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Breaking down the Mexican mindset
by Ridge Mahoney, February 13th, 2009 7AM



There's no shortage of explanations as to why Mexico can't beat the United States national team in the USA, but two former internationals have very interesting perspectives, and one former U.S. coach refuses to call it dominance, per se.

In the view of Steve Sampson, dominance implies one team will usually beat the other, regardless of circumstances, including in this case, the venue.

Just about every team on the planet struggles to beat Mexico in severe conditions of heat, altitude and pollution teams often encounter, and the USA is no exception, having tied three and lost 20 of the 23 matches between the nations played in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Puebla and Monterrey.

"We've done nothing in Mexico," says Sampson, who succeeded Bora Milutinovic as U.S. coach in 1995 and resigned at the 1998 World Cup. "Where is the domination? Domination is when you win not only at home, but away."

A 2-0 win in Columbus Wednesday ran the U.S. unbeaten streak at home against Mexico to 11 games (nine wins and two ties). Meetings at neutral sites are rare; there have been only two in the past two decades, and both times, the Americans have won. Most famous is the 2-0 World Cup win in 2002, but not to be forgotten is a penalty-kick tiebreaker victory in a 1995 Copa America quarterfinal in Paysandu, Uruguay.

Fans and journalists wrote off a 4-0 battering inflicted by the U.S. at RFK Stadium a month prior to the Copa America showdown, which prompted shock and outrage and reversed a thumping handed by the same score when Mexico smacked the U.S. in the 1993 Gold Cup final at, of course, Estadio Azteca.

"After beating Argentina, 3-0, in the first round, it wouldn't have meant nearly so much if we hadn't advanced out of our group, or advanced and then lost to Mexico," recalls goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who got the shutout against Argentina and watched from the bench as Brad Friedel blanked Mexico.

"That's what gets you noticed. Not just winning a game in a major event, but to keep winning and going on. And the way it is now, every game Mexico comes up here and loses makes it that much harder for them the next time and the time after that."

Four years later, Keller played a spectacular game as the Americans battled valiantly before losing in overtime to Mexico, 1-0, at the 1999 Confederations Cup hosted by Mexico. It had beaten Germany, 2-0, in Guadalajara to reach the knockout stage, and that overtime semifinal loss is the most impressive American performance against Mexico south of the border except for the 0-0 tie the Americans earned while playing most of a qualifier a man down at Azteca in November, 1997 when Sampson was coach.

In the 1995 and 1999 games the USA displayed a steely determination that has since been much praised, and which former international midfielder Alberto Garcia Aspe contrasts sharply with the mindset of current Mexican players when they face the Americans on U.S. soil.

"They know how to beat Mexico, they know the weak points," he said this week with the aid of a translator. "Of course, they also have the mental state and don't let the style of Mexico affect them.

"In the game on Wednesday, the USA did not play so much better, but the way they handled the ball and the weak points, they have that all figured out. Mexico just can't get past that in order to beat them. But the actual playing was very parallel. Mexico does not relate so well to the United States. And the mindset, the insecurity, of having lost so many games to the United States is a factor."

Many times in sport blame is levied on the press for failures on the field or in the front office, yet in the case of Mexico's national team, excruciating media coverage fuels a fanatical insistence that Mexico must beat its northern rival, even on the road and regardless of past results. Coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, who lived nearly six years in the pressure cooker of coaching England, lost the fifth of his 10 games in Columbus, and desperately needs a few wins before the nations meet again in August.

"It's a completely different learning curve," says Sampson. "It's one thing to go from London to Madrid, it's another to go from Mexico City to play a game in Honduras or Saprissa Stadium [Costa Rica]. You're talking about conditions he's never experienced."

Garcia Aspe works as a television commentator in Mexico and is involved in several soccer projects, including one melding a non-profit company, KaBOOM!, with the Home Depot Center, Inc., to build playing facilities in heavily Hispanic U.S. communities. He believes Mexico can play its game against just about anybody anywhere in the world, except here.

"When they are in Europe or playing another team, they give it their best and they are focused," said Garcia Aspe, who played 109 games for Mexico, including the 1994, 1998 and 2002 World Cups. "When they play the U.S., it's pressure, an obligation to win, so they're not able to play as they can play.

"The day Sven gave the players off in Mexico is an example. The media just ate them alive and criticized Sven, saying, 'What is he thinking? They have to beat the USA.' It's just constant pressure and expectation to perform against the U.S. They have to get past that in order to perform."

Sampson believes that Mexico's failures stem, in part, from a combination of factors: sharp improvement by the U.S. and the retirement of veterans like Aspe, Luis Garcia, Carlos Hermsosillo and Zague who could produce under any conditions, as well as rabid expectations from fans and the press. Even when it took a 1-0 lead in the 2007 Gold Cup final, Mexico faltered and lost.

"They don't have a midfield player like Garcia Aspe who fills that role for them," says Sampson. "They have many fine players, but in my opinion, they lack that kind of midfielder and they lack a true goalscorer." (In the latter case, not only Hermosillo but Jared Borgetti comes to mind.)

"Against the U.S., they put pressure on themselves and it forces them to play tight, conservatively. If they make a mistake and the ball winds up in the back of the net, they question themselves for the rest of the match."

Sound familiar?


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