Champions of CONCACAF, USA begin their 'hexagonal' account against their age-old and smarting arch-enemy, Mexico. One of the most intense international rivalries across the Americas, the trans-Rio Grande clasico has gained intensity in recent years, as the balance of power has shifted towards the US.
One man directly responsible for this shift in superiority is Landon Donovan, the player Mexican fans love to hate. Since bursting on to the international scene in 2000, the gifted creator, now 26, has found himself at the heart of the rivalry, coming in for withering abuse from Mexican players, media and fans alike. And he has seemed, at times in the past, to revel in the role of villain.
This time, however, Donovan is focused squarely on the task at hand heading into the 56th match between the two nations, and confident in the way the USA team have been playing under coach Bob Bradley. "Our run through the semi-final rounds only seemed simple because we were committed as a team," he told FIFA.com from his temporary home in Bavaria, where he is on loan at Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich from Major League Soccer outfit Los Angeles Galaxy. "We played the way we wanted to throughout most of our qualifiers so far, and when we do that we are very difficult to beat."
USA strolled through semi-final Group 1, winning five of six games and only dropping their last result away to Trinidad and Tobago with their passage already assured. They are led by a phalanx of European-based players like Donovan, Damarcus Beasley of Rangers, Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard and Michael Bradley, the coach's son and stand-out at Borussia Monchengladbach. El Tri will be fuming over the fact that their side, once so dominant, has not won on US soil in ten attempts, most recently losing the final of the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup in Chicago.
At the heart of the Americans' attack is Donovan himself, who became the national team's all-time top scorer last year. With the retirement of a number of high-profile veterans, Donovan, five times voted the USA's top footballer, has found himself thrust into the position of team leader. Criticised in the past for fading into the background in big games, the California native and arguably the best American player of his generation, is now ready to step into the weighty role.
"The coach expects a lot from me and puts a lot of pressure on me," Donovan, who now scored 37 times for USA, said in a FIFA.com interview after breaking the scoring record previously held by Eric Wynalda. "I like it though, I don't mind it one bit."
The timing is right for someone to step into the US leadership vacuum, too, with Mexico widely regarded to be their primary opponents in the race for first place in the 'hexagonal'. Thankfully for fresh-faced young guns in the team like Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu and Celtic target Sacha Kljestan, Donovan is no stranger to taking on the old enemy to the south.
Memories of Jeonju
The 11 February meeting in Columbus, Ohio will be the 14th time Donovan has met Mexico on the field of battle, and it is no surprise which of those he holds most dear. "My favourite moment against Mexico was beating them, and scoring against them, in the Round of 16 at the World Cup in Korea in 2002," Donovan said of the 2-0 result in Jeonju, which is widely regarded as the turning point in the rivalry between the two sides, up to that point dominated by Mexico. "That was the biggest game of my life up until that point, and it was a special moment."
The Mexicans are top in the overall games played between the two, winning 30 to USA's 15 (with ten draws). However, the Americans have been dominant of late, and while Mexico have never lost to their arch-rivals in the Estadio Azteca, USA have not lost to Mexico on home soil in ten attempts. Wednesday's venue - Crew Stadium - is a happy hunting ground for the home team. They have never lost a qualifier there, including two wins over Mexico.
USA managed to finish first in North, Central America and Caribbean Zone qualifying for Germany 2006, but that was a team led by now-retired veterans like Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna, Eddie Pope and Kasey Keller. Despite having a less experienced team this time out, Donovan is convinced the result can be the same.
"We're a different team than we were four years ago in the sense that we are a younger group," he said. "We are progressing well, though, playing well and we are all dedicated to becoming a team that is capable of being successful at South Africa 2010."
You can follow all the action from the USA-Mexico qualifier in Columbus, Ohio LIVE via FIFA.com's EMIRATES MatchCast on 11 February. Be sure to sign on and have your say using our exclusive fan cat application.