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U.S., Mexico Take Rivalry to Grand Stage

World Cup: North American neighbors will play their biggest game to date for a spot in the quarterfinals.

June 16, 2002|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — Cobi Jones and Jorge Campos always got along well when they were teammates on the Galaxy, and their friendship continues to this day.

The U.S. national team midfielder and the Mexico national team goalkeeper recognized in each other the same spirit of mischief and fun. They played the game because it paid them very well but also because they enjoyed it. That enjoyment showed in their on-field performances and their off-field antics.

On Monday afternoon, Jones and Campos will meet again, but no matter what happens at Jeonju World Cup Stadium in Jeonju, South Korea, the two will remain friends.

If Mexico wins, Jones will be the first to congratulate Campos. If the U.S. wins, Campos will be right there congratulating Jones.

The most eagerly awaited match in years for U.S. and Mexican fans--perhaps the most eagerly awaited ever--pits the two giants of North American soccer squarely against each other, with a coveted place in the final eight of the World Cup going to the winner.

The game could have filled the Rose Bowl five times over. The U.S. and Mexico have played each other 46 times since their first encounter in 1934, but Monday's game marks the first time they have met on such a lofty stage and with so much at stake. Hence the widespread interest from Glendale to Guadalajara.

The U.S. has not reached the quarterfinals since 1930. Mexico has not done so since 1986.

It promises to be an intense match, with neither side holding any great advantage over the other. Mexico defeated Croatia and Ecuador and tied Italy to get to this point. The U.S. defeated Portugal, tied South Korea and lost to Poland.

The soccer rivalry between the countries is legend, even if mainstream America has been slow to pay attention. There is a special atmosphere around the game, an electricity that sparks players and fans alike.

Jones tried to explain it to a reporter from Europe, who was unfamiliar with the long soccer history between the countries.

"Imagine a match between Holland and Germany," he ventured. "How's that? Imagine how that would be. It's like Argentina-Brazil. It's going to be a battle.

"There are going to be a lot of antics going on on the field because it's always very lively when it's U.S.-Mexico. I don't think you can get any bigger match for our team or the Mexican team because there will be a lot of bragging rights ... for someone."

Much is made of the rivalry and sometimes things do get heated on the field, but U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel said Saturday that there is no real animosity between the teams, even if their fans would like to think there is.

"It's a friendly rivalry before the game and after the game," he said, "but on the field it's not too friendly. But it's not a hatred or anything of that nature. I think it's more like bragging rights.

"We're both in the same region, and I think they're under big pressure from their public and their media if they lose to us. We always enjoy getting good results against them."

It has only been in recent years that those results have arrived. Mexico leads the all-time series, 28-9-9, but the U.S. has won four of the last five games.

Mexico has looked the more settled team during group play. Coach Javier Aguirre's team is injury-free and fully fit. The U.S., on the other hand, will be without injured defenders Steve Cherundolo (knee) and Jeff Agoos (calf) and suspended defender Frankie Hejduk.

The absence of Hejduk leaves U.S. Coach Bruce Arena with the problem of filling the spot at left back. He could move John O'Brien there, since O'Brien has played the position with his club team, Ajax Amsterdam.

But that would limit O'Brien's ability to get forward, so it is possible that Arena could give David Regis his first start at this World Cup, with DaMarcus Beasley dropping back from midfield to help him out.

Filling in for Agoos in the center could be Carlos Llamosa, Gregg Berhalter or Pablo Mastroeni. Arena would not tip his hand.

Mexico will be well aware of the defensive patch-and-fill job the U.S. is contemplating, and forwards Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Jared Borgetti and Francisco Palencia, not to mention midfielders Jesus Arellano and Joahan Rodriguez, will be instructed to probe for weaknesses early and often.

The most influential player on Mexico's team so far has been midfielder Gerardo Torrado, even though it is the lanky Borgetti who has scored twice, both on headers.

"Most every game that I've ever been involved in has been won and lost in midfield," Friedel said. "Right now they [Mexico] look incredibly strong in that department.

"I've been impressed with Torrado. I really have. He has been box to box, he wins almost every second ball that gets knocked down, and just when you think he has gone too far forward, he breaks up the play at the back."

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