For every coach and team, whether they will admit it or not, there are certain games in certain places that just mean a little bit more.
At Ohio State it's getting a win at The Big House against Michigan, and a win for North Carolina basketball against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium is always special. Going into a rival's house and snatching a victory or two can define a team and swing the rivalry in a completely different direction. It keeps the fans and the bosses behind the scenes happy, and helps build a level of confidence in what the team can accomplish.
For the U.S. national team, the venue is the Estadio Azteca, and the team to beat is Mexico.
To Jurgen Klinsmann's credit, he hasn't ducked the game. He's the first manager to take the Red, White and Blue to Azteca for a friendly since before this match could realistically be considered a rivalry. The year was 1984.
“We’re excited about the opportunity to bring this group together and challenge Mexico for a win,” the German coach told the U.S. team's official website. “For every game, we always look at who is in the best form, who is fit and who is ready to go. We have a lot of veteran players and also some new, hungry guys who deserve a chance. Every player in the pool looks forward to an amazing opportunity like this, the chance to take on Mexico in such an historic stadium like Estadio Azteca."
His optimistic outlook is commendable and it's not unreasonable to think that the day may come when Klinsmann breaks Mexico's stranglehold on matches played against the USA at Azteca.
Wednesday, however, probably won't be that day.
Despite Klinsmann's best intentions, he's taking his team into a place that the players are largely unfamiliar with - only three on the roster have faced Mexico at Azteca before - to face a team with more talent and more experience in high-profile international matches.
Mexico comes in missing the stars who took part in the country's Olympic triumph, but not much else.
Giovani dos Santos won't be there, which does take some of the sting out of Mexico's attack, but his running mates from the 2011 Gold Cup - Andres Guardado, Chicharito Hernandez, Pablo Barrera and Aldo de Nigris - will be. Carlos Salcido might be missing, but Maza Rodriguez and Hector Moreno are in.
In short, the USA won't be facing Mexico's full squad, but El Tri is still coming into the match pretty well armed.
Klinsmann, on the other hand, comes in missing the core of his team.
Tim Howard will be in goal - which always gives the team a chance - and Landon Donovan will be trying to once again be a thorn in Mexico's side. But aside from those two, the rest of the USA's big names won't abe taking part.
Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore - a group that in the best of times forms the spine of the team - are all absent. Of those four players only Altidore, who was out of favor the last time the USA got together anyway, can be considered replaceable. But with the quality of his two goals on Sunday for AZ, even that seems like a stretch.
Everyone on the roster should enter the game with the mentality of "Next Man Up", but the reality of the situation is often much different than that ideal.
While Klinsmann and his team have every right to go into the match hoping for a win, there should also be an understanding that the value of this game is less likely to come from the scoreboard and more likely to come from a bit of familiarity with the atmosphere if and when the USA visits Mexico for a World Cup qualifying match in 2013.
The danger lies in what could be a demoralizing loss should Mexico trounce this inexperienced group.
Confidence is a crazy thing. It can drive teams and players to unimaginable heights and make even the most talented of stars seem ordinary when its shaken.
Mexico has that confidence in Azteca.
Wednesday's match is Klinsmann's first shot at cracking El Tri's Azteca armor, and he'll have to do it without his best weapons. A good showing could bring about a change in his young group of players, one that instills a belief in their ability to take down Mexico's fortress and play on even footing against their biggest rival in any setting.
A massive loss could be a crippling blow for a group of guys - Joe Corona, Jose Torres, Fabian Johnson, Brek Shea and Terrence Boyd, for instance - who will likely play a massive part in this rivalry for years to come.
There is a plan in place for the USA, says Klinsmann.
“To get players exposed to these types of games is a priority," Klinsmann said. "At the end of the day, I want to win games, so I want to win on Wednesday night against Mexico. Over the stretch of the next two years, I want to get as much knowledge as I can of those players coming through the ranks because if you look at our year in 2013, it will be a very busy year so we have to work with a bigger roster anyway."
Klinsmann's bold choice to take his team to Mexico could have a lasting impact. It will help create depth and offers a unique experience, one that can't be duplicated no matter how many of the world's best teams the USA puts on the schedule.
Nonetheless, getting that first win in Mexico will probably have to wait.
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- Estadio Azteca
- Jurgen Klinsmann