There is no question the U.S. national team — and its fans — are feeling much better about their chances of reaching the 2018 World Cup after Thursday’s 2-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago.
Team USA, which was in last place when Bruce Arena took over as coach in November, moved up to third with the win.
And Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder, proved once again he’s the real deal with a pair of goals in a 10-minute span.
But a much more telling test awaits at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, when the U.S. plays rival Mexico at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. Mexico has a commanding five-point lead over second-place Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying, is unbeaten at Azteca in two years and has a 23-1-2 record over the Americans on Mexican soil.
Not only will the U.S. players have to contend with a confident Mexican team that includes stars Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Giovanni dos Santos, the game will be played at altitude — 7,300 feet. And the crowd, which can reach 100,000, is known for being boisterous. Mexico is coming off a 3-0 win over Honduras.
“The altitude issue is real, and it’s going to be challenging on our players,” Arena told reporters after the win over Trinidad and Tobago. “Mexico has had an outstanding start to the [qualifying].
“They have a great team. We all know that playing in Azteca is very difficult, especially with the altitude. We got three points [Thursday night], and if we can have a good tactical approach, we can come out of there with at least a point.”
One side story to watch is for the United States is Clint Dempsey, who entered Thursday night’s match one goal shy of Landon Donovan’s national team goal-scoring record. He was visibly upset with Arena when he was subbed in the second half.
“He wants to be on the field,” Arena said. “However, my job is to do what I think is right for the team, position us to win a game. And I understand it, he’s a very competitive guy. We talked about it. He’s OK. He’s got a really competitive edge to him.”
Watch for Dempsey to be hungry to make history at Azteca.