MEXICO CITY (AP) The U.S. will have to step up when it plays Mexico at Estadio Azteca in a World Cup qualifier on Sunday, and not just because of the altitude.
The Americans will have had just two days off following Thursday night’s 2-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago at Commerce City, Colorado, which lifted them into the top half of the standings – and one of the three qualifying slots – midway through the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region.
U.S. coach Bruce Arena is planning lineup changes because of the quick turnaround.
“It’s somewhat I think similar to club play in Major League Soccer, where you travel at times great distances in a short period of time and play two games,” Arena said. “However, a typical club team doesn’t have the depth that a national team program should have.”
Christian Pulisic, the emerging 18-year-old star midfielder, scored a pair of second-half goals, giving him seven in just 15 international appearances. Pulisic, who has scored or assisted on seven of the Americans’ last eight goals, insists he won’t have a problem going 90 minutes.
“Absolutely. I’m still young,” he said. “They’re a good team and not easy to beat at home. It’s going to take a lot, but I think with the guys we have and the confidence we have, there’s no reason why we can’t do it.”
Clint Dempsey, 34 and one goal from tying Landon Donovan’s American record of 57 international goals, could get rotated out. Dempsey was unhappy when Arena replaced him with Kellyn Acosta in the 61st minute Thursday.
A hostile crowd, smog and sometimes heat help create among soccer’s bigger homefield advantages at Azteca, which has been reduced from 120,000 capacity to 87,000 during several renovations.
The U.S. was 0-19-1 in Mexico City – getting outscored 81-14 – before a 1-0 exhibition win five years ago.
“It’s fun. I’m sadistic. I like that,” U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “It’s exciting, because the other side of the fear factor is success and joy, and so we’re going to hopefully have some of that.”
While U.S.-Mexico games at the steep stadium often have been played in under afternoon sun – the Easter Sunday qualifier in 2005 kicked off at noon – Sunday’s match will start at 8:30 p.m. CDT. The U.S. Soccer Federation insisted on a night game as part of the agreement to move the game up two days from the original schedule, a shift that gives El Tri more time to prepare for its Confederations Cup opener against European champion Portugal on June 18 at Kazan, Russia.
The Americans have gained just two points in qualifiers at Azteca, 0-0 draws in 1997 (day game) and 2013 (night).
“We know the conditions will be tough,” right back DeAndre Yedlin said. “We know the ref probably won’t be on our side. We know the fans obviously won’t be on our side.”
Mexico won 2-1 at Columbus, Ohio, in November in its opening match of the hexagonal, the first home loss for the U.S. in qualifying since 2001. A 4-0 loss four days later at Costa Rica left the Americans last in the standings and caused USSF President Sunil Gulati and his board to fire Jurgen Klinsmann and bring back Arena, the U.S. coach from 1998-2006.
Missing several regulars because of injuries and illness, the Americans rebounded in March with a 6-0 home win over Honduras and a 1-1 draw at Panama. Arena’s biggest changes have been to install Darlington Nagbe at wide midfield and Jorge Villafana at left back.
Nagbe had been dropped from the roster by Klinsmann. Arena, then coaching the LA Galaxy, noticed Villafana last during during a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against Santos Laguna.
“Tonight’s game is basically the first time this group has played together in a qualifying game, so we’re just getting a feel for each other,” Arena said. “If Sunil had hired me much earlier, I would have had a little bit more time with this team.”
Mexico beat visiting Honduras 3-0 Thursday night, changing six starters from its previous qualifier in March and resting forward Javier Hernandez and defender Hector Moreno. Coach Juan Carlos Osorio told Azteca Deportes television after the match that midfielder Andres Guardado and defenders Miguel Layun and Rafael Marquez will miss Sunday’s game because of injuries. In addition, defender Carlos Salcedo left in the 54th minute Thursday after hurting a leg.
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Commerce City contributed to this report.