USA’s trip to soccer hell
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“Imagine putting a treadmill in the middle of Mile High Stadium and having a blow-dryer blast hot ashes into your face.”
Eric Wynalda’s lucid description paints a vivid picture, but the men who have ventured into the cauldron of Estadio Azteca in Mexico City are united in a common belief. Whatever you’ve heard, however you’ve prepared and no matter how hard you try, there is no way of imagining the brutal tribulations of an away day in Mexico until it has been experienced.
Team USA heads to one of soccer’s most imposing destinations again on Wednesday, as the road to next year’s World Cup in South Africa takes a detour through a concrete version of sporting hell.
Glances at the history books of this rivalry are furtive and laced with embarrassment for the national team, which has lost 22 of the 23 matches in Mexico – punctuated only by a 0-0 draw in 1997.
The Azteca is no normal soccer destination. The thin air of altitude nearing 8,000 feet, thick and choking smog, plus the small matter of 105,000 rabid fans and a pumped Mexico team combine to create a monster – and not the furry kind that pop up in cartoons.
Grown men have been reduced to mental and physiological wrecks by the conditions. For the handful of first-time visitors on Bob Bradley’s squad, the visit will be a fierce test of attrition and spirit.
Wynalda helped produce the only blip on Mexico’s home record against the United States, having been part of the squad that forced that tie on Nov. 2, 1997. Yet he also remembers a 4-0 defeat in 1993, a day when he put his hands to his mouth to stifle a cough only to find them spattered with his own blood seconds later.
Vomiting, dizziness and lung-bursting agonies all form part of the experience that awaits Team USA – an obstacle course through undiscovered levels of physical discomfort.
Medical wisdom will tell you these are conditions – the altitude in particular – to which players cannot acclimate in a short period of time. Mainly due to the restrictions of the international soccer calendar, Bradley’s squad will fly in from Miami and spend just a single night in Mexico.
“It is a totally unfair advantage,” Wynalda said. “It is impossible to adapt unless you are used to it. In the past, myself and other guys have coughed big black chunks; half of the team would throw up and many ended on an intravenous drip. You go in knowing it will be horrible and that you’re going to lose a day of your life.”
Marcelo Balboa, another integral part of the 1997 team, will be commentating on Wednesday’s contest for cable network Mun2. Balboa spent time as a professional in the Mexican league with Leon but still remembers the physical challenges experienced at the Azteca with Team USA.
“You can’t breathe,” he said. “You are gasping for air and you look over to see people coughing up a lung. The smog is embedded in your chest and there is nothing to do about it.”
Fortune favored the United States in 1997. After a preparatory camp in San Bernardino, Calif., had given the players some inkling of the conditions to expect, two days of prematch rain cleared the air enough to lessen the impact of the smog.
A similar scenario is unlikely this time – and a 3 p.m. kickoff ensures maximum discomfort for the visitors.
Wynalda says the United States’ first-choice side, fresh from its run to the final of the Confederations Cup, is the better unit. But he insists a 2-0 or 3-0 defeat is the most likely outcome.
“It has nothing to do with ability or which team is better,” he said. “It is just physiologically impossible to acclimatize unless you have over a week in that environment.
“You can’t chase around. You have to break your game into 150 to 200 five-yard sprints. The USA has to get at them early while they still have the energy and put pressure on them. But they have to be smart and leave something in the tank.
“And they have to know that what they are letting themselves in for is horrible and stick together. We were like a band of brothers in 1997 – we were supposed to die that day and we came through.”
Even without the conditions, the Azteca would still be mightily imposing.
Mexico’s road record is abysmal, the main reason why it is in danger of missing out on the World Cup finals. At home, however, Mexico is transformed into a different animal, buoyed by the support of a nation and relishing the familiarity of the hostile surroundings.
Balboa says the personal animosity between players on both sides was greater during the 1990s than today, even though the rivalry has escalated and now generates far greater media and public attention.
“Playing in Mexico was an amazing crash course in international soccer for me,” Balboa said. “I remember in the early days, I was standing by the post on a corner kick and someone just came up and smacked me in the [groin].
“People were taking cheap shots all the time, stepping on people’s feet and doing whatever they could get away with. Tackles from the side and the back, with studs up, were flying in.”
The Mexican public plays its part, too. Sirens outside the U.S. team hotel at 3 a.m. can be expected like clockwork and a police escort will guard the squad at all times.
Landon Donovan has insisted Bradley’s team believes it can win the game – and if it does, it would automatically go down as one of the greatest results in U.S. soccer history.
But whatever the outcome, the Azteca will exact its physical toll and will always be a destination to be survived, not conquered.