Donovan sees U.S. players' experience in Mexico aiding daunting Azteca trip
LOS ANGELES -- "It's not easy."
There's one thing Landon Donovan, retired veteran of many U.S.-versus-Mexico clashes, is sure of in terms of confronting Mexico in the famed Azteca Stadium.
"For me, the altitude and inability to catch your breath for 90 minutes was always the hardest part," he explained.
As the U.S. and Mexico prepare to square off on Sunday, Donovan predicts a 1-1 draw between the teams. With six career goals and seven assists against El Tri, he has both fond and frustrating memories of his days lining up against Mexico's finest players.
"I never lost at home to Mexico in a qualifier, but I never beat Mexico in a qualifier away from home," Donovan said.
The United States has gotten two 0-0 draws in Mexico during qualifying, but Donovan wasn't involved either time. He did play in a historic 1-0 U.S. victory during a friendly in Azteca in 2012.
"I do miss it," acknowledged Donovan of the U.S.-Mexico clashes. "I appreciate it more now that I'm older and I'm not playing anymore. The passion and intensity are unrivaled and it was always exhilarating to be part of."
The Americans' rough equivalent of the mystique generated by Azteca Stadium was at the much smaller Mapfre Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. The U.S. was undefeated in qualifying games played there against Mexico until Nov. 11, 2016. El Tri's victory on that date, with the winning goal scored by veteran Rafael Marquez in the 89th minute, put then-coach Jurgen Klinsmann on thin ice.
"Incredible that Rafa is not only able to still play, but play at this level," marveled Donovan. "He has had a remarkable career and continues to prove that he is a valuable asset to that team."
Now the U.S. is led by Bruce Arena, the coach who presided over one of U.S. Soccer's finest moments on the world stage: defeating Mexico 2-0 at the 2002 World Cup tournament and advancing to the quarterfinal stage.
Even though both teams are likely to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, there is pride at stake beyond mere points. Mexico leads the Hexagonal, as the final round of CONCACAF qualifying is known, with 13 points. The U.S., in third, has seven. All of those points came under Arena's tenure, which began on Nov. 22 after Klinsmann was dismissed by U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati.
"The team was a little bit of uncertain of where they were going," noted Donovan. "There was that element of fear that they might not qualify. Bruce has come in and calmed things down quickly and gotten players back into their comfort zone where they can perform."
Though it's only been a matter of months since Mexico got the better of the U.S. team, the current players facing Mexico now have a different mentality.
"They believe that they can go into Mexico and get something out of it," Donovan explained.
The roster for the game features three U.S. players who have the experience of playing in Azteca Stadium yearly for Liga MX games. As dual-nationals, Omar Gonzalez of Pachuca, Paul Arriola of Tijuana and Jorge Villafana of Santos Laguna share a certain comfort level playing in the venue.
"It's very helpful," Donovan said of experience playing in Mexico, pointing out that even Major League Soccer players also often trek to the country for games. "A lot of our players now have played in [CONCACAF] Champions League games in Mexico or have played qualifying in Mexico. They know the difficulties associated with it, but they're not intimidated anymore."
Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio replaced Arena as head coach of the New York Red Bulls in 2007, taking the club to the MLS Cup final in 2008, before resigning the next year. Though Arena was fired in New York, he bounced back to lead the LA Galaxy to three MLS Cup titles.
Now the pair will match wits at the international level. While Osorio is known as an extremely analytical coach who tinkers with different tactical schemes, Arena's approach to the job isn't as numbers-driven, but more motivational.
"The team is a different group of players, not just in how they're playing, but in their mindset, in the freedom with which they play on the field, how they interact off the field," observed Donovan. "That's an underrated part of what a national team coach does. They're all good players. They've all played at a high level. Bruce's mentality is to get them comfortable and happy, get them excited to play."
Donovan believes one veteran U.S. player in particular will be key to the game.
"Tim Howard will have to be spectacular if the U.S. players are to get a result," Donovan explained. "The team will certainly not be intimidated playing there, but there will undoubtedly be three or four moments where Tim will have to be great. I think he can pull it off."
It remains to be seen whether Osorio' s style or Arena's will win the day on Sunday.
"In the end, if [the U.S. wins] five of their last six games, and don't win the Mexico game, they can still qualify," Donovan noted. "But it would be really helpful to get something out of it, down in Mexico."
Andrea Canales covers both Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter @soccercanales.