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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

Mexico gives the U.S. altitude

Estadio Azteca, site of a World Cup qualifier, is 7,400 feet above sea level and a hostile environment for visiting teams.

August 12, 2009|GRAHAME L. JONES | ON SOCCER

MEXICO CITY — A few weeks ago, Javier Aguirre was in Arlington, Texas, swapping football memories with Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys. That's football, not futbol.

It turns out that the coach of Mexico's national soccer team is not only an NFL fan but a Cowboys fan. And not only a Cowboys fan but a Roger Staubach fan.

"I have to confess, I've been a Cowboys fan since birth," Aguirre told Jones. "I have everything when it comes to Roger Staubach. Everything."

Jones had stopped by his new House of Many Splendors -- the $1.15-billion Cowboys Stadium -- to watch Mexico's soccer team train for a Gold Cup quarterfinal game against Haiti. While there, he gave the Mexican coach a Super Bowl ring to try on for size while Aguirre gazed in obvious awe at the new stadium.

"We don't have this type of facility back in Mexico," Aguirre said. "We're not used to it."

And in that innocent comment is a key to today's long-anticipated World Cup-qualifying game between Mexico and the United States at a much older, much more historic stadium -- Mexico City's Estadio Azteca, one of the most intimidating soccer venues in the world.

To borrow Aguirre's phrase, the Americans are "not used to it."

U.S. Coach Bob Bradley said Monday, "This will be my first time to Azteca."

It will also be the first time for most of Bradley's players. Only four of the 20 on the roster -- defenders Steve Cherundolo, Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra and forward Landon Donovan -- have played at Azteca. For the rest, it will be an eye-opening experience.

"It's almost like a rite of passage for a U.S. national team player," starting goalkeeper Tim Howard said Monday.

No American national team has won in Mexico. A scoreless tie in 1997 is the best the U.S. has achieved in 23 games over 72 years. Bradley's predecessor as national coach, Bruce Arena, failed twice.

"You're not playing on a level playing field in that game," Arena said. "On a level playing field at sea level, I would favor the United States.

"The conditions at Azteca are difficult. You have around 100,000 people. The stadium is massive. The sightlines are real difficult for players. There are literally probably 20 yards from the touchline to the dugouts. You see that and the field looks like you're out in the country.

"Then you start dealing with the heat and the altitude and it gets to your head. Not only your head. The physiology is difficult. I remember games where we had oxygen at halftime. It's hard. It's an awesome home-field advantage."

There is nothing Bradley can do about the heat -- a temperature near 80 with a chance of thunderstorms is forecast for today -- or about the smog, or about the sellout crowd of 105,000 that will shake the old edifice to its foundations starting long before the kickoff at 1 p.m. PDT.

Nor can Bradley and his players ignore the history that seems to seep from the concrete and steel of the 43-year-old stadium. This was where Pele and Brazil won the World Cup in 1970. This was where Diego Maradona and Argentina won the World Cup in 1986. This was where Maradona scored his infamous "hand of God" goal. This is Mexico's home, its fortress.

Playing at Azteca can produce the sort of feelings that Haiti's coach, Jairo Rios, said his players experienced when 82,252 predominantly Mexican fans showed up at Cowboys Stadium to see Haiti thrashed by Mexico in the Gold Cup.

"There were players whose legs were shaking," Rios said. "That was the fear, the fear of the atmosphere of the stadium."

Mexico uses it to great advantage. It has lost only one World Cup-qualifying game at Azteca, to Costa Rica in 2001. The stadium's 7,400-foot altitude, combined with the heat and smog and noise, can be unnerving.

"That's certainly the challenge," Arena said. "I'm sure these U.S. players will understand that. But because of the conditions it doesn't allow the U.S. to bring the kind of game that they typically play to their opponent.

"I think man for man the U.S. is probably better, but the great equalizer in that matchup is the altitude."

In an effort to counteract the problem, the U.S. team did not arrive in Mexico City until Tuesday afternoon. It will fly out immediately after the game.

"We have worked for a long time with different experts on altitude, including many from the U.S. Olympic Committee," Bradley said Monday. "The research is that if you don't have enough time to acclimatize, which is 10 days or so, then going in late is your best bet."

Had they glanced at the local newspapers Tuesday, the Americans would have found page after page of coverage. The Record spoke of "Historico Interes," which needs no translation, and of "all eyes being on El Tri."

Excelsior featured a front-page feature on former Mexico and U.S. national coach Bora Milutinovic, dubbing him "the Marco Polo of soccer" and quoting him as saying he was confident Mexico would qualify for the World Cup.

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