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Gap still exists between Mexico, USA

Jurgen Klinsmann expects USA to put up a fight against Mexico at Estadio Azteca.
Jurgen Klinsmann expects USA to put up a fight against Mexico at Estadio Azteca.
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Jamie Trecker

Jamie Trecker is the Senior Editor for FOXSoccer.com. A working journalist for 25 years, he covers the Champions League, European soccer and the world game. Follow him on Twitter.

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MEXICO CITY

It’s the continent’s biggest grudge match as Mexico faces the United States at Estadio Azteca in a friendly Wednesday night.

It is an away fixture the Yanks have never won, with a dismal 0-23-1 lifetime record at El Tri’s fortress. With Mexico coming off a gold medal winning performance at the Olympic Games and the USA fielding what could only charitably called an “experimental” lineup, let’s be honest: this is widely expected to be loss number 24 for the States.

But don’t tell United States manager Jurgen Klinsmann. He is having none of that.

“No, I’ve never heard about the USA’s record at the Azteca,” Klinsmann said Tuesday to gales of laughter at a news conference, before turning serious. “First, they have to beat us. You never come in thinking like that. You have to be realistic, but my recent memories are of us tying Mexico 1-1 in Philadelphia (in August 2011).”

This is not an act or a show for those unwashed in the press corps. The USA coach’s last words to his team as he got off the plane Sunday were, “we’re here to win.” His players have been told in no uncertain terms that this is their chance to shine.

“The game starts at 0-0, right?” said US midfielder Jermaine Jones. “We know it’s going to be a hot game but we can win.”

All this for a game that doesn’t matter in any standings and will not affect any World Cup seeding one iota. The games that count for Klinsmann come next month, with a pair of qualifiers against Jamaica, away on Sept. 7 and in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 11. And yet this rare friendly is something special, and everyone one here knows it.

Nominally an exhibition game, a more apt term for the match would be an “unfriendly” — a rivalry that has stewed and festered over the past two decades. The fact that it is at the Azteca, a site where America’s best result was a 0-0 draw in 1997, makes this game even more mesmerizing. Landon Donovan is on record as saying this is a game he “hates to lose.”

Maurice Edu took a chance with his unsettled contract situation at Rangers to travel to this match, simply because of the game’s importance. Fabian Johnson, who with only six caps is arguably the most experienced defender in the squad, said he was in awe.

“In Germany, there are just a few stadiums that are close to this big — Dortmund has a stadium that holds 80,000,” said Johnson. “I think Jurgen said this one holds about 110,000. That’s crazy. I’ve never played in front of a crowd like that.”

HISTORY LESSONS

Stroll through memory lane and revisit the best matches every played between USA and Mexico.

Few of his current teammates have.

The fact is, the United States will take the field Wednesday without a host of established talent — there is no Clint Dempsey, no Michael Bradley and no Carlos Bocanegra. Klinsmann may even place Edu at centerback, a role he has played only a handful of times, and not since the 2010 World Cup. In contrast, Mexico is fielding what is close to an “A” team on Wednesday night — a team which Klinsmann also said flat out is the better side.

“There is a gap. It would be foolish not to recognize that,” said Klinsmann. “If one team doesn’t qualify for the Olympics and the other team wins the Olympics, there is a gap.”

But Klinsmann is savvy enough to know that he desperately needs to find some roster depth over the next 36 months. The line he is walking is a fine one: He must blood some youngsters while hoping the thin air and frantic Mexican attack don’t leave his kids despondent — or destroyed.

“This is about opportunity,” Klinsmann said. “That’s why I told some of the European guys to stay behind. They’re not as sharp, and I wanted to see some fresh faces. But I still don’t want to lose.”

So, it's opportunities for the likes of uncapped Alan Gordon, Matt Besler and Steven Beitashour and a barely capped contingent that includes Joe Corona, Terence Boyd and Graham Zusi. If you’re scratching your head at many of these names, you’re not alone.

The defense is where the biggest question marks are. Tim Howard tried to downplay some of that, saying he had confidence in the guys in front of him. But it’s hard to overlook the fact that the entire listed defensive corps has a grand total of 15 international games under their combined belts.

Up top there might be a chance for Boyd, whose first season in Austria has begun well, and Herculez Gomez to impress — if they can ever get sight of the ball. Mexico is in many ways the team the USA would like to become; a possession-oriented, passing team that can do more than just absorb and counter.

“They play as a well-oiled machine,” Donovan added. “And when they are at home, it is just madness. They have a lot of guys who are confident on the ball and who are smart and make the right decisions.

“We’re making progress under Jurgen, so I hope in the next two years we will close that gap.”

Wednesday night, Klinsmann, his inexperienced group and American fans may get a good opportunity to judge how wide that gap is.

Jamie Trecker is the senior editor for FOXSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclays Premier League.

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