- Associated Press - Saturday, June 4, 2011

MONTCLAIR, N.J. (AP) - The last time they hooked up, Mexico beat the U.S. women for the first time, grabbed an automatic spot in the upcoming World Cup, and forced the Americans to take a circuitous route to the tournament.

Could make for a spicy revenge motive for the United States _ except that the Americans have tunnel vision in preparing for the world championship that begins later this month in Germany.

Beating Mexico at Red Bull Arena on Sunday “would be satisfying,” star forward Abby Wambach said.

“It’s another step to what we are after, which is the World Cup trophy,” Wambach added.

The United States opens its World Cup schedule against North Korea on June 28. First, it will smooth out the wrinkles against a Mexican team that never had beaten the Americans until last Nov. 5 in Cancun.

In the final four of the CONCACAF qualifying tournament, with both semifinalists automatically advancing to the World Cup, the hosts scored in the third minute. After Carli Lloyd tied it in the 25th, Veronica Perez scored two minutes later, and Mexico held on as the Americans frantically tried to force extra time.

“I think we were all kind of overwhelmed with a ton of emotions,” said defender Natalie Vinti, who grew up in San Diego and whose mother is from Mexico. “I was speechless for about an hour or so. It was only the biggest upset in soccer and it’s going to last forever. It’s a great story I can tell my children and grandchildren.”

Also overwhelmed with the outcome were the Americans, who are ranked No. 1 in the world and normally romp through qualifying. Instead, they were forced to play Italy in a home-and-home series the U.S. women swept to get into the World Cup.

The defeat in Cancun displayed how competitive the sport has become, U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo said.

“No teams are going to get beat 8-0 anymore,” she said. “But we are used to (the improvement). This is a team that plays its best under pressure. Sure, we had our `mishap’ during qualifying against Mexico. I remember watching that game on TV and I didn’t see the confidence we usually have, I didn’t sense it.”

Solo was recovering from complicated shoulder surgery during qualifying. She gathered with the squad soon after, and was relieved to see the attitude was better than she thought.

“But then I got around everyone again before we played Italy,” Solo said, “and I saw the confidence was there and I thought, `Yeah, we got this.’ “

What they will have Sunday is a last chance to improve before heading overseas. And, because it’s Mexico-U.S., it won’t be just a warmup match.

“It’s a great rivalry, very intense rivalry when Mexico and the U.S. play,” said Perez, who grew up in San Mateo, Calif. “Mexico had never beaten the United States before that day, so it is very special. We are going for the repeat.”

Although a repeat wouldn’t be calamitous for the United States, coach Pia Sundhage looks at Sunday as an opportunity to take another key step before the trip to Germany.

“Each game is a teacher,” she said. “You learn from that last game and go forward, and we take the approach that every game is important.

“The game on Sunday will be good for us as a final preparation for the World Cup.”