World Cup Countdown: Where Would The USA Be Without. . . Mexico?

The near neighbor of the USA has played a crucial role.
As part of Goal.com’s exclusive coverage in the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup, we introduce a new series, “Where Would The USA Be Without...?”, exploring the influence of various countries and immigrant populations on US soccer. In this edition, we cover Mexico.

The United States has had triumphs and setbacks against World Cup winners in important competitions, have seen their players compete at the highest levels abroad and have given their supporters reasons to feel optimistic about the future of American soccer.

Much of that has come because of the United States’ southern neighbor.

Mexico has played a pivotal role in the growth of American soccer. No other nation provided the U.S. a nearly annual litmus test of where the Americans were in the 1990s, when the U.S. went from not having qualified for a World Cup in four decades to trying to host one and grow into a soccer nation.

Where would the United States be without Mexico? Easily. Had it not been for El Tricolor, the U.S. would not be anywhere near the level it is in 2010. 

Is the U.S. a world power? Of course not, but few nations can say they’ve played in the last five World Cups, and even fewer CONCACAF nations can feel more than confident about their chances of success in not only the Gold Cup but in World Cup qualifying.

Player exchanges from both south to north and north to south helped forge an early bond between the two nations but the longstanding rivalry between the Americans and Mexicans is what helped elevate the United States even further.

PLAYERS, PART I

The North American Soccer League provided many foreign-born talent the opportunity to play professionally in the United States. Not all of the talent was established or necessarily famous, such as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and George Best. In fact, some of the players who came to the U.S. were just starting out their careers.

HUGO SANCHEZ

While Hugo Sanchez was part of MLS in 1996, he was also part of the other American league. Sanchez was a member of the San Diego Sockers in 1979-80. He scored 26 goals in 32 games while on loan from Pumas. Sanchez later went on to mega-stardom in Spain, first with Atletico Madrid and then with Real Madrid. He led the Spanish league in goals five times, earning the nickname el pentapichichi, and is widely regarded as Mexico’s best-ever product.

Sanchez later managed Pumas to consecutive league titles as well as the Mexican national team. His first-ever win in charge of El Tricolor was fittingly in San Diego.

JAVIER AGUIRRE

“El Vasco” was best known for his playing days in Mexico, first with Mexican side Club America and later with rivals Guadalajara. But he spent one season with the Los Angeles Aztecs. He helped the Aztecs reach the semifinals of the 1980 season, his only year with the club, before returning to Mexico.

As manager of Spanish side Osasuna a quarter-century later, Aguirre returned to play a friendly in Southern California against a former Aztecs teammate. Aguirre and Thomas Rongen, then in charge of Chivas USA, played against each other in March 2005. The two were roommates at one point during their year together with the Aztecs.

As manager of El Tricolor, Aguirre also has had a huge influence on the Americans.

LEONARDO CUELLAR

Not quite as well-known as his compatriots, Cuellar has also had success guiding a Mexican national team. However, Cuellar’s role has been with the women’s national team as he helped the female Tricolor qualify for their lone Women’s World Cup, in 1999.

Cuellar spent two seasons with the Sockers and was a teammate of Sanchez’s. He also represented Mexico in the 1978 World Cup.

In fact, Sanchez (78, 86, 94) and Aguirre (86) were also World Cup veterans.

PLAYERS, PART II


The demise of the NASL in 1984 cost players a chance to play in a true top-tier league on their own turf. Consequently, Americans had to seek employment elsewhere.

While it wasn’t exactly easy to walk onto Mexican Primera Division teams, a handful of Americans did so as the league south of the border provided invaluable experience for select players, who helped usher in the start of MLS and proved valuable members of the United States national team in the early 1990s.

CLE KOOIMAN

An American captain at a famed Mexican club such as Cruz Azul? Can’t imagine it happening? Well, it happened. Kooiman took a bit of an unconventional route to Mexico but was forced to do so. Kooiman, a native of Ontario, Calif., played indoor soccer and for a couple of local semi-pro teams in his native California before testing his fate in Mexico. He joined Cobras of Ciudad Juarez before landing with Cruz Azul, where he captained the squad.

Kooiman played one game for the United States at the 1994 World Cup and joined MLS club Tampa Bay Mutiny when the league started in 1996, retiring three years later after one season with Miami Fusion.

MIKE SORBER

Born in 1971, Sorber was hitting his prime in the early 1990s, about five years before the start of MLS. Having proved his worth at the 1994 World Cup, Sorber moved to Mexico and joined Pumas UNAM. He was a steadying presence in the middle of the field and parlayed his time there into more success with the U.S. national team. Sorber helped the U.S. beat Mexico in Copa America ’95, where the U.S. earned a fourth-place finish.

With his time in Mexico providing background, Sorber joined MLS in 1996 and spent time with Kansas City, the MetroStars and Chicago before retiring. He now serves as an assistant coach with the U.S. national team under former Chicago coach Bob Bradley.

MARCELO BALBOA

“Chelo” was another player who was hitting his prime before MLS began. Balboa was on both the 1990 and 1994 World Cup teams and joined Mexican side Leon in 1995, spending two seasons with the Guanajuato-based club. Balboa maintained his form with Leon and was also on the Copa America ’95 squad that beat Mexico in the quarterfinals.

MEMORABLE MATCHES


Perhaps the biggest factor in the United States’ climb from soccer-nobodies to a nation that will make South Africa 2010 their sixth consecutive World Cup is their rivalry against Mexico.

Players, managers, tactics, scenarios have all changed considerably over the years, even from one game to the next, but the significance of the U.S.-Mexico rivalry is not something that should be underestimated for the Americans. Without true soccer nation as its neighbor, it is debatable if the U.S. would be in the position it is now.

While the rivalry was not much of one in before 1990, the United States’  rise to respectability featured successes and failures against El Tricolor.

1991 GOLD CUP

At the inaugural Gold Cup, Mexico were favored to walk away with the title. But an upstart American side, a year removed from Italy ’90, surprised Mexico with a 2-0 win at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. John Doyle and Peter Vermes scored the goals, and the U.S. would later win their first of four Gold Cups, beating Honduras in the final.

1993 GOLD CUP

Back when the regional tournament was actually played in more than one country, Mexico hosted some Gold Cup matches. Estadio Azteca served as the setting for Mexico’s chance of revenge against the Americans, and revenge was served over and over again. Mexico pummeled a hapless American side 4-0 as the visitors struggled terribly with the altitude, the 100,000-plus in attendance and a strong Mexico team.

1995 COPA AMERICA

Both Mexico and the U.S. had played in Copa America ’93. The U.S. went out in the first round while Mexico reached the final, losing to Argentina 2-1. Mexico were supposed to make another run at the title match while the U.S. was hoping for better luck.

After a stunning 3-0 win over Argentina in the group stage, the Americans qualified for the quarterfinals and met up against their regional foes. Mexico were once again expected to beat the Americans but a gritty defensive performance kept El Tri from scoring. The U.S. went to penalty kicks against Mexico and Brad Friedel loomed large, stopping two penalty kicks. The U.S. won 4-1 in penalties and ousted Mexico from Copa America.

1997 WORLD CUP QUALIFYING

Mexico tied the U.S. 2-2 in Foxborough early in the Hexagonal, a result that was partially to blame for the Americans’ tricky predicament. Entering the final stretch of the Hex, the U.S. needed a result in Mexico City to make up for lost points and stave off Costa Rica in the table.

Despite Jeff Agoos’ red card – an elbow to Pavel Pardo led to his early ejection – the Americans held their own in Estadio Azteca. Mexico and the U.S. tied in Azteca 0-0, and the Americans parlayed that confidence into a win at Canada to clinch a spot in France 98.

2002 WORLD CUP

The highest-profile meeting between the two nations also helped usher in a new era in American soccer. Mexico were one of the best teams during the group stage of the 2002 World Cup. Convincing wins over Croatia and Ecuador and a gritty tie against Italy sent Mexico to the top of their group. The U.S. meanwhile surprised Portugal in the opener and tied the host South Koreans in their second game, but a bad loss to Poland nearly pushed the Americans out of the tournament. However, South Korea did the Americans a favor by beating Portugal, allowing the U.S. to back into the second round, where they met Mexico.

Heavily favored to win, Mexico came out with a strong lineup that featured stars such as Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Rafael Marquez and Jared Borgetti. The Americans were unfazed though and struck early on when Brian McBride opened the scoring on a quick restart. Mexico fought back, but Friedel once again stymied the Mexicans. Midway through the second half, Eddie Lewis hit a pinpoint cross to Landon Donovan, who buried a header and put an exclamation mark on the game.

Marquez took out his frustrations on Cobi Jones late in the game, simultaneously landing his cleats, elbow and head on the former Galaxy star. Marquez earned a red card against the U.S., something he would emulate seven years later in qualifying.

2009 GOLD CUP

Years of American dominance over Mexico on U.S. soil ended abruptly in the 2009 Gold Cup final as another phase of the rivalry continued. After a scoreless half, Mexico opened the flood gates and scored five goals in a 5-0 rout of the Americans. Players who figure to play huge roles in the coming decade for Mexico against the U.S. did well in this game: Giovani Dos Santos and Carlos Vela scored and Guillermo Ochoa was in goal for the shutout.

TODAY
 
Because of the Gold Cup triumph and a 2-1 win in World Cup qualifying several weeks later, Mexico has the upper hand of late in the rivalry. Both nations, though, are unconcerned over their respective neighbors as the 2010 World Cup looms large. Still, unless something drastic happens, the two teams will once again be “drawn” in such a manner that they would meet in the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2011. A final between the two teams would be epic as it would grant the winner passage to the 2013 Confederations Cup.

On the player level, Americans in Mexico have gone a resurgence mostly through youth systems. Young American-born players such as Jose Francisco Torres, Edgar Castillo, Michael Orozco and Jesus Padilla made their way through the youth ranks and, for three of the four, games with the U.S. national team, either the senior or youth teams. Orozco and Padilla are now with MLS clubs, on loan from their respective Mexican sides. But Americans can still go down the way Sorber, Kooiman and Balboa did. Herculez Gomez is proving as such, as he leads Puebla with goals and is second in the league in scoring, through 13 matches of the Bicentenario 2010 season.

Mexico and the U.S. share much in common, and a budding soccer rivalry that is beneficial to both sides is at the heart of it.

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