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Mexico rivalry playing second fiddle in Klinsmann's debut

Tim Howard

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PHILADELPHIA — The splashy hire of US national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann has made the American soccer community shake over the past two weeks.

Just about everyone with a recorder or a microphone is questioning players on the coaching change and Klinsmann on what exactly he’ll do differently leading up to Wednesday’s friendly against Mexico at Lincoln Financial Field (9 pm ET; ESPN2/Univisión).

Almost buried beneath all that rubble is the game itself — and the very idea that the Americans will play their nemesis less than two months after losing them in the Gold Cup final.

But there’s a reason why that particular storyline is being partially buried.

“They won the one that counted,” US goalkeeper Tim Howard told reporters before the team’s last training session on Tuesday. “They won the Gold Cup final. That was the big daddy. When it comes to USA-Mexico, there’s no shortage of motivation. But I don’t think we’ll be blood-hungry, looking for revenge.”

Of course, even if exacting any kind of revenge is off the table, beating Mexico would still be a meaningful triumph, as it always it is. Shortly after being called in for USMNT duty, Freddy Adu tweeted, “There is no such thing as a friendly against Mexico,” and other players echoed the same tune before Tuesday at the NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia.

Still, with so much going on with a new coach — and new players, too — it’s been admittedly hard for the focus to remain entirely on a game plan for Wednesday’s border clash.

“It’s still Mexico,” midfielder Landon Donovan admitted. “It’s still an important game for us in that way.”

“But big picture,” the US all-time leading scorer added, “the important thing is starting to learn what the expectations are with Jurgen. I think we used the first few days of training to start doing those things — with the Mexico game in the back of our mind.”

Even if the focus is mostly on the “big picture,” Klinsmann himself recognizes that his first game as US coach is important, if for no other reason than to gage where his team stands against a Mexico squad he said belongs among the world’s top 10 teams.

Klinsmann noted during Tuesday’s press conference that he has followed El Tri closely over the last couple of years and has seen a new crop of players breaking through with “absolute exceptional talent.”

“We want to show them we can compete with them,” Klinsmann said. “We’ve got to give them a fight. We want to see how players express themselves, how they take their responsibilities on the field.”

A day earlier, following his first full practice at the helm, Klinsmann dismissed the notion that it’s too soon to play Mexico following the disappointing Gold Cup defeat. For the new coach, playing star-studded squads — whether they’re rivals or not — is a crucial part of his building process, one that he is anxious to begin.

“It’s never too soon to play a really good team,” Klinsmann said. “That’s what we want to do in order to grow. If we could play Mexico, Brazil, Argentina — those are the games you want to play. If we want to improve our program, that’s what we need to do.”