Friday, May 07, 2010

Greatest World Cup matches: Mexico-USA (2002)

North and Central America had until the end of the 20th century been the most backward footballing region in the world, barring Oceania and Antarctica. The game had been totally dominated by Mexico, who was the only one to qualify again and again from the region (except in 1982 when Honduras and El Salvador qualified), but generally did rather poorly, except for when they hosted it in 1970 and 1986. The USA on the other hand had been totally absent from the world football stage from 1950 to 1990, but then started improving since the successful 1994 World Cup. In 1998 they had nevertheless been the worse team of the tournament, but had in 2002 under coach Bruce Arena built up a strong, disciplined and experienced side. Among these players were the Blackburn goalkeeper Brad Friedel, Ajax Amsterdam’s talented John O’Brien, the Columbus Crew striker Brian McBride and the hugely talented 20-year old Landon Donovan, playing for San José Earthquakes on a loan from Bayer Leverkusen. The team was captained by the veteran Claudio Reyna, with a long career in Europe and at the time in Sunderland.
As the US entered the tournament, everyone knew that they should not be underestimated, except perhaps Portugal, who played as if the match was decided beforehand when opening against the USA: the north Americans were ahead 3-0 after 40 minutes, and won the match 3-2. A tie against the South Corean hosts was enough to give the US the second spot in the group, in spite of losing their last match against Poland.
Mexico had qualified to the second round of every tournament since 1994, and had a solid team, with powerful strikers such as Jared Borghetti from Santos (who is the all-time leading goalscorer of the Mexican national team), the blond veteran Luis Hernández from América, and Real Valladolid’s Cuahtemoc Blanco. In midfield they had Sevilla’s Gerardo Torrado and in defense they had the strong Monaco defender Rafael Márquez, who was also the captain of the team.
Mexico had impressed in the first round: they had opened by defeating the always’strong Croatians 1-0 and Ecuador 2-1. In their last match against Italy, 1-1 had been enough for them to win the group ahead of the Italians.
The two neighbours with the love-hate relations, and strongest nations in the CONCACAF region were now to face one another for the first time ever in a World Cup. Mexico were obviously favourites after their splendid start to the tournament, but the US players were sure to put up a strong fight.
Mexico started well, putting pressure on the US, and getting both a shot and a corner kick within the first five minutes. It seemed Mexico’s match, but after eight minutes the US attacked for the first time: Claudio Reyna made a splendid rush down the right side, outrunning two Mexican defenders. From the backline he passed the ball into the Chicago Fire striker Josh Wolff on the near post. Heavily pressed by a defender, Wolff passed the ball backward to a completely unmarked Brian McBride, who right in front of the goal placed the ball perfectly.
1-0 to the USA was very surprising, and gave the US team comfort in pulling back, letting the Mexicans come forward, and threaten on their quick counterattacks with Reyna and Donovan. The Mexicans were unable to create great chances, except for a powerful header by Jared Borgetti after a Brad Friedel mistake, but the excellent goalkeeper saved the situation himself with an excellent block.
The second half started similarly to how the first half had ended, with Mexico trying to put pressure, but without getting clear chances, and with the Mexican strikers seeming strangely timid in front of goal.
Halfway into the second half the US scored a second goal on another of their rare but deadly counter-attacks: Fulham’s winger, Eddie Lewis got away on the left side and crossed the ball into the Mexican area, where Landon Donovan perfectly headed the ball into goal.
Against all odds the efficient team USA was up 2-0 against their Mexican neighbours, who were getting more and more disillusioned as the match progressed, and it became more and more obvious that they would be unable to open up the efficient US defense. In the last minutes the frustration grew into violence, as the Mexican captain Rafael Márquez was sent off with a direct red card for an outrageous attack on the US striker Cobi Jones.
In the end, Mexico’s disappointed players didn’t even fall with grace in this unexpected defeat to the US, who had shown they were worthy winners. In the quarterfinal they narrowly lost 1-0 to Germany, but with this victory against Mexico they had proven that they were one of the top eight footballing nations in the world, and that they should never be underestimated.

Match Stats:
  • 17th June, 2002, Jeonju World Cup Stadium, Jeonju
  • Attendance: 36,380
  • Referee: Vitor Melo Pereira (Portugal)
Mexico-USA 0-2
Goals: 0-1 McBride (8), 0-2 Donovan (65)

Mexico: Pérez; Márquez (RC, 88), Torrado (Garcia Aspe), Vidrio (Mercado), Morales (L. Hernández), Borgetti, Blanco, Luna, Carmona, J. Rodriguez, Arellano
USA: Friedel; Berhalter, Mastroeni (Llamosa), O’Brien, Lewis, Pope, Reyna, Sanneh, Wolff (Stewart), McBride (Jones), Donovan

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