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USA-Mexico: Tri is flawed favorite
February 5th, 2008 6:45AM
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Mike Woitalla reports from Houston
In the FIFA World Ranking, Mexico is 15th and the USA trails at No. 20. El Tri's corps of European-based players includes two Barcelona players and two who won titles last season in the Netherlands and Germany. The majority of the crowd in Houston on Wednesday will be Mexico supporters. So why will it be foolish to bet on Mexico when it faces the USA (TV; ESPN2 and Univision, live, 9 pm ET)?

For however impressive and celebrated the migration of U.S. players to European clubs has been, Mexican players have lately been more successful abroad.

Rafael Marquez often marshals the central defense (or more recently plays in front of the backline) for Barcelona in Spain's La Liga, the world's best league top to bottom. Marquez has won two La Liga titles and a Champions League crown. Last Sunday, Barcelona earned a crucial 1-0 win over Osasuna on a Xavi goal set up by some clever moves from 18-year-old Mexican Giovani dos Santos. Starting for Osasuna was another Mexican teen, Carlos Vela.

Defensive midfielder Pavel Pardo helped VfB Stuttgart win last season's German Bundesliga crown. (His Stuttgart teammate Ricardo Osorio isn't in the squad for the Houston game.) Outside back Carlos Salcido helped PSV Eindhoven win the Dutch title last season, and it currently enjoys a commanding league lead this season.

Americans Michael Bradley in the Netherlands, Oguchi Onyewu in Belgium and Tim Howard in England are near the top of the standings with their clubs. But Mexican players in the recent past have impressed more that the U.S. players abroad.

Giovani, for example, sees Champions League time for Barcelona, while Freddy Adu can't get a start in the Portuguese league and Benny Feilhaber sits on the bench at Derby.

But often in the past, Americans who were struggling abroad -- for example, Frankie Hejduk and Eddie Lewis at the 2002 World Cup -- shone when they returned to the comfort of their national team.

For sure, one of the most intriguing aspects of Wednesday's game is that it can provide an opportunity to compare American youngsters Bradley, Adu and Jozy Altidore to Vela and Giovanni.

Both teams' squads have roughly the same proportion of domestic and foreign-based players. On that front, the edge would seem to be Mexico's, because the Mexican League is underway while MLS is in its offseason.

If one relies on France Football's 2007 ranking of CONCACAF teams, favorite status goes to the USA. France Football's annual classifications, ranked by Soccer America's Paul Kennedy since 1991, rely more heavily head-to-head results -- a 2-0 friendly victory one year ago and a 2-1 win in the Gold Cup final last summer -- than the FIFA World Ranking. It marked the fifth time in the last eight years the USA was ranked No. 1 in CONCACAF.

That Mexico rated ahead of the USA in the FIFA rankings is due to its Copa America performance in Venezuela.

The USA at the Copa America, without key regulars, lost all three games, to (Argentina, 4-1), Paraguay (3-1) and Colombia (1-0).

Mexico notched victories over eventual title winner Brazil (2-0), Ecuador (2-1) and Paraguay (6-0), and tied Chile (0-0) before falling to Argentina (3-0) in the semis. It beat Uruguay, 3-1, in third-place game.

But for all the reasons why Mexico should feel confident when it hits the field at Reliant Stadium on Wednesday there remains the fact that El Tri has forgotten how to win in the USA against the Americans.

No doubt, games in the USA are home matches for El Tri, which in 2007 played more games (11) north of the border than in its own country (4). Yet in the last nine clashes when the USA hosted since 2000, the USA has won eight and tied once.

Instead of being boosted by the Mexican-American fan support, Mexico's players seem to fold under the pressure. That makes the USA, a team that must cope with feeling like visitors in their own country, the favorite.



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