There are a bunch of reasons why the Nats have never won at Estadio Azteca. Mexico City is at an elevation of 7,350 feet. (I guess the nickname "1.4 Mile High City" never stuck?) The air is polluted. El Tri's players and 100,000+ fans are never more motivated when they get a chance to repay the U.S. for James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, and Winfield Scott. (One can make an argument that the Mexican War contributed to our Civil War by bring vast new territories over whose slave/free status the North and South would bicker vehemently, so maybe Mexico already got its revenge? I digress.) Oh, and Mexico has historically had better players and teams than the U.S. does. Its history at the World Cup is longer and more consistent. Its players have made a bigger impact in Europe. Its domestic league is better than ours.
With the one exception that the U.S. has closed the gap significantly with Mexico in terms of the quality of our teams, the remaining statements are all true. I fully expect the U.S. to lose tomorrow. The game means more to Mexico because they need the points badly. Our players are going to be sucking wind by the end of the first half, not because they aren't fit, but because of the conditions. If Argentina, a team with a smidge more skill than the U.S., can lose 6-1 at La Paz and 2-0 at Quito, then there's probably something to the altitude thing. This just is not a good test for the Nats. Wiping the pitch with the African champs was a yardstick. Beating Spain was a yardstick. Staying with Brazil was a yardstick. Playing our arch-rival in incredibly difficult conditions when we only need to finish third out of six to make it to South Africa is not.
All that said, it would be considered poor form for the U.S. to refuse to come out of the locker room with Bob Bradley demanding air:
So how should he play the game? Here are the maxims:
1. 0-0 is a great result. The formula for qualifying for the World Cup is three points at home and one point on the road. (In CONCACAF, three points at home and none on the road is fine, but let's pretend that we're in a difficult situation as opposed to the self esteem-boosting Hex.) A draw is normally a good thing; it's a great thing in this situation because it would deprive one of the Nats' rivals for an automatic qualification spot of two points.
2. Mexico's desperation can be used against them. Remember how the U.S. took advantage of Spain's offensive tendencies to score a great counter-attacking goal? The principle is the same here. Imagine how the Mexican players will react if the game is 0-0 with 20 minutes remaining. Their fans will be onto them with every pass or shot that misses the mark. They'll feel the humiliation of dropping points at home against the U.S. for only the second time ever. They'll be absolutely desperate to score. Does that sound like a team that can be hit on the counter by Landon Donovan and Jozy Altidore?
3. Speaking of Jozy, I would not start him. With endurance at a premium, Brian Ching is a better option because he is in the middle of his season, whereas Altidore is not. Additionally, Ching is better at holding the ball up and the U.S. is going to need that if they are going to play a low energy game for the first hour. Ching should not see the field next summer as a starter, but he's the right striker for this particular time and place.
4. If I could steal from Tim Vickery for a paragraph, there are two keys when playing at altitude. The first is that the road team needs to be as compact as possible, leaving little space between the forward line, the midfield, and the back line. This constricts the game and reduces the amount of running that's required. The second is that the defenders cannot play too deep because the shots from distance are a bigger factor in the thin air. This latter maxim presents a major problem for the U.S. because our central defenders aren't the most nimble players on the planet. They are reliable at heading crosses out of danger, but they can be exposed for pace, especially by the smaller, quicker Mexicans and especially if Demerit and Gooch have to get right up on the attackers. Thus, the midfielders are going to have to provide as much defensive assistance as possible.
5. If you can't tell from the preceding paragraph, I'd like to see two defensive midfielders in the match, most likely Ricardo Clark and Michael Bradley in a withdrawn role. Bradley cannot afford to make the mistake of playing too expansively. I felt great about Bradley's evolution over the course of the Confederations Cup; let's see where he is now.