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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

Pressure continues to mount in Mexico

With one of its best players, Rafael Marquez, suspended, the team is heading into two crucial World Cup qualifying games that could determine the fate of Coach Sven-Goran Eriksson

March 28, 2009|GRAHAME L. JONES

Tonight in Spain, Rafael Marquez will settle himself into an armchair at his home in Barcelona and turn on the television.

"I've got to watch the game. I have no option," the suspended Mexico national team defender and captain told FIFA.com.

The game in question is Mexico's World Cup qualifying match against Costa Rica at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City -- one of 77 qualifying games being played worldwide in the next five days as South Africa 2010 draws ever closer.

As for the U.S. national soccer team, under Coach Bob Bradley the Americans have gone 23-8-3, and chances are there will be two more wins to add to that total after today's game against a disorganized El Salvador in San Salvador (6 p.m., ESPN2 and TeleFutura) and against a weak and woeful Trinidad and Tobago in Nashville on Wednesday.

That the U.S. will be there for the 2010 World Cup is without question. It really has no serious opposition in this region and might as well be handed its tickets right now.

Mexico, on the other hand, is in crisis.

The evidence is glaringly obvious. When Mexico was shut out, 2-0, by the U.S. in Columbus, Ohio, last month, it was its third defeat in the last four World Cup qualifiers. Worse still was the meek manner in which El Tri succumbed, and Mexico Coach Sven-Goran Eriksson and his players were lambasted by the media.

Marquez, who was tossed out of that match for a vicious foul on American goalkeeper Tim Howard, is suspended from Mexico's game today, as well as Wednesday's equally crucial qualifier at Honduras, and is upset by it all.

"It's unfair that people are trying to pin the blame on me for the bad results we've been having," Marquez said. "If you ask me, Mexican football has a deep-rooted problem. . . . Our football is stagnating, and with everything that's happened it's time to come right out and say it. If we carry on like this, we're all going to pay for it."

The signs of a potentially monumental meltdown are everywhere. Just Wednesday, forward Nery Castillo, one of Mexico's most talented players, lost it completely at a news conference.

Having failed to make the grade at Manchester City in the English Premier League and having been sent back to his Ukraine team, Shakhtar Donetsk, Castillo is understandably prickly these days.

Even so, the way he lashed out at journalists in Mexico City was astonishing.

"Do you know what your problem is?" Castillo said. "It's that I'm in Europe and you're in Mexico. And you're always going to be in Mexico."

That went over really well.

Traditionally, Mexico fares well at home. The steep-sided bullring-like arena that is Azteca has been especially kind to El Tri, but the fans are baying for blood these days and will be in a particularly foul mood if Mexico loses at home to Costa Rica, as it famously did in 2001.

It could be Eriksson who pays the price. Unless the Swedish-born coach can conjure up a victory for Mexico on Saturday (3 p.m., Telemundo) and avoid defeat against Honduras, he is likely to be folding a sombrero and a bundle of cash into a suitcase and heading for Stockholm.

So far, he has done nothing to improve either the Mexico team or its slumping morale.

Tactically, Eriksson is a one-dimensional coach. What success he has enjoyed elsewhere has been tied to the players at his disposal, not to any great coaching genius.

Of course, the same could be said of Bradley, but he has been able to get the best out of such American players as Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Sacha Kljestan, Carlos Bocanegra and Brad Guzan, today's likely starting goalkeeper in place of the suspended Howard.

As for the other regional soccer teams, El Salvador, for all the advantages that its fans give it at Estadio Cuscatlan, has not produced a world-class player since Mauricio Cienfuegos retired six years ago.

Trinidad and Tobago, meanwhile, is hamstrung by a hapless soccer federation that is no more than a puppet for one of international soccer's more odious figures, FIFA vice president and Trinidad native Jack Warner. The Soca Warriors are heading nowhere fast.

So, not until June, when the U.S. has consecutive World Cup qualifying games against Costa Rica and Honduras, followed by FIFA Confederations Cup matches in South Africa against world champion Italy, former world champion Brazil and African champion Egypt, are the Americans likely to be tested.

It seems like a long time to wait, but at least there is the Mexico drama to keep fans entertained.

--

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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