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The importance of beating Mexico
by Mike Woitalla, January 31st, 2008 6:45AM

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Next Wednesday, Mexico comes to Houston to face the USA, whose win one year ago in a similar friendly meant a lot for Coach Bob Bradley. Soccer America's Mike Woitalla explains how recent U.S. supremacy over Mexico has been critical to the success of U.S. national team coaches going back almost 20 years.

After the USA's disappointing first-round exit at the 2006 World Cup, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati put lots of time and effort into trying to make Juergen Klinsmann Coach Bruce Arena's replacement.

When Klinsmann didn't pan out, Gulati put Bob Bradley in charge. U.S. fans and many quarters of the media bemoaned the failure to land the German. Despite Bradley's long, laudable history at all levels of the American game, such was the desire for a celebrity coach that Bradley's appointment was greeted as a letdown.

That Bradley entered the position with an interim title while Gulati continued considering foreign coaches turned Bradley's early games in charge into an audition.

The first game, in January 2007, was a 3-1 win over Denmark in front of 10,048 fans at the Home Depot Center. A good start, but against a Danish team not considered a full national team its federation, which dubbed it a Ligalandsholdet, or league national team.

On Feb. 7, 2007, came the big test, the first U.S. game of significance since the debacle of the 2006 World Cup.

The sellout crowd of 62,462 in Glendale, Ariz., would prove the USA's highest home attendance of 2007. The Univision audience of 9.7 million viewers was the No. 2 most-watched Spanish-language sportscast in history, second to Mexico's round of 16 overtime loss to Argentina at the 2006 World Cup.

Landon Donovan, sharply criticized for his World Cup performance, set up a Jimmy Conrad goal and finished with a stylish goal in a 2-0 win over the Mexicans, who as usual had the majority of the fan support.

The win may not have exorcised all of the World Cup pain, but it provided a significant confidence boost going into the rebuilding process. And beating the archrival took the heat off Gulati from the Klinsmann boosters.

In May, Bradley lost the interim title. The following month, in the final of the Gold Cup, the USA beat Mexico, 2-1, in Chicago in front of a sellout crowd of 60,000 - the second largest home attendance of the year. That win in arguably the most exciting USA-Mexico game ever played was enough to make Bradley's first year at the helm a success, despite the three Copa America losses that followed.

Bradley's early success against Mexico recalled that of Steve Sampson. He was two months into interim coaching duty, in 1995, when the USA celebrated a glorious 4-0 win over Mexico in the U.S. Cup. A month after that, the Americans beat Mexico on penalty kicks to advance to the semifinals of the Copa America, after which Sampson was hired for real.

Sampson remains the only coach to get a result in Mexico - a scoreless tie in World Cup qualifying in Azteca Stadium.

Sampson's predecessor, Bora Milutinovic, who coached Mexico at the 1986 World Cup, beat the Mexicans, 2-0, in Los Angeles, in the 1991 Gold Cup semifinals. It marked just the third U.S. win over its neighbor in 29 games dating back to 1934.

Also, on the eve of the 1994 World Cup, the Milutinovic-coached Americans beat Mexico, 1-0, in a Rose Bowl friendly before 91,123 fans.

No U.S. coach faced Mexico as often as Arena, who started off with a home loss and an Azteca defeat (in the semifinals of the 1999 Confederations Cup) but beat the Mexicans five times on U.S. soil. Twice U.S. wins came in World Cup qualifiers played in Columbus -- the first kicking off the final stage of qualifying for the 2002 finals and the second clinching a berth in the 2006 World Cup finals.

And under Arena, the USA beat Mexico on neutral ground for the second time. The first came when the neighbors played their 1934 World Cup qualifying game in Rome. Arena's win was the 2-0 victory that sent the Americans to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup.

Nearly 50,000 tickets have already been sold for Wednesday's USA-Mexico game. Away from home, Mexico hasn't beaten the USA since 1999. That adds extra pressure on Mexico coach Hugo Sanchez, who has lost both his encounters with the USA -- and El Tri's last game, in October, was a 3-2 loss to Guatemala in Los Angeles.

For Bradley and his team, it's the last serious test before 2010 World Cup qualifying begins next summer, because no other friendly game means as much as a Mexico clash.

 



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