MEXICO CITY – A soccer experience cheerfully described as "hell" awaits for the United States on Tuesday, with a task of devilish difficulty providing the latest obstacle to the men's national team's desire of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
Mexico City's Estadio Azteca ranks high on any list of the most hostile away venues in the world, and the third game of the U.S.'s 10-part battle to reach Brazil next year will be its most testing challenge, regardless of the result. It is not just the prospect of facing the strongest opposition in the CONCACAF region that makes playing Mexico on its own soil so tough, but instead a unique brand of physiological torture that medical science suggests can never be fully prepared for.
A combination of the arena's 7,200-foot altitude and its smoggy air will greet the Americans and surely forms a large part of the reason why only one team, Costa Rica in 2001, has ever won a World Cup qualifier at the Azteca.
"The first 20 minutes is always the worst," said the U.S.'s DaMarcus Beasley, who plays his club soccer with Mexican side Puebla. "You can't breathe, you get the dry feeling in the throat, you get congestion in the chest."
Preparing for such conditions with the limitations of the international soccer calendar is extraordinarily tough. Jamaica had the luxury of 11 days preparation at altitude before securing a 0-0 tie here last month, but the club commitments of the American players made a similar scenario impossible. Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. squad arrived in Mexico late Sunday night, having secured a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica near Denver on Friday – a desperately needed victory that elevated it to second place in the six-team pool.
Joe Corona, one of three Mexican-Americans on the U.S. squad and who plays in the Mexican league for Club Tijuana, has plenty of experience dealing with the capital's conditions.
"You feel like you need oxygen all the time," he said. "I always try to die during warm up – so that you need air, then when you go back to locker room you get a second air and that means you are getting used to it. But yeah, kill yourself in warm up."
Dramatic descriptions are nothing new when it comes to Americans and the Azteca. National team legend Eric Wynalda first described the venue as "hell," and was backed up by ex-national team captain Marcelo Balboa.
Despite a 1-0 friendly victory last year, the U.S. has had no luck here in competitive games, going a combined 0-13-1 in World Cup qualifiers in Mexico, with the only point coming in a 1997 0-0 tie that featured both Wynalda and Balboa. Ahead of the 2010 World Cup, the Americans lost 2-1 in a game that kicked off in the heat of the day and during which Yahoo! Sports witnessed one incident where a fan swilled beer into his mouth, stuck his fingers down his throat, deliberately puked the contents into his cup and then hurled it in the direction of Landon Donovan.
Combine a sold-out crowd of 110,000, an intensity of unimaginable scale and a certain magic of a venue that is the only stadium to have hosted two World Cup finals, and Azteca becomes arguably the most difficult place for a visitor to play in world soccer's diverse landscape.
Yet Mexico has struggled itself in the early part of this qualifying round, managing just two draws, against Jamaica and away to Honduras, and there is an undeniable sense around the U.S. camp that the home team's passionate fans could turn against them if things go awry, especially if the Americans can score early.
"It is very empowering to know that with one play you could change everything," said U.S. striker Hercules Gomez. "You can do one thing that takes a 110,000 crowd and shuts them up."
The top three teams from the CONCACAF region qualify automatically for next year's World Cup, while the fourth-placed finisher goes into an elimination game.
The U.S. has repeatedly stated how it wants to "get business done" early and avoid any tricky fixtures towards the end of the campaign. If it can overcome hell on Tuesday and get a rare result in this imposing destination, it will take a giant step towards that goal.
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