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With dominant effort, U.S. dumps Mexico and qualifies for World Cup.
By Robert Wagman
COLUMBUS (Saturday, September 3, 2005) -- The United States men are going to World Cup 2006 in Germany, becoming the first CONCACAF nation to qualify for the quadrennial championship thanks to a dominant 2-0 triumph over Mexico before an excited, sold-out crowd of 24,685 at Crew Stadium.
The victory, in great measure, was a tribute to the growing maturity of the U.S. team. After a generally listless and evenly-played first half, the Americans created a couple of chances and capitalized on them. That is what a mature team does in big games.
"In a tight game like this, when you get your opportunities, you have to take advantage of them, and we did," U.S. manager Bruce Arena said. "It's been our experience gained over the last four years. Our guys know how to win big games."
The U.S. started fast, keeping Mexico back on its heels and pinned into its own end. For almost 25 minutes, the Americans were on the attack, although they really didn't create any quality chances. Then, for the remainder of the half, the game was played primarily in the midfield with neither side gaining much of an advantage.
Mexico tried to push balls through in front of advancing midfielders, but the U.S. cleared most of them. The Americans tried to spring midfielder DaMarcus Beasley or striker Landon Donovan, but the Mexican defense was more than up to the challenge.
Just before intermission, each side was awarded a free kick with American defender Eddie Lewis shanking the ball wide. Deep into stoppage time, Mexico's Ramon Morales drove a low shot from 25 yards just inside the left post, but U.S. keeper Kasey Keller sprang and tipped the ball away at the last second.
At halftime, a 0-0 final score -- Mexico would have qualified with such a result and the Americans might have -- looked very likely. However, the U.S. came out in the second half with purpose and made things happen.
The American determination opened up play, leading to another Lewis free kick in the 53rd minute. He put it into the middle where defender Ogichi Onyewu fought off a defender and drilled a header of the inside of the left post. The rebound went into the middle to midfielder Steve Ralston who nodded it home.
"It was the easiest goal of my career," Ralston said, laughing. "I guess I scored from about a yard out. If I had missed, it would just about have been impossible."
After the goal, Keller made a good save on Morales, and then a play the U.S. had practiced all week in training paid dividends. A short corner kick went back to midfielder Caludio Reyna who chipped it to Beasley in the right side of the box. Beasley laced it past charging Mexico keeper Oswaldo Sanchez into the far corner for a 2-0 lead.
"Bruce said they would be expecting us to get our corners into Gooch (Onyewu) and the big guys in the middle," Reyna explained. "So Bruce said let's try a few short corners and Beasley and I talked it over in practice, and I told him I would try to get it to him. It's rare something works just the way you plan it."
The American defense was solid throughout, denying Mexico star striker Jared Borguetti the ball and cutting off the Mexicans' attempts at finding breaking players with long passes.
The tone was set early. In the eighth minute, a pass was sent to Borguetti, but Onyewu intercepted and controlled the ball while dumping Borguetti onto the turf.
"This game was about defense," Reyna said. "It was not about our attack. We won this game with defense."
The conditions tonight were quite different from the last time the two teams met here in Crew Stadium in a World Cup qualifier. On February 28, 2001, the two met in 28-degree weather, on a frozen field with the U.S. prevailing 2-0. Tonight, the weather could not have been better.
Though the U.S. Soccer Federation played at Crew Stadium, rather than a much larger venue, to control ticket distribution, the crowd contained a large contingent of several thousand Mexico fans wearing green.
Reyna drew a yellow card on a seemingly innocuous tackle and he will be suspended for Wednesday's qualifier at Guatemala. With a World Cup bid in hand, it doesn't matter.
"Our defense tonight was good for the entire evening" Arena said. "Mexico played the game we thought they would, but we know if we play them anywhere else but Azteca (Stadium in Mexico City), we can beat them."
That was the bottom line. Tonight, the best team won.
U.S. player ratings:
Goalkeeper Kasey Keller - 7.5: Now the most capped American in World Cup qualifying with 31 appearances, was just about flawless tonight, making the one sensational save at the end of the first half.
Defender Frankie Hejduk - 6.5: His speed, tenacity and experience showed through tonight as he broke up play after play.
Defender Gregg Berhalter - 7: He worked well with Onyewu in controlling the center of defense in one of his best recent performances.
Defender Oguchi Onyewu - 8: He completely neutralized probably the best striker in the region and the key to Mexico's offense. He won every battle in the air and also showed both pace and a growing confidence. As Arena said afterwards "he's going to be something special."
Defender Eddie Lewis - 7.0: Was very good in the back and also came forward well. His free kick set up the first U.S. goal. Adjusting well to a new role as left back.
Midfielder Chris Armas - 6.5: Was the unsung hero, working tirelessly to break up Mexican offensive thrusts. Got forward on occasion, but mainly an excellent defensive effort.
Midfielder Claudio Reyna - 6.5: Controlled the center through much of the game. Was strong on the ball and often prevented Mexico from making a key pass. Continues to be the indispensable player.
Midfielder Steve Ralston - 6: Was in and out of the flow, but was on the spot to score the winning goal. He had other excellent moments, but disappeared at times in the first half.
Midfielder DaMarcus Beasley - 7: Ran himself into the ground and was the dominant American attacker. Was tackled time after time, but got up and kept coming in what was his first 90-minute performance since he was hurt this summer in the Gold Cup. Scored the second goal, but should have had another, coming up empty on a late breakaway.
Forward Brian McBride -- 5.5: Had a different role tonight. Did not receive much service and had little luck against towering defender Francisco Rodriguez, but he dropped back into the midfield and was effective in a defensive role.
Forward Landon Donovan - 5.5: One of those night when he drifted in and out of the match. Had some golden moments, but at other times was much less of a force. Failed to score on two occasions where he should have easily finished for goals.
Midfielder Pablo Mastroeni (74th minute for Donovan) - 5.5: Came in and helped kill off the match. Had a couple of good runs off the ball offensively, but did a lot of hard digging in the middle.
Forward\midfielder Santino Quaranta (81st minute for Ralston) - 5: Not really a factor, but did hold the ball well near the end, as he was asked to do.
Forward Jeff Cunningham (91st minute for McBride) - no rating: A few moments as a reward for a hard week of training.
Robert Wagman is a SoccerTimes senior correspondent. E-mail Robert Wagman.