Tim Howard: “We have to think that we can do it. There’s no sense in getting on the plane if we don’t.” (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
By Michael Lewis
MEXICO CITY — For any team to win at Estadio Azteca, Mexico’s opponent must play a near-perfect game.
U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, who has played in a few matches at the storied venue, thinks so.
“I think your goalkeeper has to play really well,” he said prior to U.S. practice Saturday. “Your defense has to get lots of blocks and close players down. They always seem to have more players than they actually do. They do a good job of pinning you in, making the field very long. It’s already a big field. So when you win the ball back, it’s a long way to go. You just have to be clean and technical and very hard working.”
The Americans have not fared well at the stadium through the years. They are winless in nine qualifiers (0-7-2), although they did earn a point when they played El Tri to a scoreless draw during 2014 World Cup qualifying in 2013.
The Americans enter the match on a three-game unbeaten streak in the CONCACAF Hexagonal since Bruce Arena has taken over the coaching reins. Their latest result was a 2-0 home win over Trinidad & Tobago Thursday night.
Howard was heartened by the fact the U.S. surprised the Mexicans in a friendly in 2012, “that it can be done.”
“Of course, it wasn’t qualifying, but they didn’t roll over and die for us here,” he said. “We beat them handily. We feel confident we can do that again. It’s good to know we have because before then it was what if because we had never done it. The last time we can here in qualifying we got a nil-nil [draw in 2013], which is also a very good result for us. We have a lot to build on.”
Managing the opening 20 minutes is vital because if El Tri gets an early lead, it has been difficult for opponents to get back into the match. They wind up chasing the game in rarefied air.
Despite the odds, Howard and his teammates are optimistic the team can bring home a point.
“We have to think that we can do it,” he said. “There’s no sense in getting on the plane if we don’t.”