U.S. faces its most familiar opponent in second round

Sunday, June 16, 2002

SEOUL, South Korea -- Claudio Reyna expects one big difference Monday morning when the United States plays Mexico for a spot in the World Cup quarterfinals.

"It's the first time we're not going to be playing in a pro-Mexican crowd -- be it in the United States or Mexico," the U.S. captain said Saturday.

Mexico, cheered on by both Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, used to treat the U.S. team the same way matadors handle bulls, but not anymore.

The Americans have played the Mexicans, traditionally the strongest team in the North and Central American and Caribbean, more than any other opponent, going 10-28-8 -- but they've never met in the World Cup. The United States was 0-21-3 against the Mexicans from 1937-80, but since 1991 the Americans have gone 8-6-5, including 8-3-4 in games outside Mexico City.

Respect came grudgingly following U.S. wins at the 1991 CONCACAF Gold Cup and the 1995 Copa America -- the South American championship that both were invited to as guests.

"A long time ago, they used to be pretty arrogant," U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel said. "Recently, they have had more respect."

He remembers the first time he played in Mexico City, during an Olympic qualifier in 1992. Despite the hostile crowd, the Americans won 2-1.

"They were burning U.S. flags all over the place," Friedel said. "After we beat them, they applauded us. The Mexican team had to stand in the middle of the field, and they pelted them."

"Futbol" is a passion in Mexico, a source of pride as fans salute each completed pass with chants of "O-le! O-le!" The United States may have more economic power, but the Mexicans had more soccer power, reaching the World Cup quarterfinals in 1970 and 1986 -- both times as the host.

"It is about a 110,000 or 115,000 seats, and it is about 110,000 or 115,000 fans supporting Mexico," U.S. coach Bruce Arena. "You usually play on a warm day, really in an environment that is polluted. You are at altitude, so you are playing in the mid-80s at 7,200 feet and the air is polluted and 110,000 people are not supporting your team. It is not easy."

Because of the large Mexican-American population in California, Arizona and Texas, the Mexicans often have the backing of the crowd wherever they play the U.S. team.

"Regardless of whether we play in Azteca or the United States, it seems like we're playing away," Arena said.

Last year, the United States scheduled its home World Cup qualifier against the Mexicans as a February night game in Columbus, Ohio.

The Mexican press called it "La Guerra Fria" ("The Cold War"). It was 29 degrees, and Josh Wolff and Clint Mathis had breakthrough games in a 2-0 U.S. win.

"All I remember is that it was cold," Wolff said.

In the second round for the first time since they were the host in 1994, the Americans will have to change their defense against the Mexicans.

Central defender Jeff Agoos, who played a role in four of the six goals the Americans have allowed, is out for the remainder of the World Cup after straining his right calf in Friday's 3-1 loss to Poland. Left back Frankie Hejduk is suspended after getting two yellow cards during the first round.

Carlos Llamosa, Pablo Mastroeni and Gregg Berhalter are the candidates to replace Agoos, and David Regis is the leading contender to replace Hejduk.

"I will sleep fine," Arena said. "Well find two guys that can volunteer to play in a round of 16 game in a World Cup."

Arena was quite the jokester Saturday. It was easy to chuckle because Friday's loss didn't knock out the United States due to South Korea's 1-0 upset of Portugal.

"I spent the morning shopping for the Korean team and coaching staff," Arena said.

While the United States backed in, Mexico nearly went 3-0 in the first round, beating Croatia 1-0 and Ecuador 2-1 before giving up a late goal in a 1-1 tie with Italy. The Mexicans, a team in turmoil during World Cup qualifying, are playing with confidence, led by forwards Jared Borgetti (two goals) and Cuauhtemoc Blanco (one goal) and midfielder Gerardo Torrado (one goal).

"We've worked hard on the mental aspect of the game," said coach Javier Aguirre, hired last June 21, when the Mexicans were 1-3-1 in the final round of qualifying. "This was always a team with a lot of technical skill, but it lacked confidence."

Mexico finished qualifying with a 4-0-1 run, and is playing its best soccer in a while.

"We've had a little bit of a wakeup call," Friedel said, "and maybe they'll be feeling very good about themselves. This can be a good thing for us."

Notes: The referee for Monday is Vitor Melo Pereira of Portugal, a team the United States helped eliminate in the first round. ... U.S. players have earned bonuses of $122,826 each for advancing to the second round, plus $2,500 for each appearance. The base of the bonus would increase to $188,043 if the Americans advance to the quarterfinals, which would be their best showing since 1930. ... While the Americans have been called for five penalty kicks in 13 games since returning to the World Cup in 1990, they haven't been awarded any. Opponents have failed to convert on four straight. "We're on a roll right now with penalty kicks," Arena said. "We'd rather give teams a penalty kick than a corner kick at this point." The United States has allowed two goals off corner kicks.

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