COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – What better way to qualify for the World Cup than by beating Mexico? Or, what better way than by beating the United States?

The archrivals get that opportunity to clinch a spot in Germany 2006 by winning Saturday night. Even a tie might be enough for both sides, but neither country is thinking about draws in what has become one of soccer’s most heated series.

“The reason I know how special this game is, is on Sunday night, a full week before the game, I was already thinking about the game laying in bed,” U.S. star Landon Donovan said. “And I never do that. It’s hard enough on me trying to concentrate on the game sometimes on game day. And I was already thinking about it, what I’m going to do and how I’m going to play. How it’s going to feel when we win. That says it all.”

Says it all for Mexico, as well.

“This game is very important. It’s key because of all that it represents for us and for the people (of Mexico),” midfielder Pavel Pardo said. “We have to win. We have to play with intelligence. Getting points in a qualifier is good, but we try to be the protagonist whether we play at home or on the road.”

The last time Mexico played a CONCACAF final-round qualifier in Columbus was Feb 28, 2001 – in 28 degrees. Not exactly suited for the Mexicans, and the Americans won 2-0.

It will be about 50 degrees warmer Saturday night, but both sides know the elements won’t be a factor. The players and coaches will determine this one.

One player the United States hopes will play a role is forward Eddie Johnson, who has missed every qualifier since March with turf toe. Johnson acknowledged Friday he can’t go 90 minutes at this level and almost certainly won’t start against Mexico.

“No, it’s not 100 percent, but it’s close. I’m almost there,” said Johnson, who has been a scoring sensation for the national team. “I’m just happy to be back in camp and with the team again.”

Mexico coach Ricardo Lavolpe expects almost anything from his U.S. counterpart, Bruce Arena.

The Americans weren’t offensive enough in the first meeting of this round, when Mexico jumped ahead 2-0 and won 2-1. That is the difference in the standings – the United States has won its other five games.

while Mexico has four other wins and a tie with Panama.

Either side advances with a win. A tie would mean the U.S. team needs Trinidad and Tobago to tie Guatemala and Panama to either win or tie against Costa Rica.

And a tie is highly possible because of how close these clubs are. The United States is ranked sixth in the world, its best ever. Mexico is fifth.

Plus, there’s pride. American Eddie Lewis likens the rivalry to Lakers vs. Celtics.

“The history is really starting to grow,” he said. “But it’s really the two teams, the two Kings of the Hill,’ if you will, that are now at a very level point.”

The Mexicans still are smarting from a 2-0 loss in the 2002 World Cup’s second round to the United States. Nothing would ease the bitter memories of that loss in South Korea better than clinching a spot for Germany by winning on U.S. soil.

The Americans are aware of that.

“We’re prepared to play each and every game and, hopefully, I think one could look at our record over the last couple of years and realize that our guys are prepared to play every game,” Arena said. “Obviously this is a big game and they’ll be ready for it.”

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