In the U.S. Cup, Mexico again set a standard America can only
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
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.
U.S.'s Landon Donovan
BUNDESLIGA BONUS BABY
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
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.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER When Hejduk (2) wasn't netting the lone U.S. goal, he had to tussle with Rafael Garcia.