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Mexico tops North Korea, 2-1

Veteran Cuauhtemoc Blanco and young star Javier Hernandez score in the second half at Torreon, Mexico.

March 17, 2010|By Kevin Baxter

Reporting from Torreon, Mexico — Mario Enriquez, his 9-year-old son Brian and a bulldog wearing a Mexican soccer jersey were all part of a sellout crowd of more than 30,000 that crammed Territorio Santos Modelo on Wednesday for a festival, a wrestling exhibition, competing mariachi concerts, a dressage demonstration and a celebration of Mexico's bicentennial.

Oh, and not coincidentally, they followed that up with a soccer game in the adjoining stadium, one that saw Mexico score twice in the second half to beat North Korea, 2-1.

"It's great to see this many people come out and support the national team," Enriquez said. "It's a big fiesta. But the main thing was the game."

And the main thing about the game was the fact it produced Mexico's third consecutive win on an ambitious schedule of 12 warmups for this summer's World Cup in South Africa. Also of note, however, was an active effort from 37-year-old playmaker Cuauhtemoc Blanco, the subject of criticism for his labored play in Mexico's first two games; a solid debut in goal by Memo Ochoa, the all-but-certain starter in the World Cup who was making his first appearance of the year with the national team; and another goal by 21-year-old Javier Hernandez, whose game-winner midway through the second half gave him four scores in three games.

Wednesday's visit to Torreon marked Mexico's first game at home this year, and scalpers did a brisk business, with some tickets reportedly going for as much as $300. The game was also the first by a Mexican national team in Torreon since 1986, when a 27-year-old midfielder named Javier Aguirre scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over a team from Chile.

Aguirre is now coach of El Tri, but the squad he brought back was a national team in name only, featuring only one European-based player in midfielder Jonathan Dos Santos, who was surrounded by a number of others given little chance of making the trip to South Africa.

Realistically, few spots on Mexico's 23-man roster are still up for grabs — and those are mainly in the midfield. But Aguirre continues to insist he hasn't made up his mind on anything yet, which is why he has given national team jerseys to more than 75 players in his 14 months on the job, including 35 in Mexico's first three games this year.

"They understand," Aguirre said. "They understand those that are here now aren't necessarily going to South Africa. They have to fight, they have to battle."

Mexico had to battle harder than it should have against the game and speedy Koreans, who qualified for the World Cup this summer for the first time since 1966 despite standing 102nd in FIFA's most recent world rankings.

Although Mexico was aggressive throughout, its offense mainly produced frustration in the first half with Blanco narrowly missing two goals, one on a free kick that hit the goal post and another on a fine save by Korean keeper Myong-Guk Ri.

Blanco broke through on a well-placed free kick six minutes into the second half that was set up by a foul on Hernandez. But Kum-Chol Choe tied the score less than six minutes later on a long left-footed kick that took an odd hop and skipped by a surprised Ochoa, who never got a hand on it.

The goal was the first Mexico has allowed this year but Hernandez broke the tie a dozen minutes later, taking a deft pass from Jonny Maganon as he entered the six-yard box to Ri's right, then directing the ball past the keeper.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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