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  • 02:26 PM ET  08.07

We're five days away from the U.S.'s monster World Cup qualifying showdown against Mexico (4 p.m. ET Wednesday, Telemundo, mun2), and with the Americans gunning for their first win in 20 tries at Mexico City's notorious Estadio Azteca I've got two things on my mind:

* The just-released U.S. roster. No real surprises here. I’m still convinced that U.S. coach Bob Bradley will start the same 11 players that he did against Spain in the Confederations Cup semifinal: Tim Howard, Jonathan Spector, Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit, Carlos Bocanegra, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies. As for the potential reserves: nice to see that José Francisco Torres made the cut, and Stuart Holden and Chad Marshall clearly made good impressions during Gold Cup. No Sacha Kljestan, Freddy Adu or DaMarcus Beasley--and that’s not much of a surprise either.

* The Altitude Question. I'm surprised the U.S. will arrive in Mexico City (altitude: 7,200 feet) on Tuesday afternoon, just 24 hours before gametime after flying in from Miami (where training camp begins on Sunday). Mexico City's altitude has bedeviled visiting teams for years, and I was curious about whether it would be advantageous for the U.S. to arrive even a day earlier than Tuesday to acclimatize. So I called Dr. Aaron Baggish, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who studies athletes and high-altitude physiology.

His response: even a day or two more at altitude could help the U.S. players.

"I'm not the coach, so I can't make a definitive conclusion about what's smart for the players, but from a physiology perspective having a couple days to acclimatize makes good sense," Baggish told me. "There's a pretty rapid response when the body goes from sea level to high altitude over the course of even the first 48 hours, and that can make a big difference in terms of the way people feel and their ability to perform. I know these decisions are always based on a lot of factors, but if all things were created equal it would certainly be better to show up a couple days beforehand than to roll in the night before."

U.S. Soccer has consulted its own altitude-physiology experts with the U.S. Olympic Committee in the past, concluding that in order to truly acclimatize you need a couple weeks at altitude. Due to scheduling, that was possible for the U.S. World Cup qualifiers in Mexico City in November 1997 (when the U.S. earned a historic tie after training for 16 days at the 6,800-foot-high Big Bear Lake, Calif.) and in March 2005 (when the U.S. lost 2-1 after its MLS-based players trained for three weeks in Colorado Springs). But it wasn't possible in July 2001 (a 1-0 U.S. loss). Not even the high-altitude training in 2005 helped much, since then-coach Bruce Arena decided to start nine European-based players who had just arrived in North America.

From U.S. Soccer's perspective, the earliest the team could have arrived in Mexico City next week would have been Monday, and team officials didn't see an advantage in having only one hour-long training session in Mexico on the day before the game. (As a result, they won't have any.)

But Baggish, the altitude-physiology expert I spoke to, wasn't so sure. In the first 24 hours after arrival, he said, "What an athlete who needs to perform at a high level will feel is more of a sensation of breathlessness, oftentimes a little fuzzy-headed and sometimes some visual blurring. And that stuff all goes away within the first day or two. But in the immediate 24 hours [after arrival] it can really be an issue."

How much can altitude affect a soccer game? Consider what happened when South American also-ran Bolivia whacked mighty Argentina 6-1 in a World Cup qualifier in April. By the second half in La Paz (altitude: 11,942 feet), Lionel Messi and his world-class teammates looked like they'd been on an all-night bender.

"It was unbelievable," Baggish said. "But I'm not surprised that even the best South American soccer players who live at or near sea level who try to go up and play at 12,000 feet got walked all over by a team that was clearly not even in the same league if they were playing at close to sea level."

When I asked U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu what it's like to play in the Azteca, this is what he said: "I've tried to explain that to people who say, ‘You guys looked tired after 10 minutes.' And I'm like, ‘You try playing in those conditions and having to wear oxygen masks at halftime to get some air into your lungs.'"

In May 2007, FIFA tried to address the altitude issue by banning international games from being played above 2,500 meters (8,200 feet), ruling out such popular home-field advantages as La Paz; Quito, Ecuador; and Bogotá, Colombia. But protests from the South American countries caused FIFA to ultimately remove the ban altogether.

Some other altitude-related nuggets:

* Altitude could come into play at next year's World Cup in South Africa. Not many people realize that Johannesburg (at 5,600 feet) is higher than Denver. The U.S. is clearly aware of the altitude issue for 2010. According to federation sources, the U.S. was able to ace out Italy, among other teams, for a prized World Cup training facility near Pretoria (5,751 feet), the better for the U.S. to acclimatize itself.

I'm not a gambler, but if I were, I know exactly which teams I would bet against in South Africa: those with training camps near sea level (like, say, Cape Town) which have to play World Cup games at altitude in Jo'burg, Pretoria or Rustenburg.

* According to Baggish, the altitude-physiology expert, one complicating factor about Mexico City is the severe pollution, which could inflict serious damage on asthma-suffering soccer players and would actually reward coming into town as soon before the game as possible. But I checked with U.S. Soccer to see if that was part of its strategy arriving in Mexico City on Tuesday, and that wasn't the case. None of the players on this U.S. roster are known to have asthma problems.

* One U.S. team that will really endure the full-altitude treatment is D.C. United, which has to play at Toluca in the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions Cup. At 8,793 feet, Toluca is a lot higher even than Mexico City. Enjoy the trip, guys.

What do you think of the U.S. roster? What's your sense of the U.S.'s decision to arrive in Mexico City just 24 hours before gametime? Is the altitude issue overrated? And how do you like the U.S. first-teamers' chances for a historic first victory in the Azteca? Chime in below, and check back for coverage next week from Mexico City.

Grant Wahl's book, The Beckham Experiment, is in bookstores everywhere. You can order it here. You can also find him on Twitter.

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