MEXICO CITY — Politics and soccer collide regularly on the world stage, and with the United States and Mexico squaring off Sunday, it’s impossible to completely separate sport from state affairs.
U.S.-Mexican relations, particularly during these politicized times, are woven into the fabric of the searing rivalry.
“We have the greatest respect for Mexico — its people, its football team,” U.S. Coach Bruce Arena said Saturday. “I live in Los Angeles. I experience on a daily basis people of Mexican heritage. They are wonderful people. They contribute greatly to our society in many ways. We think the world of them. I am ashamed that there is some discord on the political side. Believe me: I think most Americans appreciate the Mexicans that have come to America to make a better future for themselves and their families.”
Aside from the result on the field, Arena hopes something good comes out of the neighboring clash.
“This is a great rivalry, and if we can play a great game with great sportsmanship and respect for each other,” Arena said, “I think it would be fantastic.”
The first meeting between the teams in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying occurred in Columbus, Ohio — three days after the U.S. presidential election in November. Before kickoff, in a display of sportsmanship and harmony, the starters for both squads posed together for a single team photo.
Once Sunday’s match starts, all thoughts will turn to football and futbol.
“When these guys are bearing down on you, Donald Trump is the last thing on your mind,” U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “It’s a great storyline, but there are so many factors out here that are going to occupy all of our thoughts.”
>> Mexico ended a four-match losing streak in Columbus with a 2-1 victory in November. Perhaps the United States will end its Mexico City skid?
“I thought it was crazy to think Mexico would beat the United States in Columbus, Ohio, and maybe you think it’s crazy that the United States would beat Mexico in Mexico City,” Arena said. “That’s why we play the game. We will see.”
What makes the U.S. players think they can pull the upset?
“We’ve grown as a team. This is one of the best teams I’ve played on, certainly talent-wise,” Howard said. “We have to think we can do it. … It can be done. Of course, it wasn’t qualifying [when the United States won here in 2012], but they didn’t roll over and die for us either. We beat them handily. We feel confident we can do that again. It’s good to know we have [won]. Before that, it was always, ‘What if?’ ”
Mexico has lost only two qualifiers at home in history.
Howard’s keys to victory: “Your goalkeeper has to play really well. Defensively, you’ve got to get a lot of blocks and close players down. They always kind of seem like they have more players out there than they actually do.”
Absorbing pressure during the emotional opening stage is going to be vital to the U.S. cause.
“You are going to have to weather the storm,” Howard said. “No team comes here and dominates. You have to absorb that pressure. If you can absorb pressure and be diligent in your defending, you can hurt them going the other way. But look: Early on, it’s crucial we keep everything tight.”
>> The U.S. lineup will look different from the one that defeated Trinidad and Tobago, 2-0, on Thursday in Commerce City, Colo. Arena, of course, is not tipping his hand.
Kellyn Acosta, a second-half substitute on Thursday, is a prime candidate to join captain Michael Bradley in defensive midfield. Along those lines, Arena might also add an extra defender and instruct his two outside backs, most likely DeAndre Yedlin and Jorge Villafaña again, to work the flanks. Forward Bobby Wood seems likely to enter the mix, as well.
>> One player almost certain of starting again: Christian Pulisic, a two-goal scorer against T&T. How Arena deploys him remains to be seen.
Pulisic shouldn’t be rattled by the atmosphere.
“He’s played Champions League, he’s played against Bayern Munich,” Howard said. “If something fazes him, I would be shocked.
“Big games are how you get measured. … It’s a big game. It’s a big stage. He’s comfortable in it. This is where you earn your money. This is where good players become great.”
>> Mexican Coach Juan Carlos Osorio announced that left wing Jesus Corona has withdrawn from the squad for family reasons and will miss both the qualifier and the FIFA Confederations Cup. Osorio also said defenders Rafael Marquez and Miguel Layun and midfielder Andres Guardado will not play Sunday because of injuries.
>> Howard on U.S. depth: “It’s an impressive group in the fact that everyone is here to play minutes, play important minutes. I don’t think that was always the case. You had a few passengers. This team doesn’t seem to have any passengers. Guys are hungry to compete, whether they are experienced or not.”
>> In Denver, about a dozen Broncos visited U.S. training camp. In Mexico City, four members of the Pittsburgh Steelers, including star linebacker James Harrison, observed practice Saturday. The Steelers are in town for a fantasy camp. They return home Sunday, however, and won’t attend the match.
The U.S. Soccer Federation also tried to arrange for New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski to make a promotional appearance. (The Patriots will visit Azteca this fall to face the Oakland Raiders.) Offseason workouts prevented him from attending.