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Aug 31, 2005

U.S. continues to challenge Mexico on all fronts

When Mexico defeated the U.S., 2-1, last March, a huge banner at Estadio Azteca declared "El gigante no es muerte." The fact that supporters felt compelled to display a message declaring that the giant had not died indicated Mexico's supremacy has been greatly challenged. And, though the Tricolores displayed their superiority over the U.S. that day, there are still lingering doubts about the team's status. While Mexico has been the dominant country in the region for decades, the U.S. has always been regarded as the sleeping giant. The U.S. began awakening in the early 1990s, and is not yet fully conscious. And that will not occur until the U.S. Soccer Federation and the domestic media both reach a higher level of sophistication. The U.S. national team is still operating on the periphery of the sporting consciousness and the media has not committed itself to paying close attention to soccer. But those conditions could change if the U.S. matches its 2002 World Cup performance next year in Germany. The U.S.-Mexico match in Columbus Saturday is a step on the way to the 2006 World Cup. Both nations will likely clinch qualification for the finals long before Oct. 12, but Saturday's match has strong implications. If the U.S. struggles against Mexico at home, can it expect to succeed against strong European countries in Europe? If Mexico fails to win against the U.S. -- the Mexicans have not defeated the U.S. on the road since 1999 and are winless against the U.S. as visitors in qualifying since 1972 -- will it ever make an impact on the World Cup finals? Expectation levels are certainly different for Mexico and the U.S. Mexicans believe their team is superior to any other in the region, but they have an inferiority complex regarding the powerful national teams of Europe and South America. The U.S. has long been conflicted, the country fully expecting to be successful in nearly any important endeavor except soccer; now that the U.S. is becoming cognizant of soccer, it is uncertain what kind of identity to establish. The U.S. has figured out that it can overpower smaller regional rivals and so is outgrowing the CONCACAF region. Mexico should be able to keep pace with the U.S. The next step will be to somehow combine CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, with CONCACAF, so creating an entity mutually beneficial to the giants of both confederations. The two confederations do not have to merge -- just determining the acronym would be complicated enough -- but there will be an increase in their competitive relations, the Copa Libertadores and the invitations to Copa America and the Gold Cup being starting points. In the future, the U.S. could be playing against Brazil with a World Cup berth at stake and MLS teams could be facing regular home-and-away series in Argentina. If, someday, the Western Hemisphere experiences anything approaching those scenarios, it will be interesting to compare and contrast with this week. The U.S. is still operating under the media radar and can prepare for competitions in relative tranquility, while Mexico's problems and questions are part of the national debate. The U.S. has been preparing for Saturday's game in secrecy, coach Bruce Arena not revealing the team until yesterday. Everyone who needed to know which players have been called up knew the team by Monday, since the training session in Columbus was open. But there is a minor media commitment to the U.S. practice sessions, so the general public and peripheral fans have been almost completely unaware of what was happening. Meanwhile, Mexico training sessions were closed at the Centro de Alto Rendimiento. Yet, there were dozens of stories emanating from the camp daily. There has been a lively discussion about the exclusion of Cuauhtemoc Blanco from the team, plus the on-going one over who should be the coach, Ricardo Antonio Lavolpe or Hugo Sanchez. Pavel Pardo is with the team but could miss the game because of a possible suspension which has not been clarified. Rafa Marquez has been training solo because of a knee injury. All is quiet on the Salvador Carmona-Aaron Galindo front, the hope being that a one-year suspension for steroid use is the extent of the problem. Whatever the outcome of this game, the future of football in both Mexico and the U.S. will become increasingly interdependent. The U.S., by establishing itself as a strong rival, forces the Mexicans to improve not only their national team but also their professional league and development programs. Mexican investment in the MLS will strengthen the league and, eventually, help improve the U.S. national team. The U.S. has been able to steamroller through qualifying and the Gold Cup but has not been impressive in its toughest tests. Mexico defeated the U.S. in March and England defeated the U.S. (2-1) in Chicago in May. The U.S. struggled to a 0-0 tie with Panama in the Gold Cup final, defeating the Canaleros on penalty kicks. Nor did the U.S. seem sharp in a 1-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago in East Hartford Aug. 17. In this game, the Mexicans' mobility and skill in midfield could create problems for the U.S., though the absence of Blanco could be a negative factor. Marquez was the key figure for Mexico in its March victory over the U.S.; Pardo contributes similar qualities -- confidence, physicality, positioning. Should the Mexicans be without Marquez and/or Pardo, they will be considerably weakened. Striker Jared Borgetti challenged the U.S. to go on the attack from the start and try to impose a creative, open style of game on the Mexicans. That is not likely, since the stakes are high for this game. But these are the once and future giants of the region. They should provide the most appealing and competitive games of the year.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.com .