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This Team Gets Dose of Respect

Cool perspective never had a chance, not in the tipsy aftermath of the United States’ 2-0 World Cup second-round victory over Mexico on Monday, but this much can be safely said without exaggeration or hyperbole:

U.S. Coach Bruce Arena spent a fairly long time in the interview area and not once was he asked if his squad could beat the U.S. women’s soccer team.

That one used to grind on Arena’s nerves. So do most of the questions that come his way during these postmatch scrums, actually. But that one especially. If the mood struck him right, Arena would mutter something about apples and oranges, and really, what else could he say without insulting the questioner or a very fine women’s soccer team or both?

It has taken a few years, and 90 minutes of full-body combat disguised as a soccer match inside Jeonju World Cup Stadium, but finally, Arena has come up with an answer.

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The U.S. is in the quarterfinals of the World Cup.

The men’s World Cup.

“It sounds even better,” U.S. midfielder Earnie Stewart suggested, “when you say, ‘the last eight of the world.’ ”

Superlatives were flying around like yellow cards after the U.S. defeated Mexico, which in itself is not breaking news. The U.S. defeated Mexico as recently as April, in an exhibition at Denver, and is 5-1 in its last six meetings with its southern rival. After long years of painful apprenticeship, the U.S. has figured out what it takes to defeat Mexico on a soccer field.

But there’s a time and a place for everything, and not one of those victories had ever come in the knockout phase of the sport’s most prestigious competition. Before Monday, the Americans had never won a World Cup match beyond the first round.

“I think this has got to be the greatest win in U.S. soccer history,” said Dr. Robert Contiguglia, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. “Our [1950 World Cup] victory over England has been well-described. I don’t know where it got us in the tournament, but I don’t think it got us as far as this.

“We did win against Colombia in 1994 on home soil. So that had to be significant. And we did advance, but we were the home team. And here, Portugal was obviously a great victory, but its impact was lessened because of what happened with Poland. I learned the meaning of the word ‘bittersweet’ when we lost that game to Poland yet still qualified for the second round.

“I learned the meaning of the word ‘satisfied’ with this victory over Mexico. It has to be looked at as a memorable achievement for our players.”

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Of course, when your post-World War II World Cup victory output is four, every victory that comes down the pike gets the greatest-hit treatment.

The 1-0 victory over England in 1950 was the greatest ever ... until the 1994 victory over Colombia, because in 1950, the U.S. failed to advance from its opening-round group.

Then the Colombia victory became tainted when Colombia was eliminated in the first round, same as Portugal in 2002.

Now there is June 17, 2002, and USA 2, Mexico 0.

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Actually, the game was more a definition of the current state of American soccer than a defining moment.

Before the game, there was cynicism and doubt among the U.S. media corps, which took one look at Arena’s starting lineup and immediately declared the United States’ World Cup over. Three defenders? The U.S. can’t stay with Mexico with only three in the back. No Clint Mathis, no DaMarcus Beasley? The U.S. doesn’t have the depth to win a World Cup match without all its best players on the field. What’s Arena trying to do, play for a penalty-kick shootout? The Americans aren’t sophisticated enough--they don’t know how to play for penalties.

After the game, after the Americans’ three-man back line of Eddie Pope, Tony Sanneh and Gregg Berhalter combined to stifle the Mexican attack, after new starter Eddie Lewis crossed to Landon Donovan for a goal, after the Americans executed Arena’s rope-a-dope defensive game plan to near-perfection, after all that stereotype-shattering over 90 minutes, a World Cup official suggested to Arena during a studio interview that his team has been “lucky” during this tournament.

Two-nil or no, that’s an image U.S. soccer continues to fight. Not good enough, not smart enough, getting by only on some secret reserve of serendipity.

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That was a reason for Mexico’s six yellow cards, and for the expulsion of Mexican captain Rafael Marquez after his crude leveling of Cobi Jones, and for the bitter ugliness that consumed the game’s final 20 minutes, and for Mexico’s fast, straight line to the exit without shaking hands or exchanging jerseys with the Americans.

Mexico’s players still have a hard time coping with the notion of losing at its national game to a basketball country, a soccer backwater. Italy, Croatia--these are accepted soccer forces, worthy of Mexico’s time, energy and respect. The Americans? Merely clumsy tourists at the World Cup, having to resort to cheap gimmickry to compensate for their technical inadequacies.

“The other teams, they really want to play with Mexico in the open style. Not so with the United States,” Mexico Coach Javier Aguirre complained. “They play a way that is difficult for the way Mexico plays. And they were lucky to get that first goal.”

Which makes the Americans’ recent 5-1 run in the border rivalry all the more galling to Mexico.

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“We have found a game plan, so to speak, that the Mexicans find very difficult to break down,” U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel said. “I think the other teams that have played them in the tournament have said, ‘We’re going to go out and play Mexico and attack them.’ And [Mexico] just kept the ball and knocked it all over the place and looked very, very good.

“We put pressure on [central midfielder Gerardo] Torrado all game, because he’s been fantastic. We put fresh legs on their right-sided midfielder [Joahan Rodriguez], who has been fantastic in the tournament too.”

Friedel called Monday’s victory the most important in U.S. soccer history, the women’s 1999 world championship notwithstanding.

“By no means do I want to take anything away from what the women have accomplished,” he said, “but this is big, big news. People in America have to understand this is huge.

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“We’re down to eight teams in the entire World Cup. Not many people thought we’d be here ....The [American] women kind of invented the women’s game, so to speak. We haven’t. We’ve been a Third World country in terms of soccer for a few years.

“The good news is we’re making progress.”

More than that, they made a statement they needed to make, finally at the right place and time, with the country interested enough to stay up late and keep the television glowing.

American success in soccer isn’t just for women anymore.

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