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Posted: Thursday March 18, 1999 06:39 PM
In the U.S. Cup, Mexico again set a standard America can only aspire to
By Ian Thomsen
Soccer audiences in the U.S. are at their most raucous and passionate when Mexico crosses the border for a game. Unfortunately for the American team, that raucous passion is created by Mexican and Mexican-American fans on behalf of the visitors. But, hey, it's a start.
Last Saturday in San Diego the neighbors met for the 40th time. The match decided the winner of the four-team U.S. Cup, and while most of the 50,324 fans at Qualcomm Stadium were deliriously happy with Mexico's 2-1 victory, the American players were by no means equally dispirited by their first loss under coach Bruce Arena (3-1-2), whose imprint on the team becomes stronger with each match. From the outset against Mexico, the U.S. pressed and attacked. It was able to maintain possession despite the absences in midfield of playmaker Claudio Reyna, who stayed in Germany with his pregnant wife, and Joe-Max Moore, who received a red card in the waning minutes of a 3-1 win against Guatemala last Thursday in Los Angeles. (Mexico beat Bolivia 2-1 in its other U.S. Cup match.)
Over the years the Mexicans have taunted the U.S. by playing keep away. This time they decided to abandon the midfield and attack with counterpunches and long balls over the top. "They didn't try to play out of the back against our pressure," said American striker Brian McBride. "They started thumping the ball. That's a sign of respect that we made them play our game."
Midway through the second half Mexico coach Manuel Lapuente tried to reclaim the midfield by bringing in his top player, Ramon Ramirez, but not even Ramirez could alter the flow. Notable for its absence was the customary "Ole! Ole! Ole!" that Mexican fans chant in unison with their team's methodical passing. "They tried to start their oles," McBride said, "but after the fourth ole they had to stop because they were losing the ball and we were going the other way with it."
The U.S. gauges its progress by how it fares in this rivalry. From 1937 to '80 Mexico went 24 matches without a loss, but the relationship changed dramatically from '91 to '95, when Mexico won only one of seven times. In this decade three Mexican coaches can trace their firings directly to a bad performance against the Americans -- including Lapuente, now on his second tour after having been dismissed following a 2-0 loss in Los Angeles in '91. While all top opponents pay lip service to the improvements in U.S. soccer, Mexico alone plays seriously and without reservation against the Americans, whether in a tournament or a friendly. It has now gone seven games without a loss to the U.S., but six of those matches have been excruciatingly tight.
Arena's players will reconvene in June, when they are expected to meet Iran for a friendly. Until then they must live with the fact that on Saturday, Mexico wanted to win more than they did. In the 14th minute the Mexicans illegally played a free kick about 10 yards forward from the infraction, catching U.S. defender Eddie Pope off guard. His man, Jose Manuel Abundis, played a dangerous cross that became an own goal off the leg of another defender, Robin Fraser. American midfielder Frankie Hejduk evened the score in the 51st minute, but soon thereafter Pope was shouldered out of position by Joel Sanchez on a Mexican corner kick. The ball skipped errantly off Pope's head and was cashed in by Abundis.
Neither of Mexico's goals was the product of meticulous play; each resulted from the kind of cutthroat, street-smart work that makes all the difference in international competition. U.S. Soccer officials, who have promised to win the World Cup by 2010, had better concentrate on winning their continent first. And they'd better understand that as the Americans continue to improve, the Mexicans, as a matter of national pride, will become even harder to beat.
In July, eight months before his 18th birthday, Landon Donovan of Redlands, Calif., will join the German Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen, which has signed him to a four-year deal worth more than $400,000. Other Americans have made similar amounts in Europe, but they had already proved themselves in elite competition. Donovan is the first to earn big money for his potential.
A 5'8" striker now attending the U.S. Soccer Federation residency program in Bradenton, Fla., Donovan could have gone to college next year or earned $24,000 as a member of MLS's Project-40 for developing players. "I wanted to stay here, but everyone I talked to -- everyone -- told me it would be better for me to go to Germany," he says. Playing with the Leverkusen reserves in January only increased his determination to sign up with the best. "I can see myself making the first team," he says. "I don't know how soon or if I'm going to star, but I can see myself competing with them."
U.S. coaches have higher hopes. In 31 internationals with the American under-17 team, Donovan has netted 29 goals. His recent scores in agility and endurance tests were not only the best for his age group but also better than anyone's on the under-20 and under-23 teams. Will playing in Germany help him to become the world-class scorer that American soccer desperately needs? Remember the name.
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