- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2001

COLUMBUS, Ohio The long, arduous journey to the 2002 World Cup finals begins tonight for the United States when it faces Mexico at Columbus Crew Stadium.

The Americans, who hope to earn their fourth consecutive trip to the finals, begin a 10-game schedule of home-and-home matches with the top teams in the CONCACAF region Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico. The top three nations in the six-team group will advance to the finals in Japan and South Korea next year.

The Americans and Mexicans enter the game riding two very different streaks.

The United States goes into the game, the 20th World Cup qualifying match between the two teams, with a 15-year unbeaten streak in qualifying games on U.S. soil as well as a 16-match unbeaten streak at home. Conversely, Mexico, which hasn't scored a goal in its last 385 minutes, has gone 0-4-1 in its last five games.

"You can throw out all of those numbers," U.S. midfielder Chris Armas said. "None of those numbers matter when you talk about a qualifier. Even if Mexico is supposedly struggling now or if we have a great home record, none of it matters."

Mexico holds an overwhelming advantage when it comes to head-to-head clashes with the Americans in qualification play (12-2-5 since 1934). In 1997, the two played to a pair of draws, 2-2 at Massachusetts' Foxboro Stadium and 0-0 at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. In all-time meetings, Mexico rules with a 27-7-9 mark and has outscored the United States 108-47.

"[Our] team is much more focused than in the semifinal round," U.S. coach Bruce Arena said, "and that's simply because we are beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel.

"We're so close we can taste it. We're better prepared mentally and better prepared physically, and there's a lot of excitement. The team will be very ready to play, and it should be a great game."

The Americans are expected to start a team composed of primarily European-based players with defenders Tony Sanneh, Eddie Pope, Jeff Agoos and David Regis; midfielders Claudio Reyna, Armas, Earnie Stewart and Cobi Jones; and Brian McBride partnered with either Joe-Max Moore or Ante Razov at forward. Tony Meola or Brad Friedel will get the nod in goal.

Like all openers in a series it is essential to get off to a good start, and the Americans have done everything in their power to gain an advantage. The staging of the game in Ohio, where a pro-American crowd and winter weather is expected, could give the home side a decided edge over its south of the border foe.

Traditionally, Mexico is a steady defending team with a knack for springing often-lethal counterattacks.

"Mexico is a great soccer nation, and you have to play smart against them," Regis said. "You always have to play smart against good teams. We need to stay calm and keep the nerves down. You hope you can play your normal game, but it's difficult in a qualifier."

The Americans have not defeated Mexico in a qualifying game since 1980 and know the importance of a win and the subsequent three points.

Scoring first is a primary objective for the Americans, but the home team also must avoid letdowns, especially late in the game.

"A lot of it comes down to emotion," Reyna said. "The commitment and attitude you show during a game evens things out, though. It's important that we match, or better, [Mexico's] intensity on the field. That'll say a lot about who wins the game because a lot of games are decided on who comes out with the right attitude."

Mexico will be led by flamboyant goalkeeper Jorge Campos; defenders Claudio Suarez, Pavel Pardo and Marco Antonio Ruiz; and midfielders Javier Lozano, Alberto Coyote and David Rangel. Luis Hernandez will be paired with either Francisco Palencia or Jared Borgetti at forward.

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