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WORLD CUP SOCCER

U.S. national soccer team arrives at stadium for World Cup qualifier against Mexico

Crowds greet the team bus on its way to the Mexico City venue. About half the expected 105,000 fans are seated for the 3 p.m. game. A U.S. lineup similar to matches against Spain, Brazil is expected.

August 13, 2009|GRAHAME L. JONES

MEXICO CITY — The celebrations were in full swing all over the city Wednesday night, with chants of "Mexico, Mexico, Mexico" echoing among the skyscrapers, flag-waving crowds out in force on the streets and bumper-to-bumper traffic creating a horn-honking cacophony of sound and color.

This is what happens when Mexico wins a soccer game.

This is especially what happens when Mexico defeats the United States, as it did Wednesday afternoon, 2-1, at Azteca Stadium in a crucial World Cup qualifier for the Mexican team.

Landon Donovan, who created the American goal -- only the team's second in a quarter-century in Mexico -- explained it best.

"It wasn't a do-or-die game for us," Donovan said. "It was for them."

A sellout crowd of 105,000 had packed Azteca on a warm but not unpleasant afternoon, and by nightfall those same fans, joined by many others, were out partying.

As usual, their favored spot was along Paseo de la Reforma, the city's main boulevard, and especially around "El Angel de la Independencia," as they like to call the tall column topped by a golden statue of a Winged Victory.

The mood was festive, and for good reason.

By winning, Mexico stayed on course to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It closed the gap on two of the teams ahead of it, first-place Costa Rica and the second-place U.S., and stayed right behind third-place Honduras, which beat Costa Rica, 4-0, on two goals by Carlos Costly and one each by Carlos Pavon and Melvin Valladares.

Trinidad and Tobago, the other team in the six-nation qualifying group, defeated El Salvador, 1-0, on a Cornell Glen goal to remain alive and at the same time dent Salvadoran hopes.

Mexico's victory was not particularly pretty, but its two goals were well taken and "El Tri," led by veteran Cuauhtemoc Blanco and inspired by Giovani dos Santos, did play a more adventurous, more attacking brand of soccer than the U.S.

Even so, it was the Americans who took an early lead.

Donovan had the ball at midfield and spotted Charlie Davies wide on the left. Donovan delivered a slide-rule pass directly into Davies' stride and the forward did the rest.

Cutting in toward the Mexican penalty area, he unleashed a curling shot that found the upper right corner of the net beyond the reach of surprised goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.

It was a historic goal, only the second that has been scored by the U.S. against Mexico in Mexico in the last 25 years. It also gave the Americans the lead for the first time ever at 43-year-old Azteca Stadium.

Trouble was, the lead didn't last long.

The U.S. goal came in the ninth minute, but by the 19th minute Mexico had tied it up.

It was the Chicago Fire's Blanco, at 36 the oldest player on the field, who caused the damage. He spotted Israel Castro unmarked at midfield and passed the ball to him.

Castro looked up, liked what he saw and let it fly. His shot from long distance hit the underside of the U.S. crossbar and rebounded down and into the net.

Just like that, Mexico was on even terms.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard stood little chance of saving it, but blame for the goal could be shared by defensive midfielders Ricardo Clark and Michael Bradley, who were playing too deep and were not in position to close Castro down before he took the shot.

The goal seemed to drain some of the energy from the Americans, and from then on Mexico had charge of the game, bar a few forays by the U.S., one of which almost earned Davies a second goal.

Stuart Holden, a second-half substitute, floated a perfect cross into the Mexican penalty area and Davies threw himself head first at the ball but arrived a fraction of a second late and missed it.

The score remained tied until the 84th minute and it appeared that the U.S. might escape with a tie, which would have cost Mexico two vital points. But there still was some sting left in Coach Javier Aguirre's team.

After Donovan and defender Jay DeMerit got in a tangle trying to clear the ball from the American goal area, DeMerit swung a leg at it and succeeded in sending it only as far as lurking forward Miguel Sabah, who had entered the game only minutes before.

Sabah's rising shot was every bit as venomous as Castro's and the ball flew up and over Howard as he threw up his hands to block it.

That made it 2-1, set off wild scenes in the stadium, which already had witnessed some unfriendly pushing and shoving between the players that should have been better dealt with by Panamanian referee Roberto Moreno.

There were distasteful scenes, too, especially the incidents in which Donovan was pelted by cups of beer whenever he stepped up to take corner kicks.

"It is what it is," said Donovan, who predicted the U.S. would qualify for South Africa despite Wednesday's setback.

"It puts us in a little bit more difficult position," he said, "but our next games are at home against El Salvador, which we expect to win, and away against Trinidad, which we expect to win.

"If we win those two games [on Sept. 5 and 9, respectively], we're going to qualify."

Bob Bradley, the U.S. coach, seemed not overly upset by the loss.

"I think it was a tight game and a fair score," he said. "It's a tough loss -- to have so many guys work so hard and then we give up a late goal."

For Mexico, 23-0-1 against the U.S. at home, that goal meant everything, which is why fans were still celebrating late into a weekday night.

--

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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