Following the USMNT's World Cup qualifier win over Trinidad & Tobago on Thursday, Christian Pulisic was riding high. He scored both goals in the 2-0 victory and made a claim that surprised many longtime American soccer fans: that the U.S. will beat Mexico this Sunday at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.
"It's gonna be a tough one down there in Mexico. But we really want some revenge on them from when they got us earlier this year," Pulisic said. "So, we're really confident going into that game. We're going to come out with a win there, too."
It was a stunning bit of bravado from Pulisic. It was either cocky, ignorant, or a little bit of both. At only 18 years old, he could be excused for not understanding how lofty those aims actually are, and the history of USMNT misery within the walls of the famed Estadio Azteca.
It's a strange sight to see such confidence from an American player about playing in Mexico City. Confidence is something that's been lacking over the USMNT's history when it comes to playing in the Azteca, and for good reason. The Azteca is a venue that has long been a theatre of nightmares for the USMNT. The Americans have only won at the Azteca once in the history of this long rivalry, and never in World Cup qualifying. The best the Yanks have managed in WCQ is a pair of 0-0 draws in 1997 and 2013.
While Azteca has been and always will be a fortress for the Mexican national team, the U.S. has made inroads in the recent past. The Americans have played there only twice in the last five years. In 2012, the USMNT captured its lone victory at Azteca with a 1-0 win in a friendly, and we already mentioned the 0-0 draw in 2013. With this newfound confidence, not much to lose, and everything to gain, we could see the turning of a corner in Mexico City and put some of the Azteca's well-earned mystique behind us.
But it's important to note that the challenges the Azteca and Mexico City present are more than mental ones. Aside from being a cavernous stadium that holds 87,000 screaming Mexicans bent on making the USMNT's life a living hell for 90 minutes, the Azteca sits at 7,200 feet above sea level. That's 2,000 feet higher than Mile High Stadium in Denver, which the U.S. used to tune up for the match.
When you're at that kind of elevation, breathing becomes much more strained. Experts have likened playing at the elevation to "breathing with a plastic bag on your head." It's said to take up to a week to get used to playing that high above sea level. That's why the USMNT played in both Utah and Colorado in the buildup to the showdown at Azteca. And while playing at those heights helps players ease into the elevation of the Azteca, it's still a far cry from what they'll experience when they run for a full match in Mexico City. The simple fact that El Tri can train at that elevation and plays at Azteca on a regular basis gives it a significant physical advantage.
"The altitude issue is a big issue," USMNT manager Bruce Arena told the Denver Post on Monday. "The longer you're at altitude, the more you're affected by it. If you come up for one or two days, you can get through it because your body still hasn't [reacted] fully. We're playing through that a little bit. Hopefully by Thursday, we're going to be a little bit more adjusted and be a little bit better prepared, physically, in Mexico City."
Then there's the simple fact that El Tri is a good soccer club and a tough opponent for the USMNT whenever the two meet. Mexico has won the past two meeting between the nations. It's also undefeated in this round of World Cup qualifying, with the latest conquest coming in a 3-0 victory of Honduras on Thursday.
The match on Sunday is also an important one for Mexico. A win over the Americans would qualify them for the 2018 World Cup, and make them the first team in CONCACAF to achieve that. Doing it at the expense of the USMNT would be a bit of gravy on top.
Even with all the factors playing against it, the U.S. finds itself in a good place coming into Sunday. With seven points and standing third in the Hex at the moment, a loss won't do much to harm its qualifying chances, because the expectation coming into qualifying every cycle is that the USMNT will lose at the Azteca. But still needing points and results to qualify for Russia 2018, the team will press hard to win. Arena's squad can play a loose, attacking style, and if it loses, so be it. No sweat. But if it wins, it will change everything we think about this American squad, and a lot of what we think about the U.S.-Mexico rivalry.
Maybe Pulisic's thoughts and swagger are a sign of a new time for the USMNT. Maybe his age is an advantage. He's young enough and confident enough to go into the Azteca without any fear or sense of the losses the Americans have sustained on that pitch over the years. Maybe we need some cocky ignorance when it comes to playing in Mexico City.
After all, only last year did Mexico slay its boogeyman by beating the USMNT 2-1 in Columbus to break the dos a cero that haunted them for nearly two decades. On Sunday, it'd be nice to see the Americans enact some payback and slay a boogeyman of our own.
Cy Brown writes about soccer and other stuff for Sports on Earth. Follow him on Twitter @CEPBrown.