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U.S. MEN'S NATIONAL TEAM

October 9, 2015
THE BIGGEST BATTLE
U.S., Mexico face off at sold-out Rose Bowl for Confederations Cup spot

By Scott French
LA Soccer News Contributing Editor

"It's something that we embrace: the idea that we'll step on the field on Saturday and there'll be a few more Mexicans there than Americans,” said US midfield leader Michael Bradley.
"It's something that we embrace: the idea that we'll step on the field on Saturday and there'll be a few more Mexicans there than Americans,” said US midfield leader Michael Bradley.
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
PASADENA, Calif. -- The last time the U.S. national team tangled with Mexico at the Rose Bowl is the last time the Yanks lost to their fiercest rival, an impressive 4-2 decision punctuated by an oh-my-god strike from Giovani Dos Santos.

They face off in the iconic Arroyo Seco stadium again on Saturday evening, in front of another sellout crowd of 90-something thousand, and this, by all accounts, is bigger than last time.

A berth in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia, a preview of sorts of the following year's World Cup, awaits the winner of the first CONCACAF Cup, an event created to solve one of the holes in the region's biennial championship.

It's the biggest faceoff between the U.S. and Mexico since the 2002 World Cup, when the Yanks made clear their authority in the rivalry with a 2-0 victory to reach the quarterfinals.

“Massive, massive, massive,” U.S. defender Brad Evans put it. “This is obviously one that you mark on your calendar. It's a big one -- you can tell by the crowd, by the venue that they chose, the media surrounding it, just the whole buildup. ...

“Obviously, the venue was chosen for a reason: They knew it would sell out in a snap of the finger, and it sure did, 90,000-plus. It's an icon of a stadium and one big games have been held at before, so I think of us it provides a challenge, but one these guys have [faced], playing at [Mexico City's Estadio] Azteca, and they've won there.”

The Rose Bowl is the closest thing to a national stadium in the U.S., the stage for World Cup finals, both men's and women's, an Olympic gold-medal game, and several showdowns with Mexico, which always could count on a huge, vibrant partisan crowd.

It was so much a home game for El Tri that U.S. Soccer stopped using it for games against Mexico, friendlies or otherwise, and weren't particularly happy CONCACAF decided to employ it for this game.

A ticket-dispersal process designed to forge a crowd closer to 50-50 than the usual 90-10 could lead to a different atmosphere, but the U.S. is prepared to face a huge, antagonistic crowd.

“It makes it a unique challenge for us, but it's something that we embrace: the idea that we'll step on the field on Saturday and there'll be a few more Mexicans there than Americans,” midfield leader Michael Bradley said this week as the Yanks prepared for the game at UC Irvine. “Our fans support us in a great way always. No matter who we play against, no matter where we are, they find us, always. So on our end, there's no worry there.

“Certainly when you talk about the United States in a bigger way, one of the beautiful things about our country is the ability for people from all over the world to come here and live and work and, in some ways, make new lives for themselves. And that's something that I'm personally very proud of, so when it means in a footballing sense that every now and then we play with a few less fans, we deal with it.”

Mexico started turning that around about a decade ago behind a talented young generations led by Dos Santos and steeled with a FIFA U-17 World Cup championship, and El Tri's victory in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup final at the Rose Bowl signaled a clear shift in the region's balance of power.

The Mexicans haven't won in six meetings since -- three U.S. victories, one of them its first at Estadio Azteca, and three draws -- but will look to follow their controversial Gold Cup title run in July with a victory that will grant them their sixth trip to FIFA's second-most important competition for full men's national teams.

The U.S. has played in four of the previous nine Confederations Cups, which began as the loosely biennial King Fahd Cup in 1992, shifted into a World Cup run-through in 2001 and went to an every-four-year tournament following the 2005 tournament. Mexico won at home in 1999, after a thrilling overtime win against the U.S. in a semifinal at Azteca, and the U.S. finished second in its most recent appearance, in 2009, stunning Spain in the semifinals. Brazil has won the last three championships and four in all.

The CONCACAF Gold Cup is played every two years, and the winner two years before the Confederations Cup qualified while the winner in the same year received nothing, leading national teams to field young and experimental teams in the “off” years. The CONCACAF Cup corrects this, pitting the winners of the last two Gold Cups for the Confederations berth.

Since it's winner take all -- unlike World Cup qualifying, from which the U.S. and Mexico have advanced every time the last five cycles -- it's a bigger deal than normal.

And it's always a big deal.

“I grew up in Texas, and I played with a lot of kids from Mexico that went to my high school, and we were always talking trash,” U.S. forward Clint Dempsey said. “It's just that competitive rivalry, being so close in proximity to Mexico. It's just exciting to have big games like that and want to win so bad. I think both countries want to be able to flex their muscles, and want to be able to have bragging rights.”

The Yanks believe there is more pressure on Mexico than on themselves.

“There's, obviously, a lot of talk [in Mexico] about how big this game is and that they can't lose,” said U.S. defender Michael Orozco, an Orange product who plays for Club Tijuana. “Since we're always fighting for the No. 1 spot in CONCACAF and them trying to change coaches, they just don't want to lose this game. We don't either, and it will be a tough one. We're mentally ready for all of this.”

Orozco says that “it's more intense for them. They have a lot of pressure.”

El Tri has been in turmoil. They won the Gold Cup amid controversy, benefiting from refereeing decisions in their semifinal win over Panama and title-game triumph over Jamaica, and then fired head coach Miguel Herrera after an incident with a television analyst at the airport in Philadelphia following the final.

Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti has taken over on an interim basis -- former Chicago Fire/New York Red Bulls coach Jose Carlos Osorio is set to leave São Paulo to take charge; no announcement has yet been made -- and coached the team in two September friendlies, draws with Trinidad and Tobago and Argentina, after controversially leaving three players, including Dos Santos, off his roster. He claimed the decisions were merely technical, but it was widely accepted that Dos Santos, his brother Jonathan and goalkeeper Guillermo “Memo” Ochoa were omitted for showing support for Herrera.

Both Dos Santos brothers, but not Ochoa, were included on Mexico's roster for Saturday, but Giovani Dos Santos had to withdraw after suffering an adductor injury in the Galaxy's draw last weekend at Seattle.

Leon midfielder Jose Juan Vazquez also exited with an injury -- Ferretti replaced them with Leon forward Elias Hernandez and Club America midfielder Javier Güemez -- and veteran defender Rafael Marquez and winger Andres Guardado are coming off injuries that could limit their participation.

Dos Santos' loss could be crucial. He might be Mexico's most dynamic attacker.

U.S. defender Ventura Alvarado, who plays for Club America, thinks Mexico will be fine without him.

“I think they have a couple of [other] good players, too, players that could replace him,” Alvarado said. “He's a great player. He has a lot of presence on the field. But they're going to have a couple players [ready to step in].”

The game, which kicks off at 6 p.m. PT, will be televised on Fox Sports 1 and also will be shown nationally in movie theaters.


   
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