Maurice Edu has played against Mexico once before, in the 2-2 draw in a Houston friendly not quite 3½ years ago, and the memories remain vibrant.
“The stadium was crazy,” he says. “A ton of green, definitely.”
The midfielder from Fontana is expecting another indelible experience Saturday evening at the Rose Bowl, when the U.S. national team takes on Mexico in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final. Some 90,000-plus will be on hand -- the game sold out early Wednesday, before either finalist had been determined -- and most of them, again, will be garbed in green.
But not all of them.
“I'm expecting it to be crazy,” said Edu, 25, a fixture in the middle for Scottish champions Rangers FC. “I know Mexico will have large support. I think we should have a good turnout as well. There's a lot of anticipation. Hopefully, we go out there and make it a game to remember, and hopefully we come out on top.”
Edu, who played at Etiwanda High School and for club powerhouse Mission Viejo Pateadores, will have plenty of family and friends on hand, and he hopes he can influence the outcome. That's up to U.S. coach Bob Bradley, who has three first-rate holding center midfielders to choose from and has made it rather clear that Edu isn't in his preferred pairing.
Bradley has teamed his son, Michael, with German-born and -bred Jermaine Jones in the Americans' first five games of the region's nations championship, with Edu trotting out for the final 10 or 15 minutes in the wins over Canada, Guadeloupe and Jamaica.
He'd prefer to start, of course, but is ready for whatever role he's given.
“Michael and Jermaine have been playing, and it's just about going out there and training and showing what you can do, and I've done that,” Edu said. “All I can do is work hard and try to show that I'm a guy [Bradley] can be confident in.”
Edu, who played at the University of Maryland and was the No. 1 overall selection in the 2007 MLS SuperDraft and Rookie of the Year at Toronto FC before joining Rangers in summer 2008, has made his point. He has been in the national teams program since his first year as a pro and played a pivotal role for the U.S. under-23 team in qualifying for and at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but he emerged as an important figure with the full national team after recovering from a knee injury that sidelined him seven months later that year and into 2009.
Coach Bradley included Edu in the World Cup team last summer, and he made three appearances with one start -- and one glorious goal that would have beaten Slovenia had it not been unfairly waved off -- in South Africa.
Michael Bradley, 23, who has returned, at least in name, to Germany's Borussia Moenchengladbach after England's Aston Villa declined to extend a loan deal, is the Yanks' key figure in central midfield, a two-way player who can win tackles or create for the the attack. Jones, 29, who plays for England's Blackburn on loan from Germany's Schalke 04, didn't make his U.S. debut until last October after missing the World Cup because of a shin injury; his combination and skill and power, and his understanding of the game's nuances, has quickly elevated him among the Americans' top players.
Edu followed the World Cup with a roller-coaster season with Rangers, but his influence was massive when he was in form, and he finished the campaign with a championship medal after the Glasgow-based giant won its third successive, and world-record 54th overall, league championship. He has two more years remaining on his contract.
“This was my third year there, and this is the year I played the most games, so I wanted to try to play my part and influence the team as much as I could,” he said. “I try to be as consistent as possible. Obviously, there are times when that wasn't the case, and I had a little difficulty here and there, but I wanted to try to remain consistent and make it my best season so far.”
He was rewarded with a Gold Cup call-up, just his first, so he “wanted to try to make this a special tournament.” It hasn't been, perhaps, not with only 34 minutes of action, but a chance to parade the trophy Saturday night at the Rose Bowl -- in front of all that green -- would make it all worthwhile.
Edu, like nearly every So Cal-bred player, grew up playing with and against Mexican-Americans -- he says he “actually spoke Spanish pretty well, but now I've lost it” -- and he's got great respect for what Mexico brings to the field.
“You can tell they're really passionate about the game,” he said. “Soccer's the number one sport, and that's reflected in their style of play and in the following that they have at games. You can always sense the passion.”
He sees that with American fans too, more so all the time, and says he expected “a good following” for the final. “Hopefully, we can get some goals, and you'll hear that support.”
The Americans haven't lost to Mexico away from Mexico City when fielding a first- or second-choice lineup since 1989, but they're underdogs Saturday after a hit-and-miss run to the title game. El Tri has been more impressive, although they had to work hard to overcome Guatemala in the quarterfinals and Honduras in the semis.
“This tournament, we've had a couple games where we haven't played our best,” Edu said, “but in saying that, we always found a way to bounce back, and we always showed character and a strong belief within our team. And hopefully we can go out there and showcase that, and just really highlight what we're made of as a team and what we're capable of achieving. ...
“I think in the ideal world, everyone would love to go out there and play a beautiful game and come out winning. But when you're in a tournament, at the end of the day, what you want to do is win. So if that means us scraping by and winning, 1-nil, I think everyone would prefer that as opposed to us playing a beautiful game and losing. It's all about going out and getting another win, with whatever it takes.”