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U.S. squad could end gap for good

Mexico utterly owned the CONCACAF region but has lost the edge in the past decade. A neutral site could be key for the Americans.

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2002

Mexico utterly owned the CONCACAF region but has lost the edge in the past decade. A neutral site could be key for the Americans.

SEOUL, South Korea -- Claudio Reyna expects one big difference early Monday 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 Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, used to treat the U.S. team the way matadors handle bulls, but not anymore.

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 after U.S. wins at the 1991 CONCACAF Gold Cup and the 1995 Copa America -- the South American championship in which both were invited guests.

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

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 has 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 said. "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 media 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.

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

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

The Mexicans, a team in turmoil during 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 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."

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