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KEVIN BAXTER / ON SOCCER

Going into matchup, U.S. and Mexico soccer teams try to regain their mojo

Americans are coming off a flat performance in 3-1 loss to Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifier and Mexico is desperately trying to hang on. They meet Tuesday in a key game.

September 07, 2013|By Kevin Baxter
  • U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann talks to forward Eddie Johnson after an exhibition game against Germany earlier this year.
U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann talks to forward Eddie Johnson after an exhibition… (Dennis Grombkowski / Bongarts…)

Since taking over as coach of the U.S. national team 26 months ago, Juergen Klinsmann has been almost as interested in the process of winning as he has been in the winning itself. He has repeatedly challenged players to step outside their comfort zone, pushing them not just to be good but to be better.

Now it's time to find out if those lessons have taken hold. Tuesday's World Cup qualifier with Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, won't determine whether the U.S. plays next summer in Brazil, but it will determine whether the team possesses the strength and character to overcome adversity — traits it'll need if it hopes to go far once World Cup play begins.

Playing in front of a hostile crowd Friday in Costa Rica, the U.S. came out confused and rattled, conceding two goals in the first 10 minutes en route to a 3-1 loss. That cost the Americans their team-record 12-game winning streak and first place in the regional qualifying standards.

The U.S. must rebound against a wounded Mexican team, which just fired its coach and greatly needs a victory in Columbus — where it has never won — to get back on track its hopes of qualifying for the World Cup.

"Every time this process goes on it's never easy, always unpredictable," forward Landon Donovan said. "There are a lot of ups and downs. We've been on ups recently and now this is a down. We'll have to see how we recover and see what we're made of."

Tuesday's game will test more than the resolve of the U.S. It will also test its depth. Klinsmann's team will be without midfielder Michael Bradley, arguably its most valuable player. Bradley suffered a severe ankle sprain during warmups Friday. Bradley left the stadium on crutches and will probably have an MRI exam in Columbus.

Then, in the second half, the Americans lost defender Matt Besler, midfielder Geoff Cameron and forward Jozy Altidore for the Mexico game because of yellow-card accumulation. Klinsmann and his staff spent much of Saturday discussing possible roster reinforcements before deciding to summon midfielders Joe Corona, Brad Davis, Jose Torres and defender Clarence Goodson.

"We're going to have to have guys step up, there's no question," said goalkeeper Tim Howard, a former team captain. "We've talked about it over the last three years. We build toward this every game, so a guy can step in and not miss a beat and get the cohesion right."

Among those likely to get a chance is Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman, a Klinsmann favorite. Replacing Besler, who has been stellar in qualifying, will prove more difficult and that task is likely to fall to Goodson.

"Part of qualifying is how much depth you have," said Donovan, whose start Friday was his first in qualifying since June 2012. "We feel confident about other guys stepping in and doing a job. There are guys who have wanted to play and maybe deserve to play and now they'll have a chance."

The U.S. faces a challenging situation, but the Americans are not in dire straits. With a victory over Mexico and a victory or tie by Honduras against visiting Panama, the U.S. would be assured a spot in Brazil. Even with a loss, the U.S. would remain in the top three in the CONCACAF standings, still in line to advance.

"The mood's been positive," Howard said. "We've been on a run the last four or five months and dug out a lot of results we shouldn't have."

For Mexico, however, the situation couldn't be more desperate.

Hours after losing to Honduras on Friday, its first loss in a home qualifier in 12 years, Mexico's soccer federation fired Jose Manuel de la Torre as coach. That marked the low point of what has been a horrible year for Mexican soccer, one in which the national team won only one of seven qualifiers, failed to qualify for the Gold Cup final for the first time since 2005 and was eliminated in the first round of the Confederations Cup with consecutive losses.

De la Torre's replacement is assistant Luis Fernando Tena, 55, who led Mexico to its first Olympic gold medal in soccer in London in 2012. Tena, unlike De la Torre, may be able to win the support of key players on the Mexican team. But he still has his work cut out for him.

Should Mexico lose Tuesday and Costa Rica earn at least a point against winless Jamaica, the best Mexico could hope for would be the third, and last, automatic qualifying spot for Brazil. And to earn it, Mexico would have to win its final two games, against Panama and Costa Rica, and hope that Honduras wins no more than one of its last three games.

That leaves Tena, whose future as Mexico's coach is not guaranteed beyond Tuesday, with no room for error. Of course, the Mexican federation could have avoided much of the drama by promoting Tena after July's disastrous performance in the Gold Cup, when it became clear De la Torre had lost the team. That would have given the new coach a chance to hire his own staff and install his philosophy.

A deeply divided federation voted to stick with De la Torre after a heated debate in July. Early Saturday, even that tepid support vanished, with federation President Justino Compean saying the blame for Mexico's failure lies not just with the coach.

"I bet on continuity and I failed," Compean said at a news conference. "In this business the last result is the one that counts."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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