On Thursday night, the Mexico national team returns to Charlotte, North Carolina, for their second international match in the Queen City in just over a year. This time, El Tri arrives for a CONCACAF Gold Cup match. Last March the stakes were much lower, as a Mexico team playing without any European-based players faced off against the football powerhouse nation that is Iceland. A friendly against Team Bjork may not have been the most enticing match-up, but it was enough to draw over 63,000 fans to Bank of America Stadium. North Carolina may be the home of Bojangles and NASCAR, but quiet as kept, this state is also the land of taco trucks and El Tri supporters.
I was in attendance for the Mexico-Iceland match last year, and the atmosphere was electric from well before the opening whistle. It was a party vibe all night, and large sections of the stadium remained standing for the entire match. And while those in attendance weren’t gifted a single goal that evening, we were at least treated to a fan running onto the field in a failed attempt to shake Bofo Bautista's hand. Even with the scoreless draw, it may have still been the most exciting sporting event held at the stadium in 2010--a year in which the Carolina Panthers finished with just two total wins.
With the massive success of that Iceland friendly, it was no surprise that Charlotte was chosen as one of the hosts for a Mexico match during the group stages of the 2011 Gold Cup. Ticket prices are a bit higher this time around, but a massive crowd is still expected to be on hand Thursday night by the time Mexico kicks off against Cuba around 9pm eastern. Unfortunately, Charlotte fans may again be getting a (slightly) less than top-strength squad.
Manager Jose Manuel de la Torre will probably rest at least a few of his regular starters against Cuba on Thursday night. He certainly can afford to, as the two sides come into the match effectively separated by ten goals. Mexico dominated El Salvador in the second half for a 5-0 win in their Gold Cup opener, while Cuba turned in the exact opposite result against Costa Rica in an embarrassing 0-5 loss. With Sunday’s game between Mexico and Costa Rica likely to decide first place in Group A, De la Torre would much rather have a rested squad ready to go this weekend.
It would be no surprise if Mexico’s two young attackers, Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and Giovani Dos Santos, both start on the bench. In their places we could see Aldo De Nigris get the starting nod up top, with the veteran Sinha possibly making a return to his regular attacking midfield role.
On the backline, some shuffling of personnel will be necessary. Efrain Juarez, who started at right back against El Salvador, has been nursing a slight leg injury and did not practice this week. Defender Ricardo Osorio, who did not play in the opener, has returned to Mexico with a urinary tract infection. One possible new look that has been mentioned is moving Israel Castro to right back and playing Rafael Marquez as a defensive midfielder. Other options include moving Carlos Salcido to the right side and starting Jorge Torres Nilo at left back.
Even though we are likely to see a slightly different starting lineup take the field, one thing that does not change is Mexico’s position as favorites. In fact, calling Mexico massive favorites over Cuba is still an almost laughable understatement. While most of the players are naturally looking ahead to Sunday’s match against Costa Rica, De la Torre has done his best to keep the focus on Thursday night’s match. He has reiterated to the media that he still wants to see improvements from his team against Cuba. "The biggest enemy we have is ourselves, because of the overconfidence," commented De la Torre. "We absolutely cannot underestimate anything."
One thing not underestimated is the support that will be there for Mexico on Thursday night. It will be a loud, rowdy crowd in Bank of America Stadium, giving El Tri absolutely no excuse to come out flat in front of tens of thousands of their loyal Charlotte-area supporters.
Mexico vs. Cuba can be seen live in the United States Thursday night at 9pm eastern on Univision.