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2002 WORLD CUP UNITED STATES 2, MEXICO 0

Headed Toward History

Stunning victory produces first quarterfinal berth for the U.S. men in 70 years

June 18, 2002|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JEONJU, South Korea — Suddenly, the Germans are nervous. Suddenly, the Americans are a threat. Suddenly, the world is paying attention.

It's amazing what a little thing like a victory over Mexico can do. If it comes at the right time, in the right tournament, it can propel a team into realms previously undreamed.

Monday was that time. The World Cup is that tournament.

The United States, which came to South Korea with the modest goal of reaching the second round of soccer's quadrennial world championship, suddenly finds itself in the quarterfinals, with a date to play three-time world champion Germany on Friday for a place in the semifinals.

These are uncharted waters that the U.S. team has sailed into, thanks to its 2-0 victory over Mexico Monday afternoon before 33,680 in a space-age stadium set among the rice paddies of rural Jeonju.

No one expected this, least of all the Mexicans.

But goals on either side of halftime by Brian McBride and Landon Donovan, combined with superb goalkeeping by Brad Friedel, excellent defensive play by the entire team, tactically astute moves by Coach Bruce Arena and a referee's controversial non-call, have made the U.S.--dare it be said?--a World Cup contender.

Rudi Voeller, Germany's coach and a World Cup winner himself in 1990, thinks so.

"The Mexicans played better, but ... the Americans were dangerous on the counterattack, and they kept going until the end," Voeller said. "We're going to have to take our chances. No one expected them to get this far, and they're really on a roll. Their confidence is going to be high."

Yes it is, and for three good reasons.

* Monday's history-making victory marked the first time since the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay in 1930 that the U.S. has progressed this far in the sport's premier event. Back then, in a small tournament with an uncertain future, the U.S. played only three games, winning the first two before losing to Argentina in the semifinals.

* Monday also marked the first time in more than a half-century that the U.S. has shut out a World Cup opponent. The previous victim was England, which fell, 1-0, at Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in 1950.

* Even if it loses to Germany, the U.S. team will leave this World Cup with a .500 or better record, the first time that has happened since 1930 and a far cry from the dismal 0-3 record of 1998. The stigma of France '98 has been erased.

"Our guys left everything on the field today," Arena said. "It's a great day for U.S. soccer."

There have been momentous victories before for U.S. teams. World powers Argentina, Brazil, England and Germany have all been defeated at one time or another, but Monday's triumph puts them all in the shade.

This was the World Cup. This was for a place in the final eight. This was against Mexico.

It was a victory on several levels. Its importance on the national stage was underscored by the phone call President Bush made to Mexican President Vicente Fox, as each nation's leader wished the other well.

Bush also called the U.S. team before the game. "I just hung up the phone a little earlier with the president of Mexico," Bush told Arena. "He was very gracious. I didn't declare victory yet, but I feel pretty confident."

Such confidence, even from someone who admitted little knowledge of soccer, was justified just eight minutes into the game when the U.S. took a lead it didn't relinquish.

It also was a victory on the coaching level. By altering his starting lineup and formation again, Arena and his assistants came up with a game plan that confounded Mexico Coach Javier Aguirre.

Arena adopted a 3-5-2 formation, with Tony Sanneh, Eddie Pope and Gregg Berhalter forming the back line in front of Friedel. He had a five-man midfield that featured Claudio Reyna, Pablo Mastroeni, John O'Brien, Donovan and Eddie Lewis. His two strikers were McBride and Josh Wolff.

The lineup and formation caught Mexico off guard. Berhalter had not played in the tournament until Monday. Lewis had played only 16 minutes and Wolff nine.

"I thought we needed some fresh legs in here today," Arena said.

The game was incident-packed from start to finish. There were goals of high quality, the non-call, and some ugly scenes near the end when Mexico realized that its cause was lost.

Arena's plan coming into the game was to pack the midfield, absorb whatever Mexico could provide in the way of offense, and then counterattack the Mexicans. McBride's goal was created on just such a counter in the eighth minute.

Reyna, looking more comfortable than ever in an unaccustomed right midfield position, overlapped down the right wing, beating Ramon Morales in the process, before crossing the ball to Wolff at the near post.

Wolff cut the ball sharply back out to McBride, who found himself momentarily unmarked by Mexican defenders.

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