U.S.-Mexico, a primetime match
There's only one clasico in CONCACAF when it comes to World Cup qualifying, so soccer fans in North America are in for a treat Sunday when the U.S. national team faces Mexico at Azteca Stadium. This game should have it all: the revenge factor, difficult conditions, an insane crowd, the top players in the region and two very good teams.
The most impressive thing about the U.S. team at this point in time is their depth. I think head coach Bruce Arena has both the difficulty and the luxury of having a full squad of players that are able to compete at this level. This U.S. team probably has more depth than any ever before. I expect to see a mixture of European-based players and MLS players when the starting lineup is announced on Sunday.
Clearly in the first World Cup qualifying match this round (a 2-1 win against Trinidad & Tobago on Feb. 9), Arena relied heavily on the European guys due to the labor situation that kept the MLS players out of camp for so long. But now the MLS guys have been in camp for a while and they have two good games under their belts, so don't be surprised if you see more of a contribution from MLS in this game.
Of course there are still some great players coming back from Europe, including Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Claudio Reyna, who has been back in action for Manchester City after a long injury struggle. One advantage that the MLS players have is that Arena has had them training at altitude, so I think you will definitely see at least four or five MLS guys out on the field, and I also expect that the U.S. will use all three of their substitutions.
The Mexicans will be looking erase the memories of that 2-0 loss in the World Cup, but I don't think you can really compare this game with that one. I don't think we'll see dirty soccer, but certainly once the whistle blows it's going to be physical. Arena will send his players out looking for three points, and this team is now good enough that they can go into any stadium in CONCACAF and get a win. If they get a draw, they'll be satisfied, but I don't think they'll be playing for the tie.
Mexico City is never an easy place to play. The heat, humidity, altitude and noise of the crowd make it very difficult. I think it will be a low scoring game and both teams will probably not press too hard until their opponents cross the half line. Both of these teams are very well organized.
Arena will have in the back of his mind that his team has another big game around the corner (Wednesday vs. Guatemala). But everyone will only be focused on Mexico first. In a game like this, one mistake can cost you three points. The team that is able to control the midfield, keep possession and finish their chances will probably come out on top.
Marcelo Balboa was a U.S. national team defender through much of the 1990s. He played in three World Cups and earned 128 caps. Balboa will provide commentary for ESPN2 on Sunday. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.