I've been around the U.S.-Mexico soccer rivalry for more than a decade now, seen the passion (and, let's be honest, the sporting hatred) gather the force of a hurricane, and yet the buildup around Wednesday's World Cup qualifier (4 p.m. ET, Telemundo, Mun2) seems bigger than ever, almost like a soccer Super Bowl south of the border.
In every restaurant here, televisions blare nonstop talk of the Big Game. The Mexican media call me to ask which airport terminal the U.S. team is using. (I have no idea). Tickets for the sold-out Estadio Azteca (capacity: 105,000) are being scalped for more than $300. "Think about this," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said, "the last two times these teams have met within a period of 17 days, the average attendance will be over 90,000. Nowhere else in the world does that happen in any [national team] rivalry. The stadiums aren't big enough."
It's intoxicating stuff -- literally -- for thousands of the fans who'll turn the Azteca into a latter-day Thunderdome. How much is riding on this game? Let's just say that the slogan on the Spanish-language version of ESPN's SportsCenter here is this: BETWEEN LIFE AND DISHONOR.
So, yeah, a big game.
Here are five things on my mind in the final hours before kickoff:
1. This is Landon Donovan's time. If the U.S. is going to win for the first time in 20 tries at the Azteca, it will almost certainly be because its biggest star continues his torrid play of the past two months. "This is clearly the best I've ever played," Donovan said Tuesday after scoring another brilliant goal over the weekend in MLS. "But I want to stress that's not something that's going to come in a stretch and then go away. This is me now. This is how I play."
Donovan knows that when you talk like that, you have to back it up in the big games. He scored one of the U.S.' best all-time goals against Brazil in the Confederations Cup final. Now he wants to do it again (but make sure the U.S. wins this time around). You don't get many chances to make U.S. soccer history in the Azteca. This is Donovan's chance.
2. I'll be floored if U.S. coach Bob Bradley doesn't pick the same lineup that beat Spain. This shouldn't be complicated: The same 11 U.S. players who started in the June upset of world No. 1 Spain are here, and they're healthy. Yet, talk persists that Bradley might use Brian Ching up top instead of Jozy Altidore or Charlie Davies. Why? Beats me. Spain had only gone 35 games without a loss. But when I asked Bradley about it Tuesday, he didn't discourage talk of changes.
"It's always a nice thought to think that you have a lineup and it works one day and now all you've got to do is run it out again and it works again," Bradley said. "But I think if you take a broader perspective, we've had a lot of games in the last six months -- games that have given us a real sense of our depth, of our talent. And the only things that now get factored in differently than the day that we're in Bloemfontein [for Spain] is: What have guys been doing lately?"
He's right in that current form should matter. But for me, current form demands starting the conquistadors from the Spain game.
3. Broadcast alert: This game isn't on ESPN. The game will be televised in Spanish on Telemundo, but you can hit your SAP button for the English broadcast or watch the English version on Mun2 (aka Mun Dos, which is available on many cable and satellite outlets). ESPN didn't pony up the beaucoup pesos to get the broadcast rights, but it does have a small army here, including on-air talent Bob Ley and Alexi Lalas (doing pre- and postgame shows), along with network honcho John Skipper and (so I'm told) the Sports Guy, Bill Simmons.
4. A joint U.S.-Mexico soccer league really could happen someday. When you see how much energy surrounds this rivalry now, you can't help but think about the future. What if the leagues from the U.S. and Mexico merged to form a North American Super League? Don't laugh.
"Is it something in the future that could happen? Sure," said USSF president Gulati, who's already overseen one U.S.-Mexico merger (his wife, Marcela, is a Mexico native). "I don't want to predict where we could be 25 years from now, but national borders are getting further and further blurred in a lot of places, whether it's on economic grounds in the European Community and NAFTA or just because of telecommunications and mobility."
Of course, FIFA would have to approve such a merger. "I don't see that being approved today if somebody were requesting it," Gulati said, "but in 25 years? In 10 years?" That would be a heck of a league.
5. Could José Francisco Torres make his mark today? The U.S.' 21-year-old Mexican-American midfielder probably won't start, but he could come on as a sub, creating all kinds of drama for a player who sparked controversy here by choosing to play for the Yanks over Mexico. The U.S.' recruitment of Torres had plenty of cloak-and-dagger moments, as Gulati explained to me Tuesday. When Gulati first called Jesús Martínez, the president of Torres' club, Pachuca, Martínez told Gulati that Torres was dead-set on playing for Mexico. "OK," Gulati responded, "but I'd like to hear that from the player." When Pachuca played a Superliga game in Foxboro, Mass., Gulati communicated with Torres through a third party and met with the player "in a closet, basically," next to the Pachuca locker room.
Torres told Gulati he was interested in playing for the U.S., but Torres was getting a ton of pressure to play for Mexico from Pachuca officials. (He even got calls from several current Mexican national-teamers.) Fearful of that pressure, U.S. Soccer didn't announce Torres's call-up at first for last year's World Cup qualifier against Cuba. "Until he stepped on the field, he was still eligible" to play for Mexico, Gulati said. Only when Torres entered the game in the second half did he become tied forever to the U.S. national team. Up in the stands, Gulati hugged Torres' agent after strategically outflanking the Mexicans for one of the region's most promising young players.
Lesson: The U.S.-Mexico rivalry doesn't just take place on the field.
Through-balls: In case anyone forgot, Mexico coach Javier Aguirre is the same guy who was coaching Mexico in its most bitter loss to the U.S., the 2-0 World Cup second-round game in 2002. Aguirre went on to have success in Spain at Osasuna and Atlético Madrid, but he clearly got outcoached that day in Jeonju, South Korea, by the U.S.' Bruce Arena. ... Jermaine Jones update: The Bundesliga midfielder who recently declared his intention to switch from playing for Germany to the U.S. has submitted his paperwork to FIFA. "My guess is we'll hear back quite soon," Gulati said. "A player who has played a number of games for Germany is somebody that Bob would like to see for sure. Does that mean he's automatically in the team now? Obviously not. But when Bob is ready to bring him in he'll do that." Jones is injured now, but Gulati says he could be brought into a U.S. camp as soon as October. ... Mexico City, like Johannesburg, gets a bad rap. We've had a great time down here eating amazing food and meeting friendly people. I even went for a run twice in the leafy urban Bosque Chapultepec, where the running trails remind me of Eugene, Ore. ... I love U.S. soccer fans. About 40 of them were eating last night at El Refugio Fondo in the Zona Rosa when their check arrived. Their first chant: "Grant Wahl's paying!" Their second: "Beckham's got the check!"