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Mexico Refuses to Let the U.S. Come Up for Air

Times Staff Writer

In the end, they simply ran out of breath.

The players on the U.S. national soccer team, who traveled here hoping to do what no American team had done before and defeat Mexico in Mexico, came up just a bit short Sunday and lost, 2-1, in a World Cup qualifying game that seldom rose to any great heights.

Not that it needed to. The match was played at Azteca Stadium, whose 7,200-foot altitude makes breathing difficult for even the fittest of athletes.

“We were done at the 30-minute mark,” said U.S. Coach Bruce Arena, who watched as his defense fell apart in a four-minute spell in the first half and allowed Mexico to get goals from Jared Borgetti in the 30th minute and Antonio Naelson in the 33rd.

“We were all hurting a bit out there,” said Eddie Lewis, who gave the U.S. some hope with a well-taken goal in the 59th minute.

“Any way you look at it, altitude is a big factor,” Arena said afterward. “You’re just never going to be fully acclimatized unless you live here and play here. If you look at their roster, probably 99% of their players play at altitude, whether in Mexico City, Toluca or Guadalajara, so they are totally adjusted.”

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It wasn’t only the thin air that did in the Americans, however; it was the game plan devised by Mexico Coach Ricardo Lavolpe.

Lavolpe started three forwards -- Borgetti, Francisco Fonseca and Cuauhtemoc Blanco -- and supported them with players running out of midfield and with defenders overlapping down the flanks.

The U.S. was under pressure from the opening whistle, and not just from the near-capacity crowd of 110,000.

“It was a simple numbers game,” said U.S. defensive midfielder Pablo Mastroeni. “They had more numbers in the attack than we had actually defending. And when the numbers were even, they did a great job creating space for themselves to make the next play.”

The U.S. midfield of Lewis, Mastroeni, Landon Donovan, Claudio Reyna and DaMarcus Beasley all too often found itself pushed back to help out the defense.

“They’re smart, they know how to play here,” Donovan said. “We couldn’t figure it out in the first half. While we had a couple of flashes of playing well, it just wasn’t good enough.

“We broke down on two plays and they scored two goals.”

The first came when Fonseca played the ball to Salvador Carmona, whose deep cross sent U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller scrambling across the net to defend the far post, where Jaime Lozano was lurking. Instead of taking a shot himself, however, Lozano headed the ball back across the goal to a wide-open Borgetti, who headed it into the yawning net.

Three minutes later, the American defense was again torn to shreds.

This time Blanco started the move with a long diagonal pass from the left flank. Borgetti headed the ball back across the goalmouth to an unmarked Naelson, whose shot from close range beat Keller and went in off the right post.

“The whole back line did a very poor job on that play,” Arena said.

“I believe our players shut down for the last 15 minutes of the first half and that cost us the game.”

The back line consisted of Steve Cherundolo, Oguchi Onyewu, Gregg Berhalter and Carlos Bocanegra, who play, respectively, in Germany, Belgium, Germany and England, where altitude and heat are not a factor.

In fact, Arena’s starting lineup included nine Europe-based players, with only Mastroeni and lone forward Eddie Johnson coming from Major League Soccer’s ranks.

A few days in Colorado Springs were not enough to acclimatize the team to the altitude and it showed.

“Those were the players we thought would give us the best chance to win,” Arena said.

Instead, Mexico walked off with the three points and now leads the six-team group with six points from two games. Guatemala, the U.S. opponent on Wednesday night in Birmingham, Ala., is second with four points after trouncing Trinidad and Tobago, 5-1, Saturday night, and the U.S. and Costa Rica are tied for third with three points apiece.

Panama, with one point, and Trinidad and Tobago, with none, trail badly.

The top three teams qualify for Germany 2006 while the fourth-place finisher goes into a playoff with Asia’s fifth-place finisher for a spot in the World Cup.

Mexico outshot the U.S., 12-5, and its continual pressure was reflected elsewhere in the statistics, with Mexican players being called offside 10 times to only once for the Americans.

“Mexico was the better team,” Arena said, then brightened.

“We’re the only team in the competition so far that has played the first two games on the road,” he said. “If you had asked me if I’d be happy with three points at this stage, I’d have said yes.”


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