It's not every day that you see a Mexican man wearing a rojo, verde y blanco headdress beating a giant bass drum in a chanting sea of South Korean soccer fans, but the Gold Cup has a way of evoking a spirit of international cooperation. So there was a fan of the Mexican national team, keeping time for South Korea's Red Devils during their first-round match against the U.S. at the Rose Bowl.
The real purpose of the Gold Cup, though, is not global harmony but the crowning of the champion of North America, Central America and the Caribbean, which made the presence of the Koreans—who were invited to fill out the field before they were drawn into the same World Cup group as the U.S.—puzzling to some. "It is not a true continental competition, because there are outside teams," says U.S. coach Bruce Arena. "It is still our confederation championship, though, any way you look at it."
Confederation championship, however, sounds like something from an old episode of Star Trek, and a few of the participating coaches have accorded the 12-team tournament, which runs through Feb. 2, about as much respect. Mexico brought its B team, and Arena went with a roster composed primarily of MLS players. (The only European-based players recalled were goalkeeper Kasey Keller, midfielder Eddie Lewis and defender Frankie Hejduk, none of whom are playing much with their clubs.) "Part of the exercise in the Gold Cup is to move our team along and prepare for the World Cup," says Arena. "We're looking at a bunch of MLS players and evaluating them, and that's what I'm learning: how some of these players perform at the international level."
Those MLS players are competing for a half dozen or so spots on Arena's 23-man World Cup roster. In last Saturday's 2-1 win over South Korea, Arena, who was without four of his top five defenders due to injury or overseas club commitment, gave three youngsters a chance to prove their mettle in the team's least-settled area. Hejduk, who started at right back—probably the most wide-open spot on the roster—and Carlos Bocanegra, who played left back in his second national team appearance, had shaky moments but were otherwise solid. Central defender Dan Califf had a tougher time. He was given his first cap, and as international debuts go it ranked up there with Euro Disney. In the first 17 minutes Califf conceded a penalty kick (by pulling down a Korean player in the box), which Keller stopped, and picked up a yellow card on another rash challenge.
While none of the bubble players went so far as to solidify a place on the team, two accounted for big plays. Midfielder Manny Lagos cleared a South Korean shot off the line in the midst of a mad scramble in the 54th minute to keep the score 1-1, and 19-year-old midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, who came on as a late sub, scored in stoppage time to break that tie and give the U.S. its first win in five games against South Korea.
The significance of that victory is debatable. The undermanned Americans beat a Korean side that will closely resemble its World Cup team. (The U.S. will face South Korea in the second of its three Group D games next June, and both countries consider the match a must-win to advance to the round of 16.) On the other hand, Korea outplayed the U.S. for long stretches, even after defender Choi JinCheul was sent off with more than a half hour left for taking down midfielder Landon Donovan (left) on a breakaway. "The United States had a lot of problems with the way we played," said South Korea's Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink. "But we didn't finalize our superiority on the pitch."
The Koreans were fast and aggressive. Speedy forward Choi Yong-Soo gave Califf & Co. fits, and Choi's mates showed a knack for handing out knocks. "We got pushed off a lot of balls," said Arena. But it wasn't because his guys didn't push back. Referee Richard Samuel entered more names in his little black book than Sam Malone on an especially good night. Five players got yellow cards in the first 37 minutes.
Arena conceded that a tie might have been a more fitting outcome, but the win, which comes six weeks after the U.S. lost 1-0 to the South Koreans on their home soil, makes the rubber match all the more intriguing. "Obviously the third one is the most important," says Arena. "I believe we can beat Korea in the World Cup, and Korea thinks it can do the same to us."