MEXICO CITY — Almost everything seems to favor Mexico in tonight's critical World Cup qualifier against the United States.
The altitude of 7,400 feet always leaves visiting teams gasping for air, particularly in the second half. Then there's the 105,000-seat Estadio Azteca, a caldron of searing noise that makes it one of the world's most intimidating venues. Now add in Mexico's dominating record against the U.S., the air pollution and the afternoon start.
"We have to take advantage of all those factors," said Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico's talented keeper. "We have to keep in mind we have 90 minutes to win, whether it's 1-0 or 5-0."
The U.S. national team has never won a game in Mexico dating from 1937. In 23 games, the U.S. has lost 22 and drawn one.
The pressure is on Mexico.
El Tri is struggling to qualify for next year's 32-team tournament in South Africa, while the U.S. is comfortably placed. A 5-0 victory over a U.S. "B" team late last month in the Gold Cup final at Giants Stadium has lessened some of the pressure.
But it has also raised expectations.
"We have this chance in our own hands to make up for what has happened in earlier qualifying games," Ochoa said.
If one teams needs the victory more, it's Mexico.
Midway through qualifying, Costa Rica leads the North, Central America and Caribbean region with 12 points, followed by the United States (10), Honduras (7), Mexico (6), El Salvador (5) and Trinidad and Tobago (2). The top three advance automatically to South Africa. No. 4 faces a playoff with No. 5 from South America for another berth.
In today's other qualifiers, Trinidad is home against El Salvador and Honduras is home against Costa Rica.
Despite all the disadvantages, this may be the best chance the United States has ever had to return home from Mexico with a victory.
Though Mexico holds a wide advantage in the series, the U.S. has dominated in the last decade. Since 2000, the U.S. team has lost only three of 15 games against Mexico.
"That would be special," U.S. keeper Tim Howard said when asked how it would feel to be the first American team to win in Mexico. "No question. We know the history. We're well aware of it, which makes the challenge that much more special. ... If the result went our way, that would be a great thing."
The United States defeated Mexico 2-0 in February in Columbus, Ohio, facing a team coached by Sven-Goran Eriksson. The Swede was fired about two months later, replaced by former Mexico coach Javier Aguirre. Aguirre is Mexico's fourth coach in three years and the fifth since Argentine Ricardo La Volpe was released after the 2006 World Cup.
Aguirre will start fewer than half the players that lost that game.
Ochoa, who did not play in Columbus, is certain to start in goal. Only Carlos Salcido seems certain to return on defense, which will be without the injured Rafael Marquez of Barcelona. The midfield may see four different starters — Israel Castro, Gerardo Torrado, Andres Guardado and Giovani Dos Santos. Dos Santos started up front for Eriksson, but is likely to be in Aguirre's midfield.
Of the three likely starters up front, none played in Columbus — Cuautemoc Blanco, Guillermo Franco and Carlos Vela.
"It's not easy to pinpoint their lineup, but we expect some changes," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "I think we have a pretty good idea of certain guys being on the field. As far as pinpointing the 11. That is probably not so easy."
The Americans are likely to go with the players who faced Brazil in the Confederations Cup final. The only change might be Brian Ching starting in place of Jozy Altidore or Charlie Davies. The right back spot could be either Steve Cherundolo or Jonathan Spector. Jay DeMerit and Oguchi Onyewu seem certain to start at center defense. Look for Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan at midfield with Howard in goal.
Mexico has missed the World Cup three times in the last 50 years. It missed out in 1990 when it was banned for fielding overage players in an Olympic qualifying match. It also failed to qualify in 1974 and 1982. After being out of the World Cup for 40 years, the U.S. qualified in 1990 and has played in every World Cup since then.
Most of the Mexico squad has trained together for a week in Mexico City. The Americans trained for two days in Miami and are set to arrive late Tuesday afternoon in the Mexican capital.
"If you don't have enough time to acclimatize, which can take 10 days or so, then going in late is your best bet," Bradley said.
He said having a chance to win in Mexico showed the progress of U.S. soccer.
"I guess in a way it's a compliment to the growth of our team ... to think this is our best chance. And hopefully we can take advantage of it."