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High and Dry

Though its captain made a heartening return, the U.S. bowed yet again in the 7,200-foot altitude of Mexico City

Among the few bright spots for the U.S. team in Sunday's 2-1 loss to Mexico was the return of captain Claudio Reyna, who played the full 90 minutes in the World Cup qualifying match. The 31-year-old midfielder strained his left quadriceps last September and returned to action for his English club, Manchester City, only last month. "When you've been out for a while, you want to play in any game," Reyna said last Saturday. "I'm just really happy to be back."

That thrill was tempered in the first half on Sunday when successive breakdowns--with Mexican players roaming unmarked in front of the American net--put the Yanks down 2--0 in a country where they had no wins and one tie in 22 tries. (They hadn't scored in Mexico either, until midfielder Eddie Lewis's leftfooted blast in the 59th minute.) Reyna wasn't to blame for either defensive lapse and was a solid distributor, though like most of his teammates he appeared winded after the first 15 minutes in the 7,200-foot Mexico City altitude.

With Landon Donovan wearing the captain's armband, the U.S. had gone 3-0-1 in qualifying games against El Salvador, Panama, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago. None of those teams, however, posed as difficult a challenge as Mexico, which is ranked No. 6 in the world. (The U.S. is 10th.) "In the long run, Claudio is our captain," says national team coach Bruce Arena. "He's one of our best players, if not our best player. He brings confidence to our team. He's a leader. That's his role."

It wasn't that long ago that Arena's leader seemed ready to hang up his international kit. After a heroic performance at the World Cup three years ago, Reyna, who has been playing in Europe since 1994, expressed reservations about going through the grind of qualifying for his fourth World Cup. "The worst part of it is getting on a plane after a game and having to go right back and perform for your club team," he says. "It's very tiring."

Reyna says that what has motivated him to come back for one more run is the abundance of young talent on the American roster, as well as the team's rising fortunes. "The expectations for us are so different now," he says. "We had something to prove last time. Now we're the team everybody is trying to knock off. It's tougher, but in a good way. It's what we've always wanted."

If the frenzied fans at Estadio Azteca are any indication--there were scattered chants of Osama! Osama! on Sunday--he and his mates have gotten their wish. "Just because we lost in the Azteca doesn't change the fact that we are one of the favorites to go to the World Cup," Reyna says. "It's just a blip on our road to Germany."




Lewis (7, battling Salvador Carmona) broke the U.S.'s goalless drought, while Reyna (inset) was a solid distributor.



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