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How the U.S. frustrated Mexico

Posted: Tuesday June 18, 2002 1:42 PM

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  • By Ridge Mahoney, Soccer America

    JEONJU -- The look on Gerardo Torrado's face may not have told everything, but it certainly said a lot.

    For the third time, or maybe the fourth, he'd been stripped of the ball. His mouth was agape and his eyes were wide as the American opponents took off in the other direction.

    Perhaps it had been Landon Donovan or Claudio Reyna who'd been the perpetrator. They are among the most gifted U.S. attackers yet on this day every American worked both ends of the field relentlessly for that is what was demanded.

    On other occasions it was Pablo Mastroeni or John O'Brien or Tony Sanneh poaching the ball from Cuauhtemoc Blanco or Jesus Arellano. Or it was another big save from Brad Friedel or another fierce tackle by Eddie Pope.

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    To beat Mexico, 2-0, on Monday in the round of 16 a lot of players came up with their best games of the 2002 World Cup. In some cases they played their best game in a U.S. shirt.

    Coach Bruce Arena used a 3-5-2 formation instead of the normal 4-4-2 partially to mirror the system used by Mexico. But this was not a duel of diagrams.

    "He told us this game's going to about heart and who wants it the most," said Pope, who kept close tabs on Jared Borgetti for much of the match. "We knew that would be the issue.

    "It wouldn't necessarily be who's playing where, and who's sliding here and moving there, it was going to be about fighting. It's always like that against Mexico, every single time."

    There were 10 cautions handed out. Some were for minor offenses such as time-wasting but several harsh fouls were justly punished. Graceful defender Rafael Marquez tainted his reputation with a wild tackle that got him sent off in the final minutes.

    Deprived of a suspended Frankie Hejduk and an injured Jeff Agoos, Arena went with three in the back. Gregg Berhalter, who hadn't played a minute in the first round, took the left side with his former college teammate Pope in the middle and Sanneh on the right.

    "That's old North Carolina coming back," said Pope, laughing. "It was good to be playing together again."

    Reyna took over the right side of midfield with Mastroeni and O'Brien paired in the middle. Reyna so thoroughly dominated Ramon Morales that Mexico coach Javier Aguirre took off Morales after just 27 minutes.

    Morales and Arellano had been playing as wings supporting Borgetti with Blanco operating freely behind Borgetti. This scheme also opened up central space for Torrado to circulate the ball, but Donovan's quickness and tenacity disrupted the Mexican rhythm.

    Luis Hernandez replaced Morales and when he joined Borgetti up front, Blanco played more centrally and when he did float usually went right. Braulio Luna moved to the left.

    Borgetti's aerial prowess could have been decisive but the Americans more often than not had enough pressure on the ball to force subpar servicing balls from Blanco. Arellano seldom uncorked his coruscating dribbles on the right.

    Friedel's only real mistake was a weak punch that went right to Blanco near the penalty spot but his weak shot was deflected and the U.S. scrambled the ball clear.

    A few goalmouth melees went in the U.S. favor and Friedel handled the few good shots Mexico put on target. He flicked a free kick from Luna onto the crossbar with his fingertips while backpedaling and dived low to his right to repel a drive from Blanco.

    After surrendering four set-play goals in the first three games, the Americans hoped to turn the tables on Mexico. They caught their opponents napping on the first goal.

    McBride quickly took a free kick in midfield and Reyna raced away down the right and got to the byline. His centering ball was met at the near post by Josh Wolff, who touched it right into the path of McBride -- at the end of a 60-yard run -- to blast high into the net.

    Donovan wrapped up the historic win thanks to another flank foray. This time O'Brien played it down the left and Eddie Lewis ran on to hit a far-post bomb that Donovan nodded in. Trailing the play was Torrado.

    Ridge Mahoney is senior editor at Soccer America magazine.

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