The Clean Sheet: Azteca two step

but will actually win at the Azteca.

The only downside (and I hate to say it): the game really doesn't mean as much to the USA. But for Mexico's coach Ricardo Lavolpe, he may be dusting off the resume by Monday afternoon. We'll come back to this.

So why will the Yanks win? For one thing, probably for the first time ever, you get the feeling this team actually believes not only that it can win, but it will. This is a team stacked with talented veterans (welcome back,
Claudio) who know what it takes to play on this stage, and hungry youngsters (Eddie Johnson, mucho gusto) falling over themselves to prove they are ready for the next level.

Even The Bruce, always guarded when speaking to the media, used the word "swagger" this week to describe the culture of his side. This is a confident bunch, and rightfully so -- they just don't lose much anymore. If you want the numbers, they haven't lost in their last 16 games. Their CONCACAF streak is even more impressive, as the Arena-men are undefeated in their last 31 matches against regional opponents.

Furthermore, and it seems strange but go ahead and say it out loud, the U.S. gang owns Mexico this decade, posting a 6-1-1 record against their border rivals.

But for me one of the most important keys: the game just doesn't mean that much to the Yanks from a qualifying standpoint. With the big away win on Matchday One, the U.S. bought themselves some serious breathing room, as they are guaranteed three points from the first two away matches -- a fantastic start no matter what happens Sunday. Any points this weekend are pure gravy. Translation: they can go out and try to win the game without
the pressure of being damaged by a loss. Overall, the only harm this weekend could come from things thrown by the friendly fans at the Azteca. Landon, you may want to consider playing in a motorcycle helmet.

On the other side of the ball, I am not the first one to write of a sense of nervousness about the build up from the Mexicans. Much has been noted about Lavolpe not only calling in all the big guns, but refusing to release anyone for Copa Libertadores.

The Mexican fans and the media alike just seem sick of the notion that they are gradually becoming second fiddle to the Americans in the region. The 2-0 loss to the U.S. on football's grandest stage in 2002 has left its mark, and anything short of a win at Azteca Sunday will rub salt in that wound that may spell the beginning of the end for Lavolpe.

So to review, take a streaking and confident road team with nothing to lose who wants to win where they never have before, and match then up against a home side needing a result to quiet the masses. You do the math.

Now I don't want to detract from the importance of the match by saying the result is not the end of the world for the USA. In fact, the media up here would seem to disagree, as the lead-up to the match should be great,
ranging from a big Sports Illustrated preview to an ESPN "Outside the Lines" special.

In fact, on paper it looks huge. The two super powers of the region continuing one of international football's burgeoning rivalries in a rematch of the landmark World Cup showdown. Both teams in the top 10 of FIFA's
all-important world rankings (which this month I understand were selected by the jury from the Robert Blake trial).

But at the end of the day, if the Yanks lay a big Easter egg on Sunday, they just head to Birmingham, Ala., take care of business against Guatemala, and have six points from their first three matches. In other words, The Bruce will still have his lads tasting the schnitzel in 2006 no matter what happens Sunday.

So with all of the above, the stage is set for a historic U.S. win on Sunday, and I for one believe it is going to happen. In fact, 2-0 sounds about right. And to our friends from down south, that would be downright scary.

The Clean Sheet runs each Thursday on MLSnet. Views and opinions expressed in this column views and opinions are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs. Send any questions and comments to tcsresponses@yahoo.com.


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