MEXICO CITY (AP) – Mexico last missed the World Cup in 1990. It now could happen again, unless the team overcomes New Zealand in a two-game playoff that opens Wednesday at Azteca stadium in Mexico City.
Mexico needed almost a miracle just to reach this stage, as the United States scored two late goals to beat Panama and send the Mexicans through to the playoff. Otherwise, Panama would have advanced and Mexico would be out already.
Mexico played poorly in qualifying, where it struggled to score goals and finished behind the United States, Costa Rica and Honduras, who earned the automatic berths from the CONCACAF region.
El Tri have gone to extraordinary measures hoping to reach Brazil, bringing in Miguel Herrera to handle the two-game playoff in the latest of a series of coaching changes. Herrera, the coach of Mexican club America, has overlooked the country's Europe-based players, like Manchester United's Javier Hernandez, and is going with players from Mexico's domestic league.
Mexico must find a way to score goals, and it should have an overwhelming advantage at home.
The altitude in Mexico City is 2,240 meters (7,350 feet), where the thin air always hurts visiting teams. And the home crowd at the 100,000-capacity stadium is usually intimidating for opponents.
''We'll do it here,'' Herrera said. ''I'm sure that Mexico will get the advantage so we can relax in Wellington and finish the job. This is the idea. To take care of business at home.''
''That's why we have a local team,'' he added. ''We have players who are used to playing at this altitude.''
Mexico is expected to start Oribe Peralta up front, and team him with Aldo de Nigris or Rual Jimenez.
Brazilians don't get a say in who makes the tournament, but local World Cup organizers would surely prefer to have another Latin American team in the field, rather than New Zealand which would bring few fans.
Herrera was the fourth coach hired by Mexico in a span of six weeks as it struggled to qualify.
"We are in the process of leaving behind the past and looking toward the great opportunity we have," Herrera said. "We are not overconfident. An excess of confidence would make us think our rival is a step below us."
New Zealand was the only team that didn't lose a match in the 2010 World Cup - drawing all three games - although it did not advance from the group stage.
New Zealand has been training in Southern California, and travels to Mexico at the last moment hoping to beat the altitude adjustment.
New Zealand's key problem - besides the altitude - may be the absence of West Ham defender Winston Reid with an ankle injury.
The second leg is Nov. 20 in Wellington, and coach Ricki Herbert is likely to be cautious in Mexico and play for a draw.
''I'm sure they'll try to set the tie alight and score goals in that first leg,'' New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert said. ''That presents a strong challenge for us, but also a good one. If we can be tight and very resolute we can put ourselves in a position to showcase our talents at home in the second leg.''