U.S. soccer team faces daunting task in World Cup qualifier in Mexico

MEXICO CITY — It may be the greatest home-field advantage in sports history.

Seventy-five times Mexico’s national soccer team has played a World Cup qualifier at home and only once has it lost — 12 years ago to Costa Rica. Six other times Mexico was held to a draw, giving it a winning percentage at home of 91%.

Juergen Klinsmann, who will lead the U.S. into a World Cup qualifier at the sprawling Estadio Azteca on the southern edge of Mexico City on Tuesday, said his team won’t be intimidated. “Playing Mexico in a sold-out stadium in Mexico City, it’s awesome,” he said Monday. "[But] we’re here to get not only a result, we want to win here.”


Klinsmann, after all, is riding an impressive streak of his own. In six games as a player and coach, the former German star and national team manager has never lost to Mexico, the most recent victory coming last August when the U.S. beat Mexico for the first time in Mexico City in a friendly.

The U.S. may have still momentum on its side because although Mexico blew a 2-0 lead and had to settle for a tie in its qualifying match Friday in Honduras, the Americans were beating Costa Rica, 1-0, in the snow outside Denver. (FIFA, the world governing body for soccer, announced Monday it will consider Costa Rican claims the weather compromised the “physical integrity” of the match.)

However the U.S. will be without midfielder Jermaine Jones, who did not travel to Mexico after spraining his left ankle against Costa Rica. Mexico will be without defender Francisco Rodríguez because of yellow card accumulation, but it will have Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez, who scored twice in the tie with Honduras.

Regardless of the lineups, though, the Mexico-U.S. game will draw a crowd of more than 105,000, adding another chapter to what former U.S. national team defender Alexi Lalas calls the “greatest international soccer rivalry in the world.”

And it’s a rivalry that has reached such heights, at least in Mexico, for reasons that have little to do with soccer.

“It’s more social, I think,” argues Juan Carlos Labastida, a 29-year-old accountant who has tickets to Tuesday’s match. "[The U.S.] is a country that has dominated Mexico in many aspects. This is the one opportunity Mexicans have to win, in soccer.”

Now even that has begun to change. After winning only five times in the first 65 years of its rivalry with Mexico, the U.S. is 11-5-3 since 2000.

Journalist John Sutcliffe, a Mexico City native who has covered the Mexican team in the last five World Cups, most recently for ESPN, says the social implications give the rivalry added importance in Mexico.

“It’s like finally beating your neighbor or that big brother who’s always been beating you at everything,” he says. “Mexico cannot beat the U.S. for way of life. But in soccer they can.”

Now Mexico isn’t even doing that with the same frequency as before, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed in a country where soccer is a huge part of the national identity. Which is why, after Mexico ended a five-match winless streak against the U.S. with a 5-0 win in the 2009 Gold Cup final, tens of thousands of T-shirts popped up in Mexico bearing the simple slogan “Cinco-Cero” in the colors of the Mexican flag.

“It’s not just another game,” insists Elmur Souza, who covered the Mexican national team for 13 years before joining Time Warner Cable’s Spanish-language channel as a special correspondent. “It’s mostly the pride. ‘I lost every game, but I beat the United States.’ That’s the whole mentality from the Mexican players.”

Yet the Mexican players and their public are also quick to credit the growth of U.S. Soccer for the growing parity between the two countries. Former U.S. national team star Landon Donovan remains both reviled and respected here — he has even been featured in TV commercials — not just for his obvious soccer talent but also for his gamesmanship and the fact he has become fluent in Spanish.

And although that newfound respect for the American game has fueled the rivalry in recent years, many Mexicans agree with Labastida, who argues the soccer series gathers most of its energy from the hot-button social issues that continue to divide the countries, including immigration.

As a result, the plight of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. has become a frequent theme of popular culture here, one retold in television soap operas, film and music. Now it’s being played out on the soccer field too.

“Many people we know go to the United States to live and return ever more determined to beat the United States,” Labastida says. “In that moment you don’t have to feel less than the United States. For one moment during that day, you can feel superior to them. This is the context, the general feeling.”

That could make things difficult Tuesday for such U.S. national team players as Omar Gonzalez, Joe Corona and Herculez Gomez, who have family roots in both the U.S. and Mexico.

“Because of my heritage, my family’s background, it does hold special meaning,” says Gomez, who was born to Mexican parents in Oxnard and grew up watching his father cheer the Mexican national team on TV. “There is no Hollywood here. There is no NFL. There’s no NBA, NASCAR, NHL, any of that.

“It’s futbol. They breathe and die with this sport. This is what they do. Their national team plays, everything stops. The whole country will be watching. So it’s important to them. The whole country knows the importance of this.”

Times staff writer Cecilia Sanchez contributed to this report.