No Time to Take Mexico for Granted


Is Mexico in trouble?

Is the perennial favorite in soccer’s North and Central American and Caribbean (CONCACAF) region staring defeat in the face against the U.S. on Wednesday in Columbus, Ohio?

Signs tend to say yes. Coach Enrique Meza’s team has lost four of its last five games, tying the other one. The mood in camp is somber. Players have stopped talking to the press.

Most recently, the Mexican federation attempted to light a flame under the players by offering them $67,500 apiece if they qualify for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.


But there’s a proviso. Mexico has to finish first in the six-nation group that begins the final round of qualifying play on Wednesday. In addition to the U.S.-Mexico game, Jamaica plays host to Trinidad and Tobago in Kingston that day, and Costa Rica plays host to Honduras in San Jose.

The top three finishers among the six will advance to the World Cup after each plays a nine-month, 10-game qualifying series.

The fact that Mexican officials felt the need to add some financial incentive suggests that their team lacks confidence, but U.S. Coach Bruce Arena isn’t buying it.

“They’re not in as much trouble as they appear to be,” he said. “Certainly, the loss of [Cuauhtemoc] Blanco and Ramon Ramirez hurts them. And they’ve recently lost [Jose Manuel] Abundis [also to injury].

“You can’t replace those type of players, but in international soccer you rarely have your full team on the field. I don’t believe we’ve ever had our full team on the field. So that’s not an excuse for anybody.

“I’ve watched a number of their games over the past year and they’re still a very talented team. They have an outstanding defender in [Claudio] Suarez; [Rafael] Marquez is coming back, [Pavel] Pardo is outstanding, so in the back they’re strong.


“[Striker Luis] Hernandez is going to be back in the lineup, along with [Jared] Borguetti, who’s been tearing up the Mexican league, so I think they’re going to have a good team and they’re going to be tough to beat.”


Does the U.S. go out to win the game or not to lose it?

“I think Bruce has always been a coach who goes to win,” Galaxy Coach Sigi Schmid said. “I think you’ve got to approach every game that way.

“If you play not to lose then you play with a fear and a hesitancy. I know they’re going to come out to win the game. Mexico right now is not on top of their form. That’s an advantage for the U.S., and we have to exploit that.”


Don’t expect Arena to reveal his starting lineup before the game. It won’t happen.

“I don’t plan on talking about formations or our starting lineup,” he said. “This is something that we want to keep within our team.

“You don’t need to be a genius to figure out who’s going to play for us or the formation we’ll play. We’re not going to look a whole lot different.”

That said, here’s an educated guess at the starting 11 for the U.S., assuming Arena opts for a 4-4-2 formation rather than a 3-5-2:


Brad Friedel will be in goal; the defense will feature David Regis, Jeff Agoos, Carlos Llamosa and Eddie Pope; Chris Armas will be the defensive midfielder, with Claudio Reyna the attacking midfielder. Earnie Stewart and Cobi Jones will be wide and Joe-Max Moore and Brian McBride will be the forwards.

The likely players to come off the bench--only three are allowed--are Landon Donovan, Ben Olsen and Ante Razov.

All three are attacking players, but if the U.S. manages to grab the lead, Arena’s substitutions might be more defensive. In that case, Tony Sanneh and Gregg Berhalter are more logical choices.


Arena has a peculiar problem this week in having to field two vastly different U.S. teams in the space of three days.

Wednesday, he is expected to go with a lineup dominated by European-based players, whereas against Brazil at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, the U.S. team will feature close to an all-Major League Soccer lineup.

“It’s February and the majority of MLS players have not been playing on a regular basis for three or four months,” Arena said. “Clearly, the players in Europe have a tremendous edge in terms of their fitness level, their timing and their confidence right now.”


Training camps in California and Florida were designed “to slowly bring them [MLS players] into sync with our European-based players,” Arena said, but added that he will more likely rely on the latter Wednesday.

“I’m hopefully producing a roster that gives us the best chance to win this game against Mexico,” he said. “Most of the MLS players have been out of it for so long it would be very difficult to count on an MLS-dominated team for this match.”

That’s bad news for Mexico but good news for Brazil, which remembers what happened the last time it played in Los Angeles area.

That was three years ago when goalkeeper Kasey Keller played the game of his life at the Coliseum and the U.S. earned a 1-0 victory on the strength of a goal by Preki.

Only four of the American players who appeared in that game have a chance to play in the Rose Bowl rematch: Pope, Agoos, Jones and Frankie Hejduk. But if the first three play Wednesday night, Hejduk might be the only one left unless he is required to fly back to join Bayer Leverkusen in Germany.

In any event, Romario and company are likely to enjoy revisiting the scene of their 1994 World Cup triumph.



Wednesday evening’s U.S.-Mexico game will be televised live (4:30 p.m. PST) on ESPN2 and Telemundo and also will be broadcast live on Spanish-language radio by Futbol de Primera. . . . Mexico has strengthened its injury-riddled squad by bringing in forward Daniel Osorno from Atlas and midfielder Braulio Luna from Club America. . . . The defending champion U.S. women’s national team has been drawn to play Canada, Portugal and Sweden in the first round of the Algarve Cup in Portugal. The March 11-17 event also features Norway, China, Denmark and Finland.