The security of playing in obscure towns and the haven of weak opponents are over for the U.S. national soccer team. Saturday, the team was laid bare before a sellout crowd at the Rose Bowl and against a team of high quality.
What unfolded on a hazy, warm afternoon was the reckoning, with all its faults and flaws. And the U.S. players found patience where before there had been frustration; they found a way to hold the ball, and they learned that they could win.
With all of that, they beat Mexico, long the superior team in the region. The record between the teams was hardly evened--the United States is 4-30-8 since 1934--but the 1-0 victory surely provided a psychological boost for the U.S. players, coming only two weeks before the start of the World Cup.
It was a sign of the team's maturation that the players and coaches placed the game in a context that did not diminish the accomplishment, but tempered its meaning.
"This is an important win, but it is no victory," U.S. Coach Bora Milutinovic said. "In the World Cup, I hope to have a victory."
The outcome was, as usual, decided in front of a crowd that clearly favored not the "home" team, but the visitors. As the U.S. team has barnstormed the world in the past three years, playing 86 games, seldom has it been welcomed with cheers. Saturday was no different: The Americans' arrival on the field was booed.
The crowd was overwhelmingly pro-Mexico, which probably accounted for its size. The attendance of 91,123 was the largest ever to watch the U.S. national team in the United States and the fourth-largest crowd to watch soccer in this country.
For fans who had never seen the sport, the game offered soccer's flip sides. The first half was tentative and tight, the second half lively and creative. The lone goal was lovely and intelligent and the result of teamwork between Eric Wynalda, who set it up, and Roy Wegerle, who finished.
But even in their elation at winning, the players focused on the higher prize.
"This means absolutely nothing, it means nothing in the sense of the World Cup," Wynalda said.
As Milutinovic is so fond of noting, it is not if you win, but how you play. In that sense, there was some measure of pleasure for the U.S. coaching staff. What emerged from the game was a better-organized U.S. attack and so much defensive help from the forwards that the stampede to defend the U.S. goal was remarkable.
Goalkeeper Tony Meola said it was the best that the much-maligned U.S. defense has played in six months. The difference against Mexico was not the defense, but that there were so many defenders.
"Most of the time we were playing with nine men back," assistant coach Steve Sampson said. "At times, we had 10 back, and at the end there were 11."
He was only half joking. The U.S. forwards had been cajoled to come back and help, and their presence was welcome in shutting down Mexico's dangerous forwards. Ramon Ramirez, who had been the focus of much pregame discussion by the coaches, was effectively silenced.
Mexican Coach Miguel Mejia Baron was somber after the game, smarting from the persistent questions about his team's apparent collapse in the last few months.
"Yes, I'm very worried, not only about the forwards but about the whole team," he said. "We were bad in a lot of areas, not just one. It hurt not playing the way we want. It is not pleasant to lose. This is just a warning sign. I'm not worried. This is just preparation for the World Cup."
The theme of all-that-matters-is-the-World Cup resonated. Wynalda, Wegerle and Tab Ramos, all of whom have been playing professionally in Europe, said they seem to be developing a rapport that will mature by the team's first World Cup game on June 18 against Switzerland at Pontiac, Mich.
"This was great, but I wish it was the first game of the World Cup," Ramos said.
Wegerle's goal originated with Thomas Dooley, whose long pass up the flank found Wynalda on the run. Wynalda gathered the ball and dashed for the edge of the penalty box, eluded one defender and cut in and dribbled around another.
All the while, Wegerle was steaming into the box in support. Wynalda slid the ball to Wegerle, whose goal sliced the corner of the net.
"I tried to make eye contact when he got around the first guy," Wegerle said. "He didn't see me. When he went around the second one, he looked up and saw me in open space. It was just a case of using your brain and being smart."
It was also a case of transferring two years of experience in the German Bundesliga. Wynalda's ability to hold the ball in the face of threats and his poise in waiting for his teammate to break free is generally uncharacteristic of American players.
Wegerle, too, has brought his gifts home with him, even while still on the mend from knee surgery last month. A crafty run that culminated with his one-on-one against goalkeeper Jorge Campos--which Campos stopped only by diving--gave testimony to his near-recovery.
The Wegerle/Wynalda front worked well in the second half, while the combination of Frank Klopas/Hugo Perez/Claudio Reyna suffered from dual attacks by the hard-pressing Mexicans and their own jumpy nerves.
Winning is fine, but the Americans' real gain from Saturday's game was in confidence, morale and, most crucially, self-respect. It's not the World Cup, but they'll take it.