U.S. Men’s National Team Head Coach Bruce Arena was featured in a media teleconference on Tuesday (March 22) in advance of the World Cup qualifying match against Mexico on Sunday (March 27) at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. He spoke about the rivalry between the two teams, the challenges of playing at the Estadio Azteca, Eddie Johnson emerging as a U.S. goal scorer and various other topics.
Bruce Arena’s opening comments:
We, for the most part, have our entire team together now in Colorado Springs, and are moving slowly towards our preparation for the match. We have a good group of players in camp and at some point this week we will release our camp roster. I feel we have a fairly fit domestic group that has had a good two months of training and have a couple of games with that group, and the majority of our players are back from the match against Trinidad.
Our opponent is simply outstanding. We have the greatest respect for the Mexican team. They've been really successful in the early part of qualifying as well as the big win in Costa Rica, and we certainly look forward to the challenge on Sunday.
On how this Mexico teams stacks up against past rosters:
I think very similar to the Mexican team that we have seen the last two years. Obviously at home, they are much stronger. I said earlier this week that playing in Azteca is certainly not a level playing field. I think they have a great advantage at home. We see a lot of the same old faces in Blanco, Borgetti, Carmona, Pardo, Marquez and Sanchez who has been their goalkeeper over the last couple of years. The only difference I see in this Mexican team than previous ones is that I think they are better in the goal. I think that Sanchez is one of the best goalkeepers Mexico has ever produced. I think they are fairly aggressive throwing numbers into the attack, so maybe they are a bit more aggressive going forward than they were in the last cycle. Having said that we have faced Mexico in the past few years and we are pretty familiar with their style of play.
On the good result in Trinidad giving the team confidence going down to Mexico City:
I think our swagger started in June of 2002. We started winning games in the World Cup. Since then we’ve had a lot of momentum. Obviously we haven’t won every game but our team has the confidence that they can win every time they step on the field. That includes on Sunday in Mexico City. We will step on that field Sunday trying to win. I’m not certain that there have been many U.S. teams in the past that really believed that. I don’t think I have to convince any of our players that we can win that game and that’s the swagger that we do carry into the game. We’ve had a lot of success. We’ve done very well since 2002 and I just think that there’s a confidence and a momentum our players have when they step on the field each and every game.
On the U.S. vs. Mexico rivalry belonging to the great rivalries in the game, like Argentina-England and England-Germany:
That’s a hard question for me to answer. I don’t put a whole lot into rivalries. I really focus on each and every opponent. I think this may be a better question to ask the players. For me, personally, I don’t view the Mexico game any differently than I view the game against Costa Rica, Guatemala, Trinidad and Panama. I know that sounds like a big line but I really believe that. I don’t get all wound up in the whole thing playing Mexico. I think they’re certainly an outstanding team. They’re one of the top-10 teams in the world and they’re playing in one of the great venues in the world, but at the same time, it’s a soccer game. It’s the next opponent that’s standing in front of us trying to prevent our ability to get into the next World Cup. That’s the way I look at it.
Having said that I realize how big this game is to the Mexican people. It certainly has not reached that magnitude in the United States. I’m hopeful that one day it will. When that happens, then you can compare this to Germany-Holland and those kind of rivalries. Right now, for me, I think it’s a fantastic challenge but I don’t lose a whole lot of sleep over it.
On the balance of domestic players and those called in from Europe being ready for altitude:
First of all, I don't think that any of our players will be fully acclimated to this altitude because there is not enough time. I think that is also the case with the Mexico players. Let's not kid ourselves, they don't have players that are necessarily acclimated fully to playing at 7,000 feet. I think that it will be the case for both teams. The balance for us? I think that I just have to be convinced that the players I put on the field Sunday can perform at their optimal level or close to it. And, our domestic players do have an advantage because they are eight or nine days ahead of our players from Europe. However, our players from Europe getting a full week in at altitude will position themselves to play comfortably in Azteca. But, we'll certainly monitor the progress of the European players over the next couple of days before we make a decision in our lineup. We certainly don't want to put 11 players on the field who can't deal with the altitude, and that has been the case basically every time we have played in Mexico City. Hopefully this time around we'll be in better position to perform the way we want to play over 90 minutes.
On the MLS players being out of season and lacking conditioning and games:
There’s a little bit of both, that’s correct. They’re not fully fit at this time and they haven’t had many games over the past six months. That’s an issue, there’s no question about that. I think, as I mentioned, I feel that in games four and five our team is going to be better and one of the reasons for that is because our MLS player are going to be in form at that point. It is a concern. It fits into the formula when you try to pick your first 11 for the game. I think, as you’ve indicated correctly, that is an issue.
On how much behind MLS players are than European players in fitness level:
You have to remember that our players in Europe have been playing on a consistent basis since August. Some of those players have had 30 or 40 games and have had very few breaks. They’re pretty much in form. The MLS players, since November, most of them have played maybe one or two games. You can figure that out yourself: they’re a little bit behind.
On if the heat in Mexico City will be a factor:
First of all, heat will be a bit of a factor. I think it will be in the 70s or the low 80s on Sunday, I am not exactly sure where it will be. The biggest factor will be the altitude and the smog. I think the heat will be less of a factor than it was in Trinidad where it was horrifically warm. I think we'll be fighting the altitude more than we will be the heat in Azteca.
On how he would rank the following obstacles - altitude, officiating, crowd:
The biggest obstacle is the altitude. The second biggest obstacle is the opponent. The third is the crowd and, hopefully, the officiating doesn’t play a factor.
On what makes Azteca so intimidating:
I personally am not intimidated by Azteca. I think it’s a great venue to play in. Obviously 110,000 fans can be intimidating. The altitude can be intimidating. But I think we’re at a point in our program where I think we have a lot of confidence in our abilities. We have players with a lot of experience and I think we’ll be up for the challenge.
On fan behavior going over the line:
I think throwing objects on the field is going over the line. You can’t stop fans from saying things. That’s all part of it. The best part about playing in Mexico is the shouting in Spanish because for the most part we don’t understand what they’re saying anyway.
Reporter: Why do you think the U.S. has had so much trouble in Mexico and what might be different this time to tip the game in our favor?
Arena: How many teams have won in Mexico in the last 30 years? Can you answer that question?
Reporter: Not off hand.
Arena: How about if I said ‘one.’ What you need to appreciate is that Azteca is a great home-field advantage, one of the most lopsided home-field advantages in the world. You can liken it to La Paz for the Bolivian team, and other venues that are played in altitude. Altitude is a major advantage for a home team. The Mexican team has only lost a couple of games in 30 years at home, so as you look at our record and whatever you stated it would be, there are probably another 30 countries that have records with a zero first as well.
Reporter: If you feel the altitude is also a problem for Mexico, doesn’t that tend to level the playing field a bit?
Arena: No, not really, because they have more players playing in altitude. There are a number of players that play in Mexico City with their professional clubs as well as players that play in Guadalajara.
On whether he has specific concerns about Mexico’s team:
Not really, just that we know that they have a good number of attacking players on the field. They’re good in every position that’s why they’re a team ranked in the top 10 in the world. And they play in a venue that’s very difficult to play in. I think that that’s the strength of the Mexican team: good players and a difficult venue. However, having said that, we have very good players ourselves. They are very experienced and we have the confidence that we need to go in there and win.
On where the team's preparation is:
I think it's still early. I hate to say that, but it is a fact. We have not have not been greatly prepared as a national team going into the final round of qualifying round because of the impasse we had in collective bargaining. That interfered with our ability to get more games for our domestic players. Consequently, we did not have a whole lot of time for the Trinidad game and the way things just happened to be, we've just not been together with our entire group. Games 2 and 3 will serve in an important way in terms of preparing our team for the next seven games. I think that’s important. I think we are a little bit behind where we were four years ago because of inability to do much in January and December. I think our team will start hitting their groove in games four and five of the qualifying series, and hopefully we're in good position to be in form for the last five games, which I think are going to be very critical.
On how much the two upcoming games (just four days apart) affect his choices about who will play against Mexico and Guatemala:
That’s a good question. I was trying to really be smart about this whole thing and factor all that stuff in. What I decided to do, we’re going to give it our best shot to win on Sunday. As soon as that game ends on Sunday, win, lose or draw, then we’ll prepare for Guatemala. So, all of our energy and focus is on this game on Sunday and that’s the way it’s going to be. We’ll look and see what kind of shape we’re in right after that game and then we’ll make a decision about how we’ll deal with Guatemala.
On the U.S. team being one of the deepest he’s coached:
Likely. I think we’ll be able to answer that after this year when we participate in all 10 qualifying games. At this point in time, asking me that question, I would say, ‘yes.’ I could be proved wrong, though, as we move down the road, but right now I’m pretty pleased with the choices we have.
On the mental aspect of the game against the biggest rival:
We have a very experienced group of players. I think we fully appreciate the magnitude of the game on Sunday and what we are getting into. We've been in a lot of tough games over the years, and we understand what this is all about. We do in all games address the mental aspect. I think our guys will be fully prepared when they step on the field Sunday.
On playing in Birmingham next Wednesday vs. Guatemala:
The reason we chose Birmingham as a venue is because we really believe every time we have been in Birmingham, it has been a pro-American crowd. That's not always the case in the United States. We're very comfortable with whatever the crowd is in Birmingham, hopefully it is 30 or 40,000 people, that it's going to be 30 to 40,000 people supporting the U.S. team. That's what we love about Birmingham, it's just been a great venue for us. It's one of the more pro-American venues that we have been in in this country.
On whether he thought Eddie Johnson would progress as fast as he did:
I’ve seen inklings. That’s why he got on the field at such a young age. I don’t know his exact statistics, I know he’s scored in a bunch of games since his first cap. I never imagined that would have happened. The up side with Eddie is simply that as he continues to move forward, he is only going to get better. As he gets more experience and more confidence, I think there are possibilities that this kid is going to turn into a great goal-scorer, and I am hopeful that is going to be the case.
NOTE: Johnson has scored seven goals in six career games for the U.S. MNT.
On if players need to go to Europe to develop their skills:
Landon Donovan is a great example of a player that has developed greatly in this country. He has done it through our residency camp in Bradenton and in MLS. To become a player with a pretty solid reputation around the world and that came through his growth as a professional in MLS. So there’s an example as to why you don’t need to leave the United States. We’re always going to have players leave, we are always going to develop young ones. The next thing in MLS, we are going to see that players decide to live their entire career in the United States. It’s going to be a league, as it continues to grow, that is going to be at the level of some of the great leagues in the world. I really believe that, and I am hopeful that is going to be the case.
On Costa Rica’s victory in Mexico:
I don’t recall clearly that game except that I know Wanchope had a big game that day. To beat Mexico in Mexico you are going to have to score goals. And I think that the strength that Costa Rica had that day going forward put the Mexican team on their heels and allowed them to be successful.
On McBride’s role if he is not starting for Fulham:
That’s a concern. We also have domestic players in camp that haven’t played a lot of games sine October. Those are all factors that we take into account. Keep in mind that Brian did play 90 minutes against Trinidad on February 9.
On choosing the locations for matches:
There’s a lot of locations that we can’t play. You have to remember that once the month of August comes around there’s football. It takes a lot of places in this country. Obviously, Los Angeles is a difficult venue for us given the demographics of the population there as well as the amount of travel for our European-based players. For the most part, we’re limited to being close to the East Coast. And then when you examine the venues that are available, it becomes very difficult. It becomes an exercise if you really look at it yourself and look at the possible venues and the obstacles that are involved in choosing those venues, you’ll see why we have chosen the venues that we have.
On Jorge Campos’ prediction of a two goal Mexico victory:
I don’t predict any scores. I am happy that Jorge can do that, I am not as skillful as Jorge. I can just tell you that we will show up on Sunday and try to win.
On Jared Borgetti and Rafael Marquez being "thirsty for revenge" for the USA's 2-0 victory over Mexico in the FIFA World Cup:
I can’t speak for the thirsty revenge of Marquez and Borgetti. We don’t worry about our opponent. My focus is on our players, and if my players are motivated to play on Sunday and win the game, I am very pleased for that. I’m not concerned with the attitudes of the Mexican players.
On whether other players as young as Eddie Johnson have participated in games as important as World Cup qualifiers before:
Just to let you know, we haven’t decided on our lineup yet and I can’t promise you that Eddie is going to be in our first 11 at this point. However, at 20-years-old I would imagine that we had Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley in some important games like the World Cup. I mean, we’ve done it before, which is amazing when you think about it. The United States started two 20-year-olds in the 2002 World Cup. Landon was playing in qualifying games probably at 19 years old, so it’s been done before. The way the young players are coming up today, it’s going to happen more often.
On the success of young players like Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley giving him confidence to go with other young players:
I think so. I really believe in our young players. In this camp in particular we have some young ones. Chad Marshall. Clint Dempsey has been professional for one year. You know, we have a bunch of good, young, talented players. I think their time will come and I’m really optimistic about their future.
On more African-Americans playing soccer in the United States and on the U.S. National Team:
I think any young kid that aspires to play a sport they always look to the top. In this country, traditionally, we’ve had an NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA, etc. We’ve rarely had a professional league in soccer. Over the past 10 years I think it’s been obvious to kids that they can become professional soccer players in the United States. They see the success of some of our young players, DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan, now Eddie Johnson. They realize that that’s ahead of them as well. I think that inspires African-American players, Hispanics, Caucasians, etc. Professional soccer, I believe, is here to stay in the United States and it will now compete for our elite athletes and I think that’s been the reason. The existence and growth of MLS has developed a dream for young kids.
On Claudio Reyna’s readiness, physically, and his role on the team over qualifying:
He as played 90 minutes in his last two matches at Man City. I think that’s an indication that he’s pretty fit. Watching him over the last few days, I think his form is pretty good. It’s a little too early in the week for me to really have a full appreciation as to where Claudio stands, but in the long run Claudio is our captain. He’s one of our better players if not our best player. He brings confidence to our team. He’s a leader. That’s his role. He can play a variety of positions and he has great experience. When healthy, I think he’s invaluable to our team. Whatever role we give him, there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s a critical role and a very important role.