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US returns to altitude of Azteca

Landon Donovan knows just how much visitors struggle in the altitude and pollution of Azteca Stadium. Like a lot of U.S. players, he’s familiar with the shortness of breath and the sting of losing there.

“If you walk around in Mexico City for a few minutes, you’ll be tired,” the American forward said. “There’s very real issues there.”

Winless in Mexico since it first started playing there in 1937, the U.S. soccer team returns to 105,000-seat Azteca on Wednesday when qualifying for next year’s World Cup resumes.

With some players coming off European club openers last weekend and others looking ahead to the first weekend of England’s Premier League, U.S. players weren’t given much time to acclimatize to the 7,200-foot altitude. Players from Major League Soccer and Europe gathered in Miami, then traveled to Mexico on Tuesday.

“We have worked for a long time with different people, different experts, on altitude training, including many from the U.S. Olympic Committee,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said Monday. “The research we have stuck with is one that says if you don’t have enough time to acclimatize, which can take 10 days or so, then going in late is your best bet.”

The U.S. is 0-22-1 in Mexico, including 0-18-1 in Mexico City. The Americans gained a 0-0 tie at Azteca in a 1997 qualifier, playing the final 58 minutes short-handed after defender Jeff Agoos was ejected for elbowing Pavel Pardo in the neck — after Pardo had hit Agoos in the back.

In two qualifiers at Azteca under coach Bruce Arena, the Americans lost 1-0 in 2001 and 2-1 four years later.

“The sightlines are real difficult for players,” Arena said. “The field looks like you’re out in the country, and then you start dealing with the heat and the altitude, and it gets to your head. And it’s not only your head — the physiology, it’s difficult. It’s very difficult. And I remember games where, you know, we’ve had oxygen at halftime.”

Seeking its sixth straight World Cup appearance, the U.S. is in good shape halfway through the final round of North and Central American and Caribbean qualifying and likely would advance by winning its two remaining home games: against El Salvador on Sept. 5 at Sandy, Utah, and vs. Costa Rica on Oct. 14 at Washington, D.C.

Costa Rica is first with 12 points, followed by the United States (3-1-1) with 10, Honduras (2-2-1) with seven, Mexico (2-3) with six, El Salvador (1-2-2) with five and Trinidad and Tobago (0-3-2) with two. The top three nations qualify, and the No. 4 team goes to a playoff against the No. 5 nation from South America.

Mexico has played just two home matches and is feeling intense pressure to win Wednesday. Even though it’s a midweek game, Mexico scheduled it for a 4 p.m. EDT start — increasing the heat that U.S. players may find difficult when combined with the altitude and pollution.

“We have to take advantage of all those factors,” Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa said.

The rivalry has been almost equally lopsided — the other way — on U.S. soil. Mexico had been 0-9-2 against the Americans in the United States since March 1999 before winning 5-0 last month in the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup at Giants Stadium. But just one U.S. regular was in the lineup for that one, and Mexico also went mostly with backups.

When the teams met in February in a qualifier at Columbus, Ohio, the United States won 2-0. But the Americans have struggled on the road, tying 2-2 at El Salvador and losing 3-1 in Costa Rica.

“We’re confident that we can play with any team in the world,” Donovan said. “And it’s no longer good enough to hope for a point on the road.”

With a victory, the U.S. might put itself in position to clinch in September, meaning players wouldn’t have to return from Europe again in October. And, these players would become the first Americans to win at Azteca.

“It would be special, no question,” Howard said. “We know the history. We’re well aware of it, which makes the challenge that much more special.”

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