COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — The U.S. national team visits Estadio Azteca every four years in World Cup qualifying and the wait for that classic rivalry matchup makes it one of the most anticipated contests for players and fans.
Something feels different this time around, though. There isn't the same buzz surrounding the looming clash, which takes place Sunday. The key reason it feels different this time is because both the U.S. and Mexico have other pressing matters to deal with, matters that have made the latest installment of 'La Guerra Fria" (The Cold War) take a back seat.
For the Americans, it is a slow start to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying that has left them with a hole to climb out of. They started that climb with four points from the two March qualifiers, but they head into Thursday's home qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago desperately needing three points. It is that desperation that makes looking ahead to Mexico a luxury the U.S. can't afford right now.
"Mexico is the furthest thing from our mind, to be honest with you," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said Tuesday. "We’ve got to focus here and get these three points, and then we’ll quickly move forward."
U.S. coach Bruce Arena made it clear that he wouldn't be emphasizing the Mexico match in the days before Thursday's game with the Soca Warriors. Arena recently told Goal that he would be saving no first-choice starters for Mexico City, all but ensuring he would field his best possible team against the same Trinidad & Tobago side the Americans beat in qualifying, 4-0, in September.
"I think Bruce has got everyone pretty grounded and pretty focused on (the Trinidad & Tobago) game," Howard said. "Mexico will give us a world of trouble if we don’t get the points here that we need so everyone knows what’s at stake on Thursday."
Working in the U.S. team's favor is a nearly full-strength squad that offers a significantly greater number of personnel options for Arena than he had in March.
"I think it’s definitely one of the better national teams we’ve had in recent years," U.S. forward Jozy Altidore said. "You have a lot of guys playing at a high level, playing at a good level and playing well. It makes everything that much better. You feel confident as players coming off the bench knowing that the guy ahead of you is doing well and vice versa. I think that’s important for building a team that’s built to last and built to go deep in tournaments. You need that."
The U.S. team's depth will be tested this week, with the schedule calling for two intense World Cup qualifiers being played at altitude, with just two days of rest in between. Throw in the travel from here to Mexico City on Friday, and it is a schedule that will almost assuredly force Arena to play a different group of players against El Tri on Sunday.
"When you look at our team, I think Bruce, if there’s one thing he’s good at it’s putting teams together," Altidore said. "I think it’ll be tough for a lot of guys to play Thursday and then play Sunday, so I think everybody has to be ready."
But who will Arena turn to Thursday?
Signs point to the U.S. fielding an attack similar to the one we saw dismantle Honduras 6-0 in March, with Altidore and Clint Dempsey playing in front of Christian Pulisic. That would leave Bobby Wood on the bench.
A big addition to the attack will be Fabian Johnson, who Arena has moved into a wing midfield role — where he plays for Borussia Monchengladbach — after Johnson spent a large part of Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure as U.S. coach playing fullback.
The U.S. also has some decisions to make along the back line, where John Brooks, Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez are battling for two spots. Brooks and Cameron appear to be the most likely choices, but Brooks is nursing an injury suffered in the recent friendly against Venezuela, which could lead Arena to partnering Cameron with Gonzalez.
Even if players like Wood and Gonzalez don't start against Trinidad & Tobago, they would most likely be starting options against Mexico on Sunday. Some might consider that the better assignment because it's the more high-profile match, but Altidore made it clear the game he wants to be a part of is the one Thursday.
"When you’re young you probably look at the more attractive game, and (USA-Mexico) obviously maybe to some people the more attractive game," Altidore said. "But in a lot of ways the Trinidad game is very important, and attractive in its own way."