- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 16, 2002

SEOUL Claudio Reyna expects one big difference tomorrow when the United States plays Mexico for a spot in the World Cup quarterfinals.
"It's the first time we're not going to be playing [before] a pro-Mexican crowd be it in the United States or Mexico," the U.S. captain said yesterday.
The Americans have played the Mexicans, traditionally the strongest team in North and Central America and the Caribbean, more than any other opponent, going 10-28-8, but they've never met in the World Cup. The United States was 0-21-3 against the Mexicans from 1937 to 1980, but since 1991 the Americans have gone 8-6-5, including 8-3-4 in games outside Mexico City.
Respect came grudgingly following U.S. victories at the 1991 CONCACAF Gold Cup and the 1995 Copa America the South American championship to which both were invited.
"A long time ago, they used to be pretty arrogant," U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel said of the Mexicans. "Recently, they have had more respect."
He remembers the first time he played in Mexico City, during an Olympic qualifier in 1992. Despite the hostile crowd, the Americans won 2-1.
"They were burning U.S. flags all over the place," Friedel said. "After we beat them, they applauded us. The Mexican team had to stand in the middle of the field, and they pelted them."
Soccer is a passion in Mexico, a source of pride as fans salute each completed pass with chants of "O-le! O-le!" The United States may have more economic power, but the Mexicans had more soccer power, reaching the World Cup quarterfinals in 1970 and 1986 both times as the host.
"It is about 110,000 or 115,000 seats, and it is about 110,000 or 115,000 fans supporting Mexico," U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. "You are at altitude, so you are playing in the mid-80s at 7,200 feet, and the air is polluted and 110,000 people are not supporting your team. It is not easy."
Because of the large Mexican-American population in California, Arizona and Texas, the Mexicans often have had the backing of the crowd wherever they play the U.S. team.
"Regardless of whether we play in Azteca or the United States, it seems like we're playing away," Arena said.
Last year the United States scheduled its home World Cup qualifier against the Mexicans as a February night game in Columbus, Ohio. It was 29 degrees, and Josh Wolff and Clint Mathis had breakthrough games in a 2-0 U.S. victory.
"All I remember is that it was cold," Wolff said.
Tomorrow, for the first time since they were the hosts in 1994, the Americans will have to change their defense against the Mexicans. Central defender Jeff Agoos, who played a role in four of the six goals the Americans have allowed, is out for the remainder of the World Cup after straining his right calf in Friday's 3-1 loss to Poland. Left back Frankie Hejduk is suspended after getting two yellow cards.
Carlos Llamosa, Pablo Mastroeni and Gregg Berhalter are the candidates to replace Agoos, and David Regis is the leading contender to replace Hejduk.
"I will sleep fine," Arena said. "We'll find two guys that can volunteer to play in a round of 16 game in a World Cup."
Arena was quite the jokester yesterday. It was easy to chuckle because Friday's loss didn't knock out the United States, because of South Korea's 1-0 upset of Portugal.
"I spent the morning shopping for the Korean team and coaching staff," Arena said.
While the United States backed in, Mexico nearly went 3-0 in the first round, beating Croatia 1-0 and Ecuador 2-1 before giving up a late goal in a 1-1 tie with Italy. The Mexicans, a team in turmoil during World Cup qualifying, are playing with confidence, led by forwards Jared Borgetti (two goals) and Cuauhtemoc Blanco (one goal) and midfielder Gerardo Torrado (one goal).
"We've worked hard on the mental aspect of the game," said coach Javier Aguirre, hired last June when the Mexicans were 1-3-1 in the final round of qualifying. "This was always a team with a lot of technical skill, but it lacked confidence."
Mexico finished qualifying with a 4-0-1 run and is playing its best soccer in a while. "We've had a little bit of a wakeup call," Friedel said, "and maybe they'll be feeling very good about themselves. This can be a good thing for us."


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