pressure seems to have gotten the best of El Chepo, who has acted very erratically with the media and has forbidden his players from making any comments after the game against Honduras.
Starting Lineup Concerns
There are two major roster questions for El Chepo following the game against Honduras. Team captian Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez will miss Tuesday’s match due to yellow card accumulation, and El Chepo must decide who will replace him at center back. Left back Jorge Torres Nilo will also miss Tuesday’s game due to injury.
At center back, El Chepo will likely start either Roberto Ayala or Johnny Magallon, as both are natural replacements for Rodriguez. Ayala provides the size and strength needed to hold off strong players like Jozy Altidore, while Magallon has a lot of experience in big international games.
The real question mark for Mexico rests in the left back position. Torres Nilo’s injury leaves El Chepo scratching his head on who use to fill the gap. Unfortunately, El Chepo seems to only have midfielders available to take over the left back position. Andres Guardado and Carlos Salciedo are the leading candidates to replace Torres Nilo. Guardado has been playing at left back with his club side Valencia (and performed well against Real Madrid), while Salciedo is naturally a left back who converted to center midfield three years ago. Neither player is a first choice left back, but neither player would be a disaster in the position. But the real question is whose departure from the midfield produces the most negative effect on the team’s attack – and the answer is Guardado. The former Atlas winger has been a terror on the left wing against all opponents, never afraid to run at defenders and often taking quality long shots. Salciedo, on the other hand, can be easily replaced in the midfield by Hector Herrera or Gerardo Torrado, both solid options.
El Chepo’s decision at this position will show how “worried” he is about playing the U.S., and how much “pressure” he is truly feeling. If he chooses to maintain the central midfield tandem of Zavala and Salciedo, then Guardado will be forced into the left back position. Putting Guardado, Mexico’s most dangerous winger, at left back would show that El Chepo is very cautious about facing the U.S. However, if El Chepo moves Salciedo from the midfield down to left back, inserts Hererra into the middle, and maintains Guardado on the wing, then El Chepo isn’t afraid, and is willing to push forward and take the game to the Americans. Look for this left back decision in the starting lineups to get a glimpse into El Chepo’s mindset on Tuesday.
El Estadio Azteca
Every seat at the Estadio Azteca has been opened up for Tuesday, the tickets are sold out, and the Mexican fans are ready! The altitude, the smog, and 110,000 fans are definitely a pressure cooker for any team to play against. The Americans will surely walk onto the field and feel the pride of Mexico. However, if the game hits 30 minutes and Mexico has yet to score or is playing badly then El Estadio Azteca goes from the Mexican national team’s greatest friend to its biggest foe. For proof, one need only remember the last WCQ Mexico played in the Azteca, against Jamaica. The Mexican fans began booing their own national team halfway into the game. Cheers of “Olé! Olé!” were heard whenever a Jamaican player touched the ball, while whistles rained down on Mexican corner kicks. The entire stadium turned on Mexico. The pressure of Azteca is surely felt by every away team that visits Mexico City. Yet, the pressure is greater for the Mexican Team who must not only win but satisfy its rabid fan base with good soccer.
A loss for the U.S. in the Azteca is expected, even by many of their fans. A win for Mexico is demanded by their fans. I believe that Mexico is slowly cracking under the pressure of being constantly under the microscope and not having the same results the team had in the previous round of qualifying. For all the talk of dissension in the U.S. ranks, nothing brings a group together like shared adversity. The U.S. team shared adversity in Denver on Friday. They have bonded and are motivated. A draw is highly possible.
I predict a 1-1 tie that feels like a win for the U.S. and which results in fire alarms ringing all over Mexico.
Thanks again to Sergio for sharing this piece with Know Thy Enemies. My counterpart to Sergio’s take – “A USA Fan Perspective on USA v Mexico” – is up on the Villas Army website here. Enjoy the game on Tuesday – and GO USA!