Friday, January 23, 2009

1/23/09: USA On The Up, Mexico In Shambles

Sven prepares for Columbus. (Pic via: Daily Mail)

U.S., Mexico In Very Different Shape By Luis Bueno from Sports Illustrated:
In CONCACAF, the latter part of 2008 was a contrast in styles between the top two nations. The U.S. breezed through World Cup qualifying and secured a spot in this year's final Hexagonal round with two games to spare. The Americans were able to use the last two qualifiers as proving ground for their youngsters and untested internationals and finished the year on a high note.

Meanwhile, after losing to Honduras in its sixth and final World Cup qualifying match of '08, Mexico seemingly had bottomed out. On the field at the Estadio Olímpico in San Pedro Sula, El Tri was a shell of its former self and managed to get into the Hexagonal on goal differential alone.

It seemed impossible the two archrivals would be further apart in early '09 than they were then. But Mexico is slowly unraveling while the Americans are as strong and focused at the start of this year as they have been in any of coach Bob Bradley's previous two years.

And as the U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier looms in Columbus, Ohio, on Feb. 11, everything is setting up perfectly for the hosts. Mexico finished the semifinal phase tied for the fewest points among all of the six Hexagonal participants, and based on goal differential, El Tri was sixth out of six compared to its fellow final-round foes and their collective efforts in the semifinal phase.

Form has varied from disappointing to downright awful for Mexico, but league play could have distracted from the national team's poor performances and possibly helped solve their problems. Instead, it may have cost Mexico some of its top players as Andrés Guardado (calf) and Rafael Márquez (muscle strain) were injured during Spanish league play, while Jonny Magallón (broken arm) and Aarón Galindo (knee) haven't recovered from their own respective medical setbacks.

Additionally, Mexico will already be without Carlos Vela, Gerrardo Torrado and Fernando Arce, each of whom is suspended for the game due to cards picked up in the semifinal phase.

Another obstacle that could linger for Mexico is the revival of the foreigner scandal. Swedish coach Sven-Göran Eriksson drew heat for calling up four South American-born players for a national-team camp held earlier this week. Brazilians Antonio "Zinha" Naelson and Leandro Augusto, as well as Argentines Matías Vuoso and Lucas Ayala, collectively opened up some old wounds.

While each player is a naturalized Mexican, the criticism has been harsh as former and current players have spoken up against their naturalized countrymen. Club América goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa went so far as to call for a limit for the number of foreign-born players that could be included on the team.

Health and suspensions favor the Americans, but so to does the form of each respective side's European-based players. Mexican national-team stalwarts Omar Bravo, Giovani dos Santos, Guille Franco, Nery Castillo and Carlos Salcido all have struggled to find playing time for their respective clubs.

On the other hand, U.S. players such as Carlos Bocanegra, Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey have been faring well with their respective European clubs. To make matters worse for El Tri, and to widen the chasm that now exists between the sides, the Americans' top player is making a splash with one of the top clubs in the world. Landon Donovan has been nothing short of spectacular less than a month into his loan with Bayern Munich. The U.S. all-time leading scorer has bagged four goals in five friendlies with Bayern as the German giants prepare for the return of Bundesliga play later this month.

Each team, though, has one similar foe left before meeting up with each other in Columbus. The U.S. opens its '09 calendar with a friendly against Sweden on Saturday while Mexico will play the Swedes in Oakland, Calif., next Wed., Jan. 28.

Now, it would be difficult to gauge what will happen on Feb. 11 with what happens against Sweden. The U.S. camp ahead of its friendly featured many players trying simply to catch Bradley's eye for possible future inclusion in national-team games while regulars such as Michael Bradley and Oguchi Onyewu remain with their teams in Europe. Mexico's Eriksson, meanwhile, said he would save some surprises for the U.S. and won't tip his hand against the Swedes.

Mexican killer Landon Donovan of Bayern Munich. (Pic via: Bob Levey/Getty Images)

And despite all the differences, an overconfident American side would be a foolish American side. With the likes of veterans Oswaldo Sánchez and Pável Pardo alongside budding youngsters César Villaluz and Julio César Domínguez, Mexico still has plenty to offer.

Still, this game is setting up for another American triumph at Columbus Crew Stadium. Mexico hasn't fared well in the home of the defending MLS champions, having lost both games played there by a collective 4-0. With a side licking its wounds and battered by in-fighting, the stadium soon may become Mexico's own house of horrors.


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