Pressure shifts to Mexico for tonight’s World Cup qualifier versus the United States

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The pressure may be off the United States national team for now – but the pulse remains rapid in its bitter border rivalry with Mexico.

All the heat of the ongoing hostilities between the region’s dominant men’s soccer powers has shifted toward Mexico for tonight’s World Cup qualifier. The venue, as always when the CONCACAF heavyweights meet south of the border, will be pulsating through the smoggy, thin and hostile air of Estadio Azteca.

The United States landed Sunday with fresh burst of confidence and evidence of improved team accord following Friday’s restorative 1-0 win over Costa Rica in the unforgettable snow globe that was DSG Park outside Denver.

Meanwhile, Mexico’s highly regarded team was finishing off its second consecutive disappointing result, a 2-2 draw at Honduras. That followed the Mexicans’ draw at home with Jamaica to open final stage World Cup qualifying – so fabled El Tri is winless after two rounds of play in the ongoing final round, saddled with just two of a possible six points.

That’s a full-on crisis in Mexico, where El Tri manager José Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre is taking a beating in the press and in public confidence. A loss tonight to the United States would surely mark his Waterloo; kickoff from inside sold-out Azteca is set for 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN).

Obviously, the United States would love to steal a win and send the crowd of 100,000-plus home disappointed. But of the region’s six teams still alive for three automatic bids for World Cup 2014 in Brazil, none studied their final round schedules and circled Mexico as a place where points could be expected. Teams may generally come into Mexico City with dreams of something historic, but the real world is that they’d all be giddy just to steal a draw.

(MORE: Should Jurgen Klinsmann’s tactics and choices be more conservative tonight?) 

The Americans, for instance, have one victory and one tie to go with 23 losses all-time in matches on Mexican soil. Mexico is a daunting 68-1-6 against all opposition in World Cup qualifiers inside Azteca.

That formidable dominance may have been slightly dented last August in a historic U.S. win; it was just a friendly, but a 1-0 upset over Mexico last summer remains among the highlights of coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s 20-months in charge.

So with the weight of the world on Mexico tonight and plenty of home games ahead in 2012, the United States stands today in decidedly better mental shape than just four days ago, prior to the weighty match in Denver. Plus, players held a clear-the-air meeting before that Costa Rican contest, with apparent progress in closing the fissures revealed publicly in Brian Straus’ Sporting News piece.

“In the past stretch, even going back to the last stage of qualifying, the things that our team always has to be about,  the fight, the commitment … we looked at each other and said this isn’t what it needs to be,” veteran midfielder Michael Bradley said. “As we move forward and the big games come, in order for us to be a team that competes at the highest level that has to be at its absolute highest whenever we step on the field.”

(MORE: Bradley talks about the fight, commitment that prevailed Friday)

All that said, the United States still has questions along a battered back line, one missing its longtime captain Carlos Bocanegra (not selected), veteran right back Steve Cherundolo (injured) and two ailing young fullbacks.

First-choice goalkeeper Tim Howard is out with injury, too, although backup Brad Guzan continues to establish his trustworthiness at highest level through his work in U.S. goal and with defensively-challenged Aston Villa in England.

Jermaine Jones and Danny Williams, the team’s first choices in the holding midfield role, are also ailing and not available for this one.

(MORE: Looking at Jermaine Jones’ absence)

But neither is El Tri at full strength for this one. Center back Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez and left back Jorge Torres Nilo will miss due to yellow card accumulation.

Giovani dos Santos, who destroyed the U.S. back line last time these teams met in a meaningful match, back in the summer of 2011, seems to be missing some confidence.

But Mexico does have Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, a man as blessed with pure scoring instincts as anyone you’ll ever see. The Manchester United striker struck for both goals in Friday’s 2-2 draw in Honduras, and he will surely test the next version of a makeshift back line, whatever that looks like.

(Check back for much more later today at ProSoccerTalk)

CCL: Toronto wins; Wild Herediano comeback

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On a single-digit Tuesday that severely limited the attendance at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, where the Colorado Rapids and Toronto FC dueled in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.

Jonathan Osorio’s second half goal put the Reds in front and Sebastian Giovinco had a goal and an assist and the visitors take a 2-0 decision back to Ontario.

The best chance of a preseason quality first half saw Dominique Badji flub the best chance of the stage into the feet of Alex Bono.

Toronto took the lead, nabbing the away goal through Osorio’s header of a Sebastian Giovinco cross. And the Atomic Ant got on the board with a goal of his own off an Auro assist with 17 minutes to play.

[ MORE: Georgia teen heading to Schalke ]

Tuesday’s other first leg saw Herediano and Tigres play to a 2-2 draw in Costa Rica, with the Liga MX visitors taking a pair of away goals but shocked by a pair of stoppage time concessions.

Francisco Meza scored in the 15th minute and Lucas Zelarayan seemingly put it to bed with 15 minutes to play.

But Yendrick Ruiz converted a 90th minute penalty kick before ex-DC United forward Jairo Arrieta did this ahead of the Feb. 22 second leg in Mexico.

Another American heads to Schalke: Zyen Jones

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Schalkamerica?

Bundesliga mainstays Schalke have added yet another American, this one 17-year-old Zyen Jones of Atlanta United. Jones is a forward with the U.S. U-17 national team.

Like Josh Sargent, who signed his deal with Werder Bremen on Tuesday, he’ll head overseas and sign a pro contract on Aug. 25, his 18th birthday.

[ MORE: Chelsea-Barca recap | JPW’s 3 things ]

Jones will join several potential USMNT teammates in Gelsenkirchen, including injured senior team midfielder Weston McKennie and youngster Nick Taitague (19). Forward Haji Wright is on loan at Sandhausen.

Report: Simon Dawkins making move to Minnesota

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The Loons are taking a flier on Simon Dawkins.

The London-born Jamaican international hasn’t done a ton since returning to MLS from Derby County, and turned 30 over the offseason, and Paul Tenorio says the player is on his way to Minnesota United.

[ MORE: Chelsea-Barca recap | JPW’s 3 things ]

Dawkins scored 14 goals between 2011-12 with San Jose, but scored just five times in his return to California and was blanked in 14 appearances last season. He registered just 10 shots in those matches.

The left winger would join an attack with Christian Ramirez, Kevin Molino, Ethan Finlay, and a pair of Generations Adidas forwards: Abu Danladi (2017 SuperDraft) and Mason Toye (2018).

Champions League Weds. preview: Sevilla-Man Utd, Shakhtar-Roma

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Jose Mourinho says Manchester United is one round away from having legitimate hopes of winning the UEFA Champions League.

[ MORE: Chelsea-Barca recap | JPW’s 3 things ]

That makes the Round of 16 tie against Sevilla — beginning Wednesday in Spain — a bit of a dream qualifier for the Red Devils.

“I normally say that Champions League dreams start around the quarter-finals and not yet in the last 16,” Mourinho said on ManUtd.com. “Last 16 still looks a long way to go. When a team reaches the quarter-finals, I think it’s the moment where even the teams that are not favourites – which is our case – they start realising that anything is possible.

The injury-hit side got a bit of a boost on Tuesday in Sevilla, where Paul Pogba, Antonio Valencia, Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera all trained ahead of the first leg.

As for the hosts, manager Vincenzo Montella admitted that he hopes Pogba won’t play, and joked that he’d prefer to tie up and “padlock” Alexis Sanchez in a bid to defend against the Chilean star.

The final Round of 16 tie to start will be Roma’s pairing with Shakhtar Donetsk, with the first leg taking place in Ukraine.

Shakhtar hasn’t played in some time, but the great equalizer is the bitter cold at Donbass Arena, where the temperature is set to be between 21 and 28 degrees Fahrenheit come kickoff.

Don’t worry, Roma fans, Daniele De Rossi is busy breathing fire into any teammates angling for excuses:

“The cold weather could affect things a little because we’re not used to it but at the end of the day it comes down to how well you perform out there. We must be mentally ready from the get-go because the cold might hit us in the opening minutes.

“If it was that much of a factor, these teams would win the Champions League every year. You don’t go through because of the weather.”