The U.S. is on the way to Germany, with stops in Guatemala Wednesday and Costa Rica and Foxborough next month reduced to the status of warmups for the 2006 World Cup finals. Now, after a 2-0 victory over Mexico in Columbus Saturday night, the role of the U.S. will change.
This will be the fifth successive U.S. appearance in the World Cup finals and the team's quickest clinching of a berth in the tournament. The U.S. will have to get used to being in a dominant position, the next qualifiers to be used to provide chances for players such as Jimmy Conrad, Jeff Cunningham, Clint Dempsey, Taylor Twellman, all of whom will be competing for reserve roles in Germany.
The win over Mexico once again demonstrated the importance of individual performances, DaMarcus Beasley and Kasey Keller the difference-makers. Every other U.S. starter was a role-player, only Beasley and Keller making plays that none of their teammates could have duplicated.
And Mexico's lack of offensive thrust raised the question about the absence of Cuauhtemoc Blanco, the country's most dynamic and unpredictable performer of his generation.
Coach Bruce Arena's lineup was balanced, with the right players in the right places:
-- Oguchi Onyewu has been incorporated into central defense in less than a year. Conrad will now audition to become Greg Berhalter's successor;
-- though Frankie Hejduk and Eddie Lewis are not first choices at outside backs, they are effective enough against the best competition in the region;
-- Steve Ralston provides right-side balance for Beasley on the wings;
-- Claudio Reyna functions well with either Chris Armas or John O'Brien in midfield.
Landon Donovan will likely move into midfield, since Reyna is suspended for the next match, and that is actually a better slot for him than forward. Donovan is excellent at breaking through defenders, but he again demonstrated his finishing deficiencies against Mexico;
-- Brian McBride is an essential figure at forward, absorbing punishment and performing many unrewarding tasks.
The U.S. also concentrated its defending on the obvious places, limiting Ramon Morales' crosses from the left wing. Blanco's presence would have complicated the task, but the U.S. always seemed to have an extra defender to close Morales. In the second half, Mexico coach Ricardo Lavolpe attempted to change the dynamic on the other side, bringing in Alberto Medina, but the change was made too late.
Yet, Keller was the defensive key to this match and he has been the outstanding U.S. performer of this World Cup campaign. Keller's save of a late first-half free kick kept the game scoreless, and though Keller's play was spectacular, he made it seem effortless and contributed tranquility to the U.S. defense. Onyewu was a factor in discouraging Mexico attacks, but Keller gave the impression that even if everything broke down, he would be there to make saves.
It is just that assurance and compactness in defense that allows Beasley the freedom to go forward, sideways, wherever he can find space.
Mexico had no effective method of countering Beasley and he absorbed more punishment than he deserved. In future games, referees are simply going to have to be conscious of protecting Beasley. And U.S. opponents are going to either have to devise defenses to limit Beasley's touches, or pay the price.
Mexicans are accustomed to dominating the region, and fans displayed a banner reading ''El gigante no ha muerto'' when the U.S. visited Estadio Azteca in March, Mexico's 2-1 reaffirming that it is the "giant" of CONCACAF. But there has been room for two giants in the region since the World Cup finals were expanded to 32 teams.
As a socio-cultural phenomenon, Latino migration into the Southwest is termed the "Reconquista" of a region which was Mexican for a couple centuries; as a sporting phenomenon, the U.S. is merely reconquering a soccer region it dominated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Kasey Keller 8 -- Made difficult plays seem routine, commanded area.
Frankie Hejduk 6 -- Limited Morales.
Oguchi Onyewu 7 -- Nullified Borgetti, threatened on set pieces.
Gregg Berhalter 7 -- High marks for anticipation and positioning.
Eddie Lewis 6 -- Free kick set up first goal.
Steve Ralston 6 -- Fitting in well on right side, right place at right time on goal.
Chris Armas 6 -- Complemented Reyna.
Claudio Reyna 6 -- Provided composure and an excellent feed on second goal.
DaMarcus Beasley 7 -- One of his best games ever, despite blowing a late chance.
Landon Donovan 6 -- Threatened, but failed to finish.
Brian McBride 6 -- Drew defenders' attention.
Pablo Mastroeni 6 -- Added defense.
Santino Quaranta -- No grade.
Jeff Cunningham -- No grade.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.com .