Mexico impresses before 90,526

Times Staff Writer

Add Rafael Marquez’s name to the growing list of people who think Mexico will surprise critics in this summer’s World Cup.

“Realistically, I think the team can go really far,” said Marquez, Mexico’s captain in the last two World Cups. “We have that hunger, that desire. It’s the mental aspect we have to work on.

“A quality soccer team we have. We just have to work on the mental toughness.”

Oh, and getting a little more playing time for budding 21-year-old stars Javier Hernandez and Carlos Vela might be a good idea too.

On Wednesday, Hernandez and Vela came off the bench to score goals three minutes apart, sparking Mexico to a 2-0 win over New Zealand in a pre-World Cup friendly played before a vocal – if chilly — sellout crowd of 90,526 at the Rose Bowl.

It was one of the largest crowds to watch a soccer match in the Rose Bowl in more than a decade. And in the first half both the crowd, and Mexico Coach Javier Aguirre, got a chance to see many of Mexico’s top European-based players, nine of whom were called home for one last look before preliminary Cup rosters are due.

It wasn’t an impressive tryout. Although the imports clearly outplayed the outmanned New Zealanders, so many crisp passes went to empty areas or skipped by their intended targets that at one point midway through the first half, striker Cuauhtemoc Blanco threw his hands up in frustration and admonished a teammate.

That all ended when Aguirre emptied his bench to start the second half, sending Hernandez in for Blanco and Vela in for Aldo De Nigris. The difference showed on Mexico’s first rush at New Zealand keeper Glen Moss, when Hernandez directed a header just wide. But he didn’t miss the next time when, in the 54th minute, he took long pass from Carlos Salcido and headed it into the net.

For Hernandez, the score was his third in just more than a half of playing time on the national team’s pre-World Cup schedule. The first two came a week ago when Mexico opened its World Cup preparations with a 5-0 rout of Bolivia. And with back-to-back strong performances Hernandez has gone from a player who, four months ago, wasn’t considered a candidate for the national team to one who now may have an invitation wrapped up.

Three minutes later Vela, called home from his English club Arsenal, doubled Mexico’s lead on a pretty goal. Vela, who turned 21 two days ago, put on an impressive display of dribbling just to reach the six-meter box, but once there he deftly left-footed the ball around the baffled Moss and into the net.

A World Cup qualifier this year for only the second time in their history, the All Whites were at less than full strength Wednesday, missing defender Ryan Nelsen, the team captain, who was out with a knee injury, and fellow defender Ivan Vicelich, who was serving a suspension.