When the United States Men’s National Team takes on Mexico in a high-profile soccer friendly tonight at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City (7:30 p.m. EDT, ESPN2 and Univision), the Americans face a task as daunting as anything Don Quixote encountered while tilting at windmills in the Cervantes literary classic.

The U.S. enters the match with an all-time record of 0-23-1 on Mexican soil, including an 0-19-1 mark in the rarefied air of Mexico’s national stadium — which is located 7,400 feet above sea level and can accommodate 105,000-plus roaring, raucous fans. It is an intimidating venue, for sure.

To use another bookish reference, the quest for a win south of the border by the U.S. men’s team draws comparisons with Captain Ahab’s futile pursuit of the whale in “Moby-Dick.” Yet for all the angst that can accompany this fixture, there was one shining moment that the Americans can savor.

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Let’s go back to Nov. 2, 1997. My twin sons — who just celebrated their 15th birthday last week — were a few months old as I settled down to watch the qualifier for the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France. Estadio Azteca was full of its usual color in support of Mexico as well as the typical venom for U.S. players.

The obstacles faced by the U.S. quickly got worse when defender Jeff Agoos was sent off via a red card in the first half, forcing the Americans to play 10-on-11 for most of the game. But gutty performances from the likes of Eric Wynalda, Cobi Jones, John Harkes, Alexi Lalas and goalkeeper Kasey Keller carved out a vital 0-0 draw.

(A highlights video of that match in Spanish accompanies this blog post.)

That show of strength by the U.S. in such volatile circumstances ushered in an era where the American team started to match the mettle of Mexico on the biggest of stages. The high point of that period was a deserved 2-0 win by the U.S. in a round-of-16 match at the 2002 FIFA World Cup in South Korea.

But while the pendulum swung in favor of the U.S. over that period, Mexico has regained the upper hand with a vengeance. Last year’s 4-2 win by Mexico before 93,000-plus at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final seemed to mark a tipping point in the rivalry.

The Mexican National Team program is experiencing an upsurge right now ... as my good friend Antonio Cortes of Pleasantville is quick to remind me. The 2-1 triumph over Brazil in the gold-medal match at the London Olympics capped a recent string of youth-level accomplishments for Mexico.

The senior team is ranked 18th by FIFA, while the U.S. languishes at 36th. As U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann himself pointed out this week, when the U.S. fails to even qualify for the Olympics and Mexico goes on to win it ... well, there's a definite gap in quality there. And it seems to be growing.

No one should expect the U.S. to break its duck on Mexican soil tonight. Klinsmann has named an experimental roster, with key scorer Clint Dempsey left out ahead of the English Premier League season. Stalwarts like Landon Donovan and Tim Howard are there, but there’s plenty of youth on display.

It seems rather prescient of Klinsmann to select six players for the U.S. side who currently ply their club trades in Mexico: defenders Edgar Castillo and Michael Orozco Fiscal, midfielders DaMarcus Beasley, Joe Corona and Jose Torres, and striker Herculez Gomez.

Five of those players have Mexican-American ethnicity, and they will not shrink like violets in the showcase arena that is the Azteca. I like how Klinsmann is giving the U.S. team a more Hispanic flavor. Having coached youth soccer myself for nearly a decade, that's definitely the way forward.

When the boys and I attended the 1-1 friendly between these two countries in Philadelphia last August, it was one of the best sporting events I have ever been to in person. The push-and-pull of the crowd, as well as the play on the field, was simply captivating. Let's hope for more of the same tonight, if only to put the series back on even terms.

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