By Greg Beacham
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
PASADENA, Calif. _ Jurgen Klinsmann realizes the Rose Bowl might feel like enemy turf when his U.S. men’s soccer team takes the fabled field Saturday night.
That’s because the Americans are hosting Mexico in a one-game playoff between the last two Gold Cup champions. El Tri might be the most popular sports team in the Los Angeles area outside the Lakers, and the sold-out stands are guaranteed to be filled with a majority of green-clad fans roaring for the home team’s painful defeat.
The prospect doesn’t bother the U.S. players or their coach, who knows that the evening is seen by many as a referendum on his four-year tenure. Klinsmann is more excited by the chance to maintain the Americans’ recent superiority in their biggest rivalry _ and maybe even turn a few heads in the crowd.
“We have a sold-out crowd, and we have a lot of guests coming in that live here but maybe wear the green jersey first,” Klinsmann said Friday before training. “Hopefully by the end of the game they pull that jersey off and have the red, white and blue underneath it on. This is our goal. We want to win over a lot of our Mexican friends. We won already a lot of them over the last four, five years, and we want to keep on doing that.”
Klinsmann’s sunny optimism was reflected by his players, who have a chance to end a summer skid with a sweet victory over a Mexican team bouncing back from a rocky summer under steady interim manager Ricardo Ferretti.
Klinsmann shrugged when asked about recent comments by U.S. career scoring leader Landon Donovan, who suggested Klinsmann should leave his job if Mexico wins. Klinsmann dropped Donovan from last season’s World Cup team.
“It was no problem at all for me if people express their feelings and bring across their thoughts,” Klinsmann said. “In my time, I had 20 coaches, and there never was a perfect one.”
For all of Klinsmann’s imperfections during the most statistically successful four-year run by an American coach, he is perfect when facing their biggest rivals. The U.S. is 3-0-3 against Mexico since the 2011 Gold Cup loss that led to the departure of former U.S. coach Bob Bradley.
Several American players remember the wildly pro-Mexican crowd at the Rose Bowl for that defeat four years ago, but they don’t see this matchup as redemption.
“We already exorcised those demons a long time ago,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “Since Jurgen has come in, things have been good. We’re confident, but we know how good they are as well. I think we have the edge, but we’ve got to go in and prove it.”
The winner gets a trophy and CONCACAF’s spot in 2017 Confederations Cup, an eight-team tournament matching confederation champions in Russia one year before the World Cup.
Yet the future reward means less to both teams than the chance to earn bragging rights in North America.
“I don’t think that any of the players going on the field feeling 90,000 people will even think one second about next summer or two summers further down the road,” Klinsmann said. “You just live for this moment. You want to play your game, and then at the end of the day, you want to hold up a trophy.”
The stakes will feel enormous in front of the frenzied crowd, but they’re actually a bit debatable. That CONCACAF trophy is a shiny trifle – and while the Americans might go two summers without a major international tournament if they can’t qualify for the Confederations Cup, the extra rest also might benefit them heading into the 2018 World Cup.
The U.S. would have already booked Confederations Cup berth with a Gold Cup victory earlier this year, but the Americans crashed out in the semifinals against Jamaica. The Americans have won just one of their last four games, but Klinsmann chose a veteran-laden roster that senses more opportunity than pressure.
“It’s nothing compared to the World Cup, or a World Cup qualifier,” DaMarcus Beasley said. “But whenever you play your rival, that makes it special.”
Earning supremacy in the rivalry is the only undeniable stake Saturday, and that’s plenty. A victory also would be a welcome signpost for the U.S. team’s progress in the four years since Mexico dominated the field and the stands at the Gold Cup.
“There’s no doubt the game continues to grow in an amazing way in our country,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. “I think days like (Saturday) are special for everybody involved.”
NOTES: Klinsmann revealed the midfielder Alejandro Bedoya “got sick” and can’t play due to a fever. Bobby Wood will replace Bedoya, who plays professionally in France with FC Nantes.