WORLD CUP: Put up or shut up

By Ridge Mahoney

Senior Editor

Soccer America

Finally. We get a real chance to match Mexico.

On the heels of disbelief and disgruntlement that they, not us, had received a World Cup seed came the news of their easy draw and our worst nightmare. Supposedly.

I beg to differ. Nay, the Group of Death this is not. This is the Group of Redemption and Hope, of Attainment and Atonement. Yes, we can bop Mexico anywhere but at Azteca, and thus we claim to be better. Head-to-head, yes, we are. Which amounts to squat anywhere south of the equator or east of the Atlantic. In 2002, Bruce Arena out-coached Javier Aguirre in the round of 16 and who got a coaching job in La Liga?

Unlike our spotty record against big teams in games that count, our southern neighbors have done much better in the past decade. As we were being smoked by Yugoslavia and Germany, not to mention Iran, in 1998, Mexico was coming out of a group that included the Netherlands, Belgium and South Korea. Mexico tied the Dutch on points, finished second in the group on goal difference, then lost to Germany in the next round. The Dutch team Mexico had tied 2-2 went all the way to the semis.

Wait, there's more. In 2002, we did pretty well to survive a group of Portugal, Poland and the host nation, South Korea. Mexico had to play Italy, Croatia, and Ecuador. The Tri won the group, which sent it against the U.S. in the round of 16, where we all know what happened next.

Go back to 1994. Grouped with three European teams -- Norway, Ireland, and Italy -- Mexico came away 1-1-1 and advanced. True, all four teams finished with four points, but Mexico came back from losing its opener and scored the most goals to win the group. Mexico has done better than the USA in the Confederations Cup and in the Copa America, a competition we entered a decade ago and have snubbed ever since.

Mexico beat Brazil to win the 1999 Confederation Cup and edged a watered-down Brazil, 1-0, in the first round at last summerÆs Confederations Cup. Mexico also beat Brazil in the 2001 Copa America.

WeÆve played Brazil seven times in official competitions the last 11 years and lost six times. Our only win came in the 1998 Gold Cup semifinal.

The point is, Mexico outpaced the USA in the 2006 World Cup seeding race by beating real European and South American teams in real competitions, when it hasn't been racking up victories and big crowds against CONCACAF islands and jet-lagged troupes. (Mexico beat Hungary, 2-0, in Phoenix Wednesday to close out its show up-and-collect tour for 2005.)

The argument can be made that Mexico's groups in 1994, 1998 and 2002 aren't as tough as the USA's next June. Maybe. But even in 1998, South Korea had more World Cup experience than Ghana does today, and Mexico took care of its European duties with a pair of ties after beating the Koreans, 3-1. Only time will tell if Croatia 2002 -- a World Cup semifinalist four years earlier, remember -- is better or worse than Czech Republic will be next summer, yet the Mexicans beat Croatia -- in their first game -- and Ecuador before tying Italy to clinch the group.

U.S. Soccer delights in trumpeting the national team's FIFA ranking. Here's a forum to prove the progress, to back up the balderdash. Don't begrudge Mexico's creampuff 2006 draw. The other CONCACAF nation in the FIFA Top 10 has garnered results from top-tier European teams when it counts.

Can its northern rival do the same? I say yes. It can. It must.

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