SAN DIEGO — The American goalkeeper looked as though he had gone 15 rounds instead of 17 minutes, taking 40 stitches to the mouth after enduring a Junior Seau-like blindside that knocked him out of the game.
An American defender was the most valuable offensive player on the field, manufacturing a one-man balanced scoring attack--one goal per team.
The visiting team had 90% of the crowd support, the home team had its national anthem drowned out by a swarm of bleating air horns and once the match began, the Americans played a one-touch, short-pass possession game while the team from south of the border played long ball.
Beyond that, it was just another soccer match between Mexico and the United States.
Actually, one aspect of Saturday's U.S. Cup encounter at Qualcomm Stadium went according to form.
The final score: Mexico 2, USA 1.
In front of 50,324 predominantly pro-Mexico fans, Mexico ran its unbeaten streak against the United States to seven games (3-0-4), won its third consecutive U.S. Cup and ran its all-time series record against the United States to 26-5-9.
And then, a few dozen pro-Mexico fans celebrated the event with an old-fashioned pitch invasion. Several of them, toting red, green and white Mexico flags, ran free through the midfield before the security force--tending to its work with more diligence than the U.S. backline--could get the situation under control in time for the afternoon's second match to begin.
Guatemala won that one, 2-1 over Bolivia, on first-half goals by Jorge Arturo Perez and Edgar Everaldo Valencia to clinch third place in the tournament.
The championship decider was a physical, passionately contested match the United States could have won and, it could be argued, deserved to win, if not for two brief but disastrous defensive lapses.
Mexico's first goal was a "freak," in the words of U.S. Coach Bruce Arena--an own goal off the backside of American defender Robin Fraser after Mexico forward Francisco Palencia cold-cocked U.S. goalkeeper Tony Meola, leaving Meola on his face, dazed and bleeding, while the ball hopped into the net.
Fraser helped to tie the score in the second half with an ambitious foray down the right flank, dribbling through two defenders to reach the corner flag before crossing low and hard into the box, where the ball caromed off a Mexican shinguard straight to U.S. midfielder Frankie Hejduk. Hejduk's first-timed shot found the right corner of the net and in the 51st minute, the score was even at 1-1.
"I was so happy when we scored," Fraser said with a laugh. "I gave one up and I got one back."
The deadlock, however, lasted but six minutes. In the 57th minute, Joel Sanchez, the diminutive Mexican defender who headed in both goals in Thursday's 2-1 victory over Bolivia, freed himself among the redwoods on the U.S. backline to head a corner kick from six yards at U.S. reserve keeper Zach Thornton.
Thornton did well to parry the ball away, but Jose Manuel Abundis, left unmarked by Fraser, was alone to bang in the rebound.
Abundis was a 90-minute nightmare for the United States. He set up the game's first goal in the 17th minute by beating U.S. defender Eddie Pope to a free kick played down the left side, then delivered the hard cross through the box that sent Palencia barreling into Meola and the ball ricocheting off Fraser into the net.
"It was an accident, that whole play," Arena said. "First, the referee allows a quick restart and moves the ball up five yards from where it was supposed to be. That caught Eddie off guard. Then Palencia fouled Meola, but nothing was called."
Palencia hit Meola with such force, Meola bit through both his upper and lower lips and chipped a tooth. Play was stopped briefly while trainers examined Meola. "I asked the doctor four or five times if I could stay in," Meola said, "but he said the cut was too deep."
The cut required 40 stitches to close after Meola came out of the match and was replaced by Thornton, the Chicago Fire goalie who had appeared in only four games for the U.S. national team.
So, with an inexperienced keeper and a midfield depleted by Joe-Max Moore's red-card suspension, the United States scraped back to tie and actually controlled most of the possession for the remainder of the game.
"I'd say so," U.S. forward Brian McBride said. "Considering the way [Mexico] just kept thumping the ball forward. Very unusual for them."
The United States tried to play with flair, Mexico played with just-get-the-result pragmatism--and when is the last time that has happened with both of these teams on the same field?
"The U.S. was very improved tactically today," Mexico forward Ricardo Perez acknowledged. "They are a much stronger team."
Stronger, yes, but still on the losing end of the scoreboard against Mexico.
"This program is moving in the right direction," Fraser said. "Pretty soon, we're going to play these games and we won't be discussing, 'Well, we played pretty well.' We're going to be discussing how we won the game."
The U.S. women have won all kinds of events all over the world, but so far they have yet to win the Algarve Cup in Portugal. Grahame L. Jones' column, Page 13