COLUMBUS, OHIO — There is something missing here, where the United States will play Mexico tonight in the first game of the final round of qualifying for soccer's 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The missing element is surprise.
Everything seems to be going along according to plan. The stadium is sold out, as expected. The weather will be cold and damp, as expected. The U.S. team is at virtually full strength and is favored to keep alive its streak of not having lost to Mexico in the U.S. in almost a decade.
Mexico is the underdog, having struggled of late. If it loses, as many predict it will do, it will mean the fifth game in a row without a win for "El Tri," and that could cost Coach Sven-Goran Eriksson his job.
But even that would not be a surprise. The Swede has been under pressure since he arrived last June, and now there are two high-profile coaches that are waiting in the wings to replace him -- former Mexico coach Javier Aguirre, who was dismissed last week by Atletico Madrid, and former Brazil and Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who was fired Monday by Chelsea.
But Eriksson's fate is just a sideshow. It's the game itself that is crying out for an edge, for a bit of controversy, a bit of drama.
This might be the region's best soccer rivalry, but there seems to be nothing compelling about tonight's match, perhaps because it is only the first of 10 that each team, along with other CONCACAF finalists El Salvador, Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago and Honduras, will play this year as they seek a place in the World Cup.
Even the players are not providing any bulletin board material.
"I'm not doing any trash talking," U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu said. "What I say is the truth, and it's not a lie to say that they're a quality team.
"Any real player who is passionate about his sport gets up for these kinds of games when you're playing a high-level competitor, and Mexico's definitely that. They have players who play in very good clubs around the world and a top coach.
"I have nothing against their national team. They have quality all across their lineup."
Bob Bradley, the U.S. coach, has gone out of his way -- at least in public -- not to fan any flames. There is no reason he should.
On paper, the U.S. should prevail, Eriksson not having lighted a fire under Mexico since his arrival.
"I think the style is the same," Bradley said. "I think the talent is there. We know it will be a good game.
"They'll work hard. They'll try to keep the ball moving, as they always do, and they'll have a lot of energy. So I think they'll be ready to put their best foot forward."
If Eriksson has been paying attention, the U.S. starting lineup should hold no surprises.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard is expected to be in the nets behind a back line of Frankie Hejduk, Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra and Heath Pearce.
The American midfield should feature Landon Donovan, Sacha Kljestan, Michael Bradley and DaMarcus Beasley, while up front will be Brian Ching and Clint Dempsey.
Seven players on the 20-man U.S. roster were on the 2006 World Cup team in Germany.
"It helps to have veterans who set the tone, guys who understand what these kinds of games are all about and players who have that right mix of confidence but also an understanding of what it takes to win," Bradley said.
Mexico is a bit banged up and will be missing winger Andres Guardado and defender Jonny Magallon because of injury, and forward Carlos Vela and midfielders Fernando Arce and Gerardo Torrado because of suspensions.
Also tonight, Costa Rica plays host to Honduras and El Salvador is at home against Trinidad and Tobago. The next game for the U.S. is March 28 at El Salvador, as the six nations vie for three guaranteed spots at next year's World Cup.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
United States vs. Mexico
What: World Cup qualifying.
Where: Columbus, Ohio.
TV: ESPN2, Ch. 34, 4 p.m.
At stake: The final six-team stage of World Cup qualifying for the CONCACAF region begins today with the first of 10 games for each team, who will play one another home and away. The top three teams will earn spots in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, with the fourth-place team eligible for a playoff to earn another spot. Other games today are Honduras at Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago at El Salvador.
Expected on the field: Forward Landon Donovan, who has been playing in Germany with Bayern Munich, will lead the U.S. Because his team has struggled, Mexico Coach Sven-Goran Eriksson could be fighting for his job.
Los Angeles Times