U.S. struggles on foreign soil
CHICAGO -- Put them in the Rose Bowl, Giants Stadium, Denver or Dallas, and the United States can beat Mexico. Now the trick is doing it at Mexico City's Azteca Stadium. And finding ways to beat other top teams on the road on a regular basis like...
CHICAGO -- Put them in the Rose Bowl, Giants Stadium, Denver or Dallas, and the United States can beat Mexico.
Now the trick is doing it at Mexico City's Azteca Stadium. And finding ways to beat other top teams on the road on a regular basis like, say, Thursday, when the Americans face Argentina in the Copa America in Venezuela.
"It's mentality, simple as that," said Landon Donovan, whose penalty kick helped rally the Americans to a 2-1 victory in the Gold Cup final Sunday, their firstcome-from-behind win over Mexico.
"If they score that goal in the first half at Azteca, we don't win this game," Donovan said. "We're not there yet, but we're getting there."
For years, it was a struggle for the Americans to beat Mexico -- or any elite team -- anywhere. After winning their first meeting with Mexico, the Americans endured a 24-game winless streak that stretched across five decades. The results weren't much better at the World Cup or in friendly matches against other big teams.
Slowly, that's changing.
Since 2000, the Americans are 9-2-1 against Mexico, including 8-0-1 on U.S. soil. Never mind that facing Mexico in the United States may as well be a road game. At Soldier Field on Sunday, the sellout crowd of 60,000 was overwhelmingly cheering for Mexico. Aside from Sam's Army base behind one of the goals, the stadium was awash in green.
"We know what to expect; it's been going on for years and years," Brian Ching said. "We're the away team when we play Mexico in the U.S. We thrive off that."
So far this year, the Americans are 10-0-1, a mark that has vaulted them from 31st to 16th in the FIFA rankings.
But all those games have been in the United States. The Americans haven't played a road game since they were knocked out of last year's World Cup in the first round.
"That part's more mental," defender Oguchi Onyewu said. "When you're playing at home you feel like you have a 12th man because you have the crowd behind you. Well, maybe not [against Mexico], but just playing on home soil makes a difference."
It's not always a home game, though. The United States left Chicago and headed straight for Venezuela, where it has a guest spot in Copa America, the South American championship. The Americans kick off with fifth-ranked Argentina, followed by games against Paraguay and Colombia.
It's a tough draw and, frankly, little is expected from the Americans. That's partly because Argentina is bringing players like Lionel Messi and Juan Roman Riquelme, while the Americans are sending 16 players who've made 10 or fewer appearances for the national team. Three have never even gotten in a game.
"Once again, you saw [Sunday] we did some things, we could have seen that game off easier," veteran goalkeeper Kasey Keller said. "If we want to beat teams we're playing against away from home, we need to do those little things because against Argentina, we're not going to have two chances to put the game away."
The Americans are also going to be thrown into one hostile environment after another. They'll be booed wherever they go simply because of the name on their jerseys, and the volume of taunts and jeers will increase every time they touch the ball.
It's a tough gig, and it's flustered more than one player in the past.
"We made the decision to go to Copa America because of the history of that tournament and because of the competition," coach Bob Bradley said. "We know it's going to be a big challenge."
But if the Americans ever want to be considered with the Brazils, the Argentinas, the Italys, the Englands and the Germanys, they're going to have to figure out how to rise to those challenges. Not once or twice, either. On a regular basis.
When the Americans fell behind Mexico on Sunday, they didn't fall apart as they might have in years past. The home victories they've piled up over El Tri recently helped give them the confidence to keep pushing, to "win a different way," as Bradley put it.
Sure enough, they pulled it out.
Do that a few times on the road, against the best teams in the world, and it, too, will start to show.
"It's going to take some learning, some time," Donovan said. "But we have that capability."
Nancy Armour is a sports columnist for the Associated Press.