Emergency reserves provide the edge for U.S. in 2-0 blanking of Mexico.By Robert Wagman
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Wednesday, February 28, 2001) -- Coming into the most important match since he became United States men’s coach, Bruce Arena had made it clear the offensive players he would be counting on are striker Brian McBride and midfielder Claudio Reyna. Two players who Arena thought might get some second-half playing time were Josh Wolff and Clint Mathis.
Neither McBride nor Reyna made it through the first half, but their replacements, Wolff and Mathis, played a key role in the Americans’ 2-0 World Cup qualifying over Mexico at Columbus Crew Stadium. Mathis fed Wolff for a breakaway goal and a 1-0 lead in the 47th minute, while Wolff assisted Earnie Stewart’s insurance tally in the 87th minute in the opening match for both nations in CONCACAF’s final six-team, 10-match round robin.
Going up in the air, McBride caught the back of the head of his opponent and came out in the 15th minute with his right eye swollen shut. He was replaced by Wolff. Reyna suffered a groin pull in the 26th minute and could barely play, but was not replaced by Mathis until the 43rd minute.
The worst news on the injury front, however, came after the match when Tony Sanneh, viciously kicked in the heel with no justification by Luis Hernandez, was diagnosed with a partial dislocation of a bone in his foot.
With McBride out, Reyna ineffective, and Sanneh playing on one leg, the U.S. was happy to get into the lockerroom at halftime with the match scoreless, which was thanks to a terrific effort from central defenders Eddie Pope and Jeff Agoos.
Shortly after intermission, Wolff and Mathis combined to make Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos pay for his adventuresome attitude which has cost hime before. Mathis put the ball over the top to Wolff, who holding his ground on his end of the midstripe was away on a solo run. Campos was far out of his box, could not tackle Wolff who deposited his shot into the empty net to make it 1-0.
All the omens favored the home team. The game was scheduled for Columbus in the hope of making the Mexico play in unaccustomed frigid weather and the temperature at game time was 29 degrees. The crowd was extremely engaged and pro-USA.
"I play in Chicago," said U.S. midfielder Chris Armas, explaining the American advantage. "A lot of these guys play in cold weather. We’re used to it."
"It was very, very cold," Hernandez said. "It will be different at Azteca" Stadium in Mexico City where the return match will be played.
Both sides came out pumped with adrenaline and the match started off at a frantic pace. Then, before either team seemed to settle in, McBride went down and the dynamic for the U.S. changed considerably with Wolff’s insertion. The plan had been to play balls into McBride’s head, but with Wolff instead had a forward with great speed, but not known for his ability in the air.
As it turned out, Arena made a right decision to dress Wolff and not Spain-based Ante Razov.
"Ante understood that we needed to have Josh’s speed on the bench," Arena said. "Obviously we had no idea he would have to go in that early. I made the decision to dress Josh and not Ante because of Josh’s speed and I told (Wolff) that if he went in, we would need that speed."
Despite the intense cold, the field itself was in good condition. It has been completely covered with three huge hot air blowers bringing the temperature under the tarp into the 70s. "We’ve been able to grow grass," said chief groundskeeper Darian Daily. "I think the field was 80 percent what it is in the middle of summer."
There were heroes all around for the U.S. No one played badly. The defense was strong, even in the last 20 minutes when Mexico attacked relentlessly and seldom allowed the ball out of its attacking end.
Goalkeeper Brad Friedel didn’t have to do much, but he was always in perfect position to keep his slate clean with four saves.
"Let’s not make more out of this than it is," Arena said. "We need to be here for the long haul. It is a good start. But it’s only a start. We have nine tough matches left to play."
U.S. player ratings
Goalkeeper Brad Friedel - 7.5: Extremely solid performance. Kept the U.S. in the match with four fine saves, including one from point-blank range.
Defender David Regis - 7.: Took some time to get in sync with his teammates, but was solid in man-to-man matchups, made a saving slide tackle in the box and gradually helped push the ball forward.
Defender Eddie Pope - 7: A terrific performance. Teamed with Agoos to shut down two strong strikers, Hernandez and Francisco Palencia. Made few false moves. Showing he is regaining his form of two years ago.
Defender Jeff Agoos - 7: Was everywhere when needed. Took on Hernandez and shut him down. No more could be asked from a defender.
Defender Tony Sanneh - 6.5: A gusty performance playing on one leg. Was not able to do much, but played through a lot of pain and made the stops when needed.
Midfielder Chris Armas - 7: Held the U.S. together through much of the first half when Reyna was hurting. Showed why he was voted American "Player of the Year."
Midfielder Claudio Reyna - 5: Tried to play through a groin pull, but was clearly hobbled. Before he was injured, was under constant pressure, and accomplished little.
Midfielder Cobi Jones - 6.0: An energetic performance, consistently moving for 90 minutes. Might have been the most effective performance, but good enough both offensively and defensively.
Midfielder Earnie Stewart - 7: Had a very strong second half, including the late goal that ended Mexican hopes. Worked well with Mathis to control play in the middle over the final 45 minutes.
Forward Brian McBride - no rating: Was hurt before he could make an impact. Wasn’t involved much at all.
Forward Joe-Max Moore - 5.5: Was hobbled after rolling an ankle and was not very effective for much of the second half.
Forward Josh Wolff (15th minute for McBride) - 8: Coolly took Mathis’ pass, slipped by Campos and deposited game-winner into empty net. Bulled through defenders to get through for assist on Stewart’s tally. Clearly the best player of the match.
Midfielder Clint Mathis (43rd minute for Reyna) - 7.5: A more than adequate replacement for Reyna, especially in the second half when he held the ball and distributed with skill.
Defender Carlos Llamosa (79th minute for Moore) - 7: Came in as a sweeper, an extra defender, for the final minutes, and helped defuse Mexico’s relentless attack in the closing minutes.
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman can be e-mailed at email@example.com.