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U.S. and Mexico play to a 1-1 tie in World Cup qualifier

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The U.S. men’s national soccer team got an early score from Michael Bradley while Mexico answered halfway through the first half on a free kick by Carlos Vela on Sunday night at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.

Dylan Hernandez: With powerful foes ahead, U.S. needs to step up its attack

U.S. defender Geoff Cameron pulls up as Mexico forward Javier Hernandez tries to receive a pass.
(Alfredo Estrella / AFP / Getty Images)

Christian Pulisic can’t play alone.

The 18-year-old is already the best player the United States has ever produced, but he isn’t the kind of attacker who will slalom through an entire defense on his own. There was only one Diego Maradona.

Pulisic’s minimal influence in the United States’ 1-1 draw with Mexico at Azteca Stadium was somewhat predictable, considering the conscious decision the Americans made to send players back instead of forward.

As much as his ability to take on defenders one on one makes him different from other American players, what really separates him is that he is always a step or two ahead of everyone else mentally. He knows when and where to deliver the ball to his teammates, how to position himself to receive it back, how to time his runs. He makes the players around him better. He allows them to make him better.

Sunday night, he didn’t have anyone around him.

This is what Bruce Arena has to address in the 12 months that remain until the World Cup in Russia. The coach has to bridge the enormous chasm between how his team attacks when playing regional weaklings and upper-echelon teams such as Mexico.

Arena’s postgame remarks Sunday indicated his team didn’t play as defensively as it did by design.

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U.S. holds on and earns a tie in Mexico City

American fans listen to the national anthem before the start of the World Cup qualifier Sunday.
(Alfredo Estrella / Associated Press)

It was hardly a game befitting a tense and historic rivalry.

For long stretches the U.S. didn’t try to score. And for even longer ones, Mexico was unable to. So, fittingly, Sunday’s World Cup qualifier at Estadio Azteca ended in a cloudburst with the score tied 1-1.

And while that was a result that satisfied neither side, it was also one that didn’t disappoint either team.

“We’ll take our point. Points are hard to come by here,” said U.S. captain Michael Bradley, who scored the only American goal in the sixth minute.

“They had one or two chances. We had one or two chances,” said U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who is unbeaten in two starts at Azteca. “For us to come down here and take a point, it’s not the worst result in the world.”

The point, in fact, is the eighth for the U.S. in its last four World Cup qualifiers, equaling Costa Rica for second-best, behind Mexico, with four games remaining in the CONCACAF tournament.

Entering March, the U.S. was winless, pointless and in last place.

“I feel very good with where we are,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. “We made up some ground,”

The tie also leaves the U.S. unbeaten in seven games under Arena and unbeaten in Mexico City since 2009.

Mexico, meanwhile, remained unbeaten through six qualifiers and extended its lead to six points over the U.S. and Costa Rica, virtually guaranteeing it will earn one of CONCACAF’s three automatic berths in next summer’s World Cup.

But to earn the tie Mexico had to overcome a surprise start that saw Bradley take advantage of some video research and two Mexican mistakes to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead before many of the more than 81,000 spectators had found their seats.

When Mexico tried to play the ball out of its own end, Bradley anticipated the pass would come to Javier Hernandez, so he closed on the Mexican striker at the midfield stripe and took the ball off his foot after a sloppy first touch. Bradley then raced between two defenders and, looking up, noticed keeper Guillermo Ochoa was way off his line.

That was Mexico’s second mistake. And Bradley took advantage of that one, too, sending a right-footed shot from about 40 yards over the outstretched hand of the backpedaling keeper.

“We’ve played against him a number of times,” Bradley said of Ochoa, who often strays from his net. “I took the first touch and saw that he was a good ways out. And here you know if you catch a ball right, with this air the ball is going to fly.

“I just wanted to make sure I caught it right. And I did.”

The goal was just the fourth by an American in an Azteca qualifier since 1980. It was also just the second Mexico has allowed in six qualifiers in this cycle — both against the U.S.

But the lead didn’t last long, with Carlos Vela equalizing for Mexico on a counterattack in the 23rd minute. Hernandez made it happen, keeping the ball alive at midfield by dribbling through U.S. defender Kellyn Acosta before sending the ball ahead for Vela, who skipped away from DaMarcus Beasley, then beat Guzan with a left-footed shot from the top of the penalty area.

The goal was Vela’s first against the U.S. since the 2009 Gold Cup final but it could hardly be blamed on the seldom-used Beasley, who got little help from his two center backs when Vela turned toward the goal.

With the U.S. playing at altitude for the second time in 70 hours, Arena promised lineup changes, and he replaced seven players who started in Thursday’s win over Trinidad and Tobago in Colorado. It was a plan Arena formulated months ago, then started to put into practice when his team gathered for training camp two weeks ago.

That meant hunkering down with a five-man back line, absorbing pressure and robbing Mexico of the space it creates by spreading its attack wide. “Our team did a great job with our tactical plan,” Arena said.

Said Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio sadly: “Their intention was to defend.”

Before Sunday, Beasley had played just four minutes this year. Midfielder Paul Arriola had played only eight, Acosta just 74. But the three have also played in Liga MX, meaning they are familiar with playing at altitude and dealing with the intimidating environment of Azteca.

And though the U.S. wall would bend at times, giving up 10 shots, it broke just once with Vela’s score coming on the team’s lone shot on goal.

Both teams had chances to steal in a win in the closing minutes, only to be denied by the goal frame, with Mexico’s Hector Herrera driving a long free kick off the underside of the crossbar in the 71st minute and Bradley striking the right post on a half-volley from 30 yards three minutes later.

“We were certainly playing to get three points. Nevertheless we’re pound of the result,” Arena said. “We played 90 minutes to win. Not 90 minutes not to lose.”

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A disappointing finish: ‘I hoped for more from Mexico’

(Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press)

After Sunday’s game, which ended in a 1-1 draw, there was profound disappointment here with the performance of the Mexican squad, which many had considered superior to the U.S. side.

Some sports commentators said the U.S. team appeared better organized than its Mexican opponents, a view shared by many fans.

Still, there was relief that at least Mexico did not lose — a result that would have been a humiliation, especially considering the charged political context between Mexico and the United States.

“I hoped for more from Mexico. I thought they would play better, but we were deceived,” said Rodrigo Bolanos, 22, who watched the game at the Malafama bar in Mexico City’s Condesa district.

“The only good thing was that the gringos didn’t win. That would have been a great embarrassment.”

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A tense night at Mexico City bars as patrons watch the World Cup qualifier

(Cecilia Sanchez / Los Angeles Times)

At Wichitos restaurant in Mexico’s Condesa district, Alfonso Diaz and five friends watched the tightly played match closely. All were stunned when the Untied States took an early 1-0 lead.

“I was speechless,” said Diaz, 33, a software programmer. “What a shock that was.”

Calm was restored when the Mexican side tied the score some minutes later.

Across the busy street, Carlos Santamaria, 30, manager of Seps restaurant, sensed early that a tie was a likely result — and he wasn’t happy about it.

“For Mexico, today’s game means more than a World Cup qualification match,” said Santamaria. “There is a lot of pride caught up in this game, and we should not be satisfied with a tie.”

At least Mexico didn’t lose, though.

“If we lose, we will be the laughingstock of all the Americans — and above all of their president,” Santamaria said.

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Updated CONCACAF standings

GP GD PTS

1. Mexico 6 7 14

2. Costa Rica 5 4 8

3. United States 6 3 8

4. Panama 5 0 6

5. Honduras 5 -8 4

6. Trinidad 5 -6 3

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Slide show: Photos from the U.S.-Mexico game

U.S. forward Christian Pulisic reacts after missing a goal opportunity against Mexico. To see more images from Sunday's game, click on the photo above.
(Alfredo Estrella / AFP / Getty Images)

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‘It’s better than losing,’ says disappointed Mexico fan

(Alfredo Estrella / AFP / Getty Images)

With about 10 minutes remaining in the match, a cold rain started to fall.

As fans scrambled to put on plastic ponchos, Alberto Medina kept watching the field. It was still 1-1.

“I’m a little frustrated that we don’t have a lead over the gringos,” he said. “We could still lose.”

Medina, 78, wanted desperately for Mexico to win — because he loved the team and because he wanted to send a message.

“It would be a nice little swipe at Trump,” he said.

Medina had been to three other U.S.-Mexico games in his life. Mexico had won one and lost one. The third was a draw.

“I felt so happy when they won,” he said. “I want that again.”

But it wasn’t meant to be. As the rain came down, the match ended. Another draw.

“Well,” he said. “It’s better than losing.”

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This fan only has eyes for the game

(Alfredo Estrella /AFP/Getty Images )

Alejandro Sioron, 21, wasn’t yelling at the Americans. He wasn’t chucking empty beer cups their way.

His eyes were glued on the field.

“They’re so evenly matched,” he said. “It’s thrilling. How could my focus be on the fans? It’s on the game.”

But he did feel a stirring of nationalism seeing the stadium packed with his countrymen, dressed all in green.

“It’s so emotional, to see so many of my countrymen together,” said Sioron, who works at a car dealership. “It’s beautiful to see.”

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Zusi and 3 minutes of stoppage time

The U.S. needs to hold on for three minutes of stoppage time to get a point from Azteca.

Pulisic is being subbed out and replaced by Zusi. There will be some more Mexican chances before this game is done.

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Pulisic just misses the winner

U.S. forward Christian Pulisic reacts after missing a goal opportunity against Mexico on Sunday.
(Alfredo Estrella / Associated Press)

A long goal kick by Guzan landed to Pulisic, who had a shot at goal that would have sealed his place in the hearts of U.S. fans with the winner.

Only a couple of minutes left with stoppage time and the U.S. will go home with a point.

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How are your nerves?

Mexico is pushing, and the U.S. is hunkering down. Expect a lot of Mexican attack in the final five minutes of the match.

The U.S. still has a sub to make. This would be a huge point for Arena and his boys.

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U.S. fans show their love for Bradley

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Jozy Altidore replacing Bobby Wood

Arena replaces his lone striker, Bobby Wood, with Jozy Altidore. With Mexico pushing up to try to get the winning goal, Altidore is the type of player who can create problems for El Tri with his strength and pace.

It’ll be a crazy, nerve-wracking final 10 minutes from Azteca.

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Mexico inches away from taking the lead

American goalkeeper Brad Guzan grabs the ball after Mexico made a pass into the penalty box Sunday.
(Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press)

Mexico just missed a chance to take the lead at the 70th minute on a Hector Herrera free kick that had beaten Brad Guzan but didn’t beat the post.

The shot crashed against the goal post and was quickly cleared by the U.S. defense.

It’ll be a nail-biting final 15 minutes for the U.S. as Mexico will surely look to find the leading goal.

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Nagbe the first U.S. sub replacing Arriola

U.S. coach Bruce Arena gives instructions to his players Sunday.
(Rebecca Blackwell / Associated Press)

Bruce Arena makes his first sub as Darlington Nagbe replaced Paul Arriola who had some decent moments but was mostly quiet in the first half.

Nagbe played in the U.S. win versus Trinidad and Tobago and brings a more dynamic presence to the field than Arriola.

Two more subs for Arena are left and you’d expect to see someone replace Beasley here soon. Tue U.S. is 20 minutes away from taking a point back from Azteca.

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Pulisic finally sees some touches

Finally some life from Christian Pulisic. It was the first time we have seen Pulisic with some space as he weaved his way down the wing and was close to getting a cross over to Bobby Wood.

The U.S. will need to pressure the Mexican defense much more if they want to keep the pressure off themselves on the other end.

They can’t continue to stay in full bunker mode and expect to keep the score tied.

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Many American fans at Estadio Azteca are watching the game from ‘the cage’

U.S. fans at Estadio Azteca.
(Rebecca Blackwell / Associated Press)

Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca is known as an intimidating place for visiting teams. In past games, American players have been pelted with bags of urine lobbed at the field.

But it can be an intimidating place for visiting fans as well. Fights are common.

To cut down on violence between spectators, fans of visiting teams are kept in what is known as “the cage.” This is a section of bleachers up in the nosebleeds that is fenced in with razor wire and guarded by about 200 police officers dressed in riot gear.

“The cage” is where most of the American fans sat Sunday night — a small speck of red, white and blue in a sea of green and red.

Even before kickoff, they traded insults with the Mexican fans on the other side of the fence.

The Mexicans booed loudly when the American national anthem played, and the Americans gloated when their team scored a quick goal just a few minutes into the game.

But the Mexicans had their turn. Their team scored soon after, and the whole stadium rose up with an ecstatic roar, many people throwing full cups of beer into the air to celebrate. Many in the crowd turned toward “the cage,” hurling slurs and raising middle fingers at the Americans.

The riot police looked on nervously.

(Kate Linthicum / Los Angeles Times)

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Sloppy start to the second half

U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley tries to head the ball away from Mexico's Oswaldo Alanis.
(Alfredo Estrella / AFP / Getty Images)

Both teams decided to come out with the same lineup that finished the first half.

A sloppy start to the second half on both sides with Mexico looking to attack from the wings and the U.S. staying back.

The U.S. will continue to look for the counterattack and will need to get Pulisic more involved if they want to present any danger to the Mexican side.

Mexico players react to a foul committed by DeAndre Yedlin of the U.S.
(Rebecca Blackwell / Associated Press)

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Observations at halftime of U.S. vs. Mexico

A fast-paced first 45 minutes from Azteca. Expect the U.S. to hunker down in the second half and try to get home with a point.

Beasley will probably be subbed out, and it’ll be interesting to see who Arena goes with. Graham Zusi appeared to be the sub whom Arena was going to use when Beasley looked to be out because of an injury.

Kellyn Acosta needed to have planted Chicharito at midfield on that counterattack. Hernandez was able to avoid Acosta’s tackle and it ended up leading to Vela’s goal. Imagine what Jermaine Jones would have done to Chicharito.

Christian Pulisic has been really quiet today. He is not getting the service he has needed but in his limited touches he has looked dangerous.

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Some Mexican fans face a difficult choice: Whom to support?

Fans of Mexico listen to their national anthem before the start of the game Sunday.
(Alfredo Estrella / AFP / Getty Images)

Many fans at Sunday’s World Cup soccer qualifying match faced a difficult decision when it came to which team to support.

“I have American kids, and I own an American business. That country has given everything to me,” said Rafael Martinez, 52, who was born in Mexico but now runs a restaurant in Manassas, Va.

“My heart is divided,” he said.

But Martinez was wearing Mexican green Sunday. He and a group of friends and family who traveled from Virginia for the game each had a letter printed on their shirt.

Together, they spelled out “Viva Mexico.”

“It’s where I was raised,” Martinez said. “I’ve gotta support them.”

He brought along his 17-year-old son, Alex, who was born in the United States but said he has increasingly found himself defending his family’s Mexican heritage amid a racially charged political climate.

“It’s sad,” Martinez said. He said he was happy to be in a place where he could freely celebrate his Mexican pride.

Martinez also brought along the manager of his restaurant, an American named Luke Tamer, 29.

Tamer also wore a green Mexico shirt. But he had a secret. Underneath was another shirt, this one featuring a bald eagle wearing American flag sunglasses.

“I’m a little undercover right now,” he said.

Tamer said he wore the green shirt to show his solidarity with Mexicans.

“I’ve had a great trip here,” he said. “With the kindness of all these people, I don’t see how some Americans can be against them.”

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Counterattack goal by Vela ties it 1-1

As the U.S. pressured the Mexican goal, El Tri took advantage of Omar Gonzalez getting caught in transition and Carlos Vela converted in the 22nd minute.

The U.S. needs to settle down now as Mexico was looking like the stronger attacking side, even though it was down after Bradley’s goal.

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For these soccer fans, it’s about ‘Mexican pride’

(Cecilia Sanchez / Los Angeles Times)

As the time for Sunday’s World Cup qualifying soccer match approached, many fans in Mexico City had found seats at sports bars, restaurants or cafes where big-screen televisions were broadcasting pre-game reports. Emotions ran high as the two sides took to the field.

“We hope that Mexico wins,” said Cesar Marquez, 28, who was seated at the Malafama bar in the hip Condesa district with his girlfriend, Vanesa Yanez, 23. “The United States is always the principal rival of Mexico, in football and everything else.”

Both donned T-shirts with the colors of the Mexican flag in a spacious bar where half a dozen screens were showing the pre-game activities.

“Now, with everything with [President] Trump, this also has to do with Mexican pride,” said Marquez. “The United States may be very strong, but in football, we Mexicans are always better.”

Added Yanez: “Better that Trump know that in football we are better than them. We will show it today!”

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Michael Bradley with a wonder strike gives U.S. 1-0 lead

(Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press)

It took only six minutes for the United States to score. Michael Bradley grabbed a ball at midfield and chipped a long strike from just inside the midfield circle that beat goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.

This will be one of the goals that will be forever on repeat whenever these team face each other.

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Elbows are out early at Azteca

Referee Joel Aguila shows a yellow card to United States defender DeAndre Yedlin (2).
(Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press)

The elbows are out early. Mexican defenders have caught DeMarcus Beasley and Bobby Wood flush with elbows on balls in the air.

Neither were issued cards or even whistled for fouls. It’s an early indication of how physical this game may turn out to be, especially if Wood and Christian Pulisic get loose on counterattacks.

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Fans starting to get into it at Estadio Azteca

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A defensive lineup for U.S. Will it be enough to hold off El Tri?

(Kevin Baxter)

U.S. national team head coach Bruce Arena is going to trot a lineup with seven total changes. Missing from the lineup against Mexico in Azteca are goalkeeper Tim Howard, midfielder Clint Dempsey and forward Jozy Altidore.

Arena is lining up in a 3-4-3 that will probably resemble a 3-2-5 arrangement with Demarcus Beasley and DeAndre Yedlin tracking back to defend against an explosive Mexican lineup.

The thinking is that Christian Pulisic and Bobby Wood can provide some dangerous runs in the counterattack to keep Mexico honest.

A tie will feel like a win for the United States, and the point will be critical in the team’s chances of staying in the top three positions in CONCACAF.

We’ll see early on how long the U.S. stays in that 3-4-3 formation.

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Some things work on both sides of the border

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Mexican fans aren’t the only ones getting political at World Cup qualifier

(Kate Linthicum / Los Angeles Times)

Mexican soccer fans weren’t the only ones getting political ahead of Sunday’s U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifying match.

Josh Romano, a 45-year-old who lives in Venice Beach, waved one sign that said “Impeach Trump!”

Then he raised another sign, a poster with a photo of U.S. soccer’s most famous player.

“Landon Donovan for president,” it read.

Romano traveled with an American friend who also toted an anti-Trump sign. He said they felt it was important to show Mexicans that not all Americans support the U.S.president, who has angered many here with his anti-Mexican rhetoric.

“I want the Mexican people to know that our country isn’t like that,” he said.

“Most of my friends don’t like Trump,” he said. “I definitely don’t like what’s going on in our country.”

As Romano posed for photo after photo with Mexican fans, he talked politics with a few.

“There isn’t time for racism, man,” he told one.

“Exactly,” the man replied.

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U.S. vs. Mexico: Lineups set for both sides

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U.S. team takes the field to an early round of whistles and boos

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At a raucous tailgate party, Mexican soccer fans say ‘it’s time to fight back’ against Trump

(Kate Linthicum / Los Angeles Times)

At the raucous tailgate party outside of Estadio Azteca, there were icy coolers of beer, vendors grilling heaps of taco meat, and, this being Mexico, mariachis.

The musicians sweated in their cowboy boots and elegant black suits, playing song after song for a dancing crowd. At one point, the singer led everyone in an improvised song.

“We don’t want the wall,” they sang together.

Although fans had come to Mexico City’s fabled stadium to watch a World Cup qualifying soccer match against the United States, and not talk politics, President Trump was everywhere.

His face was emblazoned on signs and T-shirts, sometimes along with a middle finger, and on giant posters that featured a slur sometimes directed at gay people.

“I hate home. He’s trying to destroy my family,” said Agustin Sanchez, 60, who wore the Trump shirt with the middle finger.

Sanchez lived in Sacramento for more than 30 years before he was deported to Mexico six years ago. He has multiple family members who serve in the U.S. military, and he worries they will be discriminated against because of their Mexican origins now that Trump is president.

Sunday was about soccer, he insisted, but he wore the shirt to make a point. Trump has criticized Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers, vowed to impose a border tax and make Mexico pay for construction of a border wall.

“It’s time to fight back,” Sanchez said.

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Pittsburgh Steelers show love to the U.S. team

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Some things never change in the U.S.-Mexico rivalry

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And we have our first Trump piñata sighting

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Landon Donovan for president?

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U.S. fans getting full protection inside Estadio Azteca

The U.S.-vs.-Mexico soccer rivalry is one of the most intense in the world, given the border shared by the two countries and the complex geopolitical relationship.

L.A. Times writer Kevin Baxter detailed the history of the rivalry in all its hard-fought glory with some former players from both sides.

But an interesting part of the dynamic also comes from hardy U.S. soccer fans who brave the hostile treatment of the Mexican fans inside Estadio Azteca.

As shown by Dylan Hernandez’s tweet below, at least U.S. fans will be well protected.

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U.S. lineup has some surprises

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It’s a long climb up to the press box at Azteca

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L.A. Times crew is set up in Estadio Azteca

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An inside look at Estadio Azteca

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Fan loyalties start at breakfast

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L.A. Times writers’ predictions for U.S. vs. Mexico

(Getty Images)

The first question here is, “How will the U.S. line up?” The feeling here is that if the Americans run out in the same formation they used against Trinidad and Tobago three days earlier – a 4-4-2 with Christian Pulisic at the top of a midfield diamond – they will be destroyed by the Mexican attack.

Does Coach Bruce Arena go with another version of the 4-4-2, inserting the more defensively inclined Kellyn Acosta in the central midfield alongside Michael Bradley and pushing Pulisic wide? Or 4-2-3-1 to better protect the suspect back line? Or 3-5-2 to flood the midfield? What about a 5-2-2-1 with DeAndre Yedlin as an outside back who is free to venture up the field?

Mexico’s the clear favorite here. Arena’s historically pragmatic temperament points to the U.S. playing conservatively, which should result in a modest margin of defeat for the Americans. The Americans should also be helped by the absence of winger Jesus Corona, who left Mexico’s team to deal with a personal situation.

The most interesting part of this game will be to see how the 18-year-old Pulisic responds to getting butchered by Mexican defenders at high altitude in polluted air as the most hostile crowd he’s ever encountered howls at him.

Pulisic is a special player, already the best the U.S. has ever produced. And up to this point, he’s passed every test. When Arena made him the focal point of the attack in a must-win qualifier against Honduras, he produced one of the greatest offensive performances in national team history.

In the next game, he single-handedly secured a draw on the road against Panama. Three days ago, he scored both of the U.S. goals in the win over Trinidad and Tobago.

Here’s what I really like about the kid: He’s absolutely fearless. He doesn’t get discouraged when he makes a mistake and he doesn’t back down when he takes a vicious whack from an opposing defender, something that has happened with increased frequency in recent qualifying matches.

Fans of the U.S. don’t want to say this out loud for fear of putting too much pressure on the kid or jinxing him, but the team’s supporters have to be secretly hoping he can pass this test like every other and lead the Americans to their first-ever victory at the Azteca.

It’s unreasonable to expect a teenager to win this game for the U.S., but the possibility shouldn’t be entirely discounted. This kid is that good.

Hernandez’s prediction: Mexico 2, U.S. 1.

Estadio Azteca used to be an impenetrable fortress but the home-field advantages that made it that way have mostly faded, which explains why the U.S. is unbeaten there since 2009.

Ten players on the Mexican team for Sunday’s game play in Europe, erasing the advantage of altitude. The smog that once choked Mexico City has largely abated and Sunday’s game will be played at night, with mild temperatures, making the midday heat a non-issue.

Mexico does have a clear advantage in talent, though, boasting arguably the deepest roster in its long soccer history. Yet even that edge isn’t as strong as it could be with injuries sidelining Rafa Marquez, Andres Guardado, Miguel Layun and Nestor Araujo while Jesus Corona left the team over the weekend to an attend to unspecified personal matter.

Then there’s this last gem: The U.S., which lost its last match to Mexico in November on goals from Layun and Marquez, hasn’t been swept in the two-leg qualifiers since 1972. An omen, perhaps?

It looks like a perfect storm for the U.S. (and speaking of storms, scattered thundershowers are forecast for Sunday night). However what’s left of the Mexican team is so good, even all those factors might not be enough to swing the game in favor of the U.S.

Baxter’s prediction: Mexico 2-1.

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‘In your face, Trump!’ Mexicans really, really want to win Sunday’s U.S.-Mexico soccer match

Mexico fans cheer a goal against the United States in a World Cup qualifying match at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City in 2009.
(Ronaldo Schemidt / Getty Images)

Soccer-crazed Mexicans tune in for every big game, crowding bars, restaurants and any other place with a television.

But Sunday’s match will be exceptional: As the Mexican national team faces off against the United States in a World Cup qualifying contest here, it won’t just be about who best handles the ball.

President Trump has offended us, he is threatening us with his wall,” said Mario López, 38, who was selling sports clothes from a stand in a crowded market in Mexico City.

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Christian Pulisic comes through in 2-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago

(Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t always pretty.

But in the end, the U.S. national soccer team proved effective Thursday, riding a pair of second-half goals from teenager Christian Pulisic to a 2-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago in a World Cup qualifier the Americans couldn’t afford to lose.

The win, combined with a scoreless draw between Panama and Costa Rica, lifted the U.S. to third in the qualifying table halfway through the 10-game CONCACAF tournament, rescuing a qualifying campaign that was a shambles less than three months ago.

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Rivalry with Mexico a family feud for three members of the U.S. team

Jorge Villafana (21) plays for the U.S. National Team and also for Santos Laguna in Mexico. He says his family "will be cheering for both teams” when the U.S. plays Mexico in a World Cup qualifier.
Jorge Villafana (21) plays for the U.S. National Team and also for Santos Laguna in Mexico. He says his family “will be cheering for both teams” when the U.S. plays Mexico in a World Cup qualifier.
(Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

Herculez Gomez grew up surrounded by the U.S.-Mexico soccer rivalry.

As a boy, he remembers getting up early on weekends to watch games from Mexico with his immigrant parents. Then when he got older, he would drive to the Rose Bowl to see the Galaxy play.

“I had two sets of heroes,” he said. “I idolized Cobi Jones, I idolized Cuauhtemoc Blanco.”

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Landon Donovan came of age as U.S.-Mexico soccer rivalry blossomed

(Getty Images)

Dear Mexico, Landon Donovan would like to apologize.

Although the greatest player in U.S. soccer history grew up in Southern California, where he learned Spanish by playing against Mexican American kids, he says he had little understanding of the importance Mexicans place on the U.S.-Mexico rivalry.

So when, as an 18-year-old, he scored the goal that beat Mexico in his first international cap, he figured, how big can these games be?

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The dirty tackles, head-butts and upsets: A history of the 83-year U.S.-Mexico soccer rivalry

(Associated Press and Getty Images)

The U.S. played Mexico in soccer for the first time in 1934, winning 4-2 in a World Cup qualifier.

It would be 46 years and 25 games before the U.S. would win again. But in the last 17 years what had been a hopelessly one-sided competition has become one of soccer’s most spirited rivalries, with the U.S. going 13-7-5 since 2000. The rivalry will be revived Sunday when the U.S. heads to Estadio Azteca, Mexico’s imposing home fortress in the suburbs of the Mexican capital, for a crucial World Cup qualifier.

Times soccer writer Kevin Baxter spoke to nine retired players, from both sides of the field, to get their take on the rivalry’s meaning, and why it endures.

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U.S. players will represent their country, if not their president, when they play Mexico

U.S. men's head coach Bruce Arena.
(Associated Press)

Bruce Arena, the head coach of the United States national soccer team, wanted to make something clear.

When his team takes the field against Mexico at Azteca Stadium on Sunday, it will be representing the United States. It won’t be representing its president.

It’s a strange time to be an American, especially an American abroad. And with the U.S. playing in Mexico for the first time since Donald Trump was elected president, Arena was doing the same awkward dance many of us do these days when speaking to foreigners or visiting another country, explaining how the views and policies of the administration might not reflect your own.

“We have the greatest respect for Mexico, its people, its football team,” the former Galaxy coach said. “I live in Los Angeles. I experience, on a daily basis, people of Mexican heritage. They’re wonderful people, they contribute greatly to our society in many ways. We think the world of them.

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