MEXICO CITY -- A day before his only match at Estadio Azteca, Claudio Reyna assessed the rise of U.S. soccer and the competition the Americans had created in their intense rivalry with Mexico.
“I think it’s a bit insulting to them because soccer is the one and only sport in this country,” the U.S. captain said in 2005.
His son Gio has a chance to play at Azteca for the first time Thursday night, when the U.S. faces El Tri in the start of the last trio of World Cup qualifiers.
Claudio’s last national team appearance was a 2006 World Cup loss to Ghana, so Gio never saw his dad play for the Stars & Stripes.
“My dad retired from the national team when I was only 3 or 4,” 19-year-old Gio said Tuesday in Houston, where the Americans were training. “But he’s told me about it. I understand I’ve heard it from some guys. I’ve obviously watched many games in Azteca.”
Canada leads North and Central America and the Caribbean with 25 points, and the U.S. is second with 21, ahead of Mexico on goal difference. Panama is fourth with 17 points, followed by Costa Rica with 16 and El Salvador with nine. Jamaica and Honduras have been eliminated.
The top three nations qualify for the 32-nation field in Qatar this November, and fourth place advances to a June playoff against the Oceania champion, likely New Zealand. If the U.S. qualifies in the next week, it likely will be in pot 2 for the April 1 draw, but the playoff winner will be in pot 4, which brings an additional strong opponent and no low-ranked opposition.
“Qualifying for the World Cup is the absolute minimum,” midfielder Tyler Adams said. “We have to do that to continue to move the program forward, to give our players the best opportunity to continue to develop and get that international exposure and grow the game in the U.S.”
The U.S. failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, losing 2-1 at Trinidad and Tobago in the final qualifier and ending a streak of seven straight appearances in soccer’s showcase.
A portion of the American fanbase is fretting over the possibility that the U.S. may need at least a point from the final qualifier this year, at Costa Rica on March 30. A win Sunday against Panama at Orlando, Florida, would put the U.S. in position to clinch as long as Costa Rica doesn’t sweep its last three games against Canada, El Salvador and the U.S.
Claudio Reyna’s only game at Azteca was a 2-1 loss in a 2005 qualifier. He missed the 1997 and 2001 qualifiers for yellow-card accumulation.
Gio Reyna injured a hamstring in the opener last September and hasn’t played for the national team since. Last weekend for Borussia Dortmund, he got through his first 90-minute match since last summer.
“I’ve built up a lot of strength over the last, two months or three months. So, yeah, I’m pretty confident in my body at the moment,” Gio said. “It was great to get 90 minutes before coming into camp. It gave me a huge boost confidence knowing that I can do it now.”
Reyna was an ocean away for most of the qualifiers.
“I was staying up late, 3, 4 a.m., watching the games in Germany,” he said. “Definitely motivated me to try to be back as soon as possible. Of course, it took longer than I would have wanted.”
The Mexico Football Federation was planning to limit attendance to 50,000 in the 87,000-capacity venue in an effort to control fans from making anti-gay chants, which caused FIFA to order a pair of qualifiers last fall be played in a mostly empty stadium. The federation is using a new fan identification system.
The U.S. has 12 losses and four draws in qualifying at Azteca, altitude 7,200 feet (2,200 meters). Michael Bradley chipped goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa from about 40 yards in the sixth minute in 2017, but Carlos Vela beat goalkeeper Brad Guzan with a 23-yard shot to the near post, gaining a 1-1 draw. The 2013 qualifier at Azteca was a 0-0 draw.
In addition, the U.S. will be trying to win a fourth straight game against Mexico for the first time following victories in the CONCACAF Nations League final in June, the CONCACAF Gold Cup in August and a World Cup qualifier at Cincinnati in November. Still, Mexico has 36 wins in the rivalry and the U.S. 22, with 15 draws.
“The feeling that you have when you can beat or win a rivalry game is amazing,” Adams said. “So to go down there and take care of business would be important for the group, important for our confidence and obviously show the strength of the group to be able to go to an away game and win in a hard qualifying cycle.”
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