Worried Men

Here, direct from the press tent at Columbus Crew Stadium, courtesy of Andy Mead, are the two people who would seem to have the most at stake in tonight's GutCheck Bowl:

To any rational observer, since it's the nearest thing to a dead certainty that the US and Mexico are both headed for South Africa.in 2010, it would seem that win, lose or draw tonight, there's basically nothing at stake besides bragging rights.

But of course, since this is soccer we're talking about, rational observers are in pretty short supply and bragging rights aren't just a side benefit they're a critical element of the whole.

Which brings us to the two guys who really do have a lot at stake tonight.

Generally speaking, unless you're from a country that sucks at soccer and knows it - the list seems to keep shrinking although most of the CONCACAF islands that keep Jack Warner in power certainly qualify - the expectations aren't just high, they're ridiculous.

Losing more than once or twice gets you fired, regardless of how well you play or who you didn't have available. Draws are seen as golden opportunities that you blew. And even winning isn't enough if you do it "ugly".

Bob Bradley has the easier job in this regard. As long as the US keeps winning, Sunil Gulati will let him keep the job, even if the BigSoccer servers implode from the sheer mass of Bradley-loathing and the sneering contempt of know-it-all writers (blush) who'll pound him like a pinata full of candy at a fat farm.

But Bradley - and everyone else - knows that the occasional stumble on the road to qualifying is acceptable, even inevitable, and it's not the end of the world.

Except in Columbus. Against Mexico.

This is the game he has to win, and he knows it. US Soccer took a pass on a couple million bucks they could have netted by putting this game someplace else, so in a very real sense Gulati put some serious money on the line just as surely as if he'd called up Will Hill and taken the over.

Will a loss tonight mean an automatic pink slip and a quick person-to-person call to a certain chubby fellow who currently resides in Seattle? Probably not, although you won't know it by around midnight tonight when you keep getting that BigSoccer message that says "If you want to log on and scream for Bob Bradley's head on a platter, then pay up, Bunky".

What a loss will do, however, is reduce his margin of error to something in the vicinity of abso-freakin-lutely nothing. Nobody will care if he beats El Sal and Jack Warner's Orphans by 50. Your Mother could sit on the bench and do that.

As for Mexico coach Sven Goran Eriksson, he might want to check Port Columbus International for direct flights to Heathrow. Tonight. There may not be all that many people of Mexican extraction in Columbus - although the number in the stadium tonight may surprise you; El Tri fans are notoriously creative at getting around the ticket roadblocks that USSF throws up in attempting to keep them out - but another dos a cero result tonight and there'll be torches and pitcforks arund the team hotel by midnight.

Maybe to you and I the fact that Mexico hasn't won on US soil in a decade and Columbus Crew Stadium is a setup, one that USSF thinks so much of that they passed up the couple million bucks more they could have made by putting it elsewhere means that while Mexico's fans won't be particularly happy - to say the least - if they lose, they'll understand what a tough situation it was and give the guy a pass.

Maybe you and I are on drugs.

Nobody down there will care that beating the US tonight, given the players he has available, the history and all the other real and psychological advantages the homestanding Nats have on their side, would be a pretty tall order for any coach who's ever lived.

Until Mexico's fans accept that the last ten years of results are not just some vicious, cruel, heartbreaking joke being played on them by a malevolent God and are instead the result of the US team being on a par wtih them talentwise, then losing in Columbus or Timbuktu or the far side of the Moon will continue to be unthinkable.

Does this mean that a Mexico loss tonight means Eriksson will be coaching Portsmouth by the end of the month? I would think that's pretty likely, but if he's not then the next two months worth of beatings he'll take in the South of the Border media will sure as hell make him wish it did.

Just to add some spice to the affair tonight, here's the current forecast for Columbus, Ohio:

Windy at times with rain this morning. Thunderstorms likely by evening. Some thunderstorms will be strong. Damaging winds with some storms. High 61F. Winds S at 25 to 35 mph.

Yesterday I heard mention of the possibility of up to an inch of rain.

(Reminds me of the time Arena brought the team into Mexico City and the MFF told him he couldn't have a pregame practice at the Azteca because there was the imminent danger of "Tsunamis". Arena told the MFF that there was a flight leaving in two hours and his team could easily be on it. The practice went on as scheduled)

If all or most of this comes to pass, then Crew Stadium could offer some of the worst playing conditions this series has ever seen. Mud. High winds. Possibly lightning delays. Players so covered in mud that they'll be largely unrecognizable.

It seems that Mother Nature may get the last laugh after all.