U.S. dominant historically against Mexico
ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- The future of soccer in Rochester, one of the country's most soccer-friendly cities, will be on display when the United States faces Mexico in the national team's first game at sparkling new PAETEC Park on Wednesday night (8 ET on ESPN2).
Whether the game itself represents a glimpse at the future of women's soccer in North America or just more of the same remains to be seen.
The United States has played Mexico 16 times, coming away not only with 16 wins, but with 79 goals, against just five for Mexico. Coming off a 4-1 win against China on Aug. 27, the United States has 276 all-time victories, and no country has been a more frequent victim without ever beating or tying the Americans than Mexico (Canada and Norway have more losses against the U.S., but Canada has managed three wins and three draws while Norway has 18 wins and two draws).
In short, the U.S. women dominate their southern neighbor much the way Mexico once treated the U.S. men's team like a scrimmage opponent.
But even if coach Greg Ryan's team appears to still hold a significant edge over Mexico for Wednesday's friendly, November's World Cup qualifying for the CONCACAF region and the foreseeable future, there are indications this relationship may eventually evolve into a rivalry based as much on football parity as geographical proximity.
"Immensely," Heather Mitts said when asked how much Mexico has improved in recent years. "I'm trying to think back about the first time that we played them, I think they were a very young team. When you come out there with players such as Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, players like that, that have been around for so long and for a team that has established itself, I'm sure they were a little intimidated at first and didn't have the depth that they have now."
Much of Mexico's talent is found up front, something that was apparently missing -- as the team's goals total would suggest -- in previous games against the U.S. After missing the World Cup in 2003, Mexico advanced to the quarterfinals in the 2004 Olympics in Athens before being knocked out by Brazil.
"Mexico plays some great soccer," Ryan said. "They have some very skillful players -- their front six players are very skillful, very good dribbling, very fast. They're a very dangerous team in terms of scoring goals."
Unfortunately for Mexico coach Leonardo Cuellar, he'll be without his top forward, Maribel Dominguez, on Wednesday night. That will make it tougher for Mexico to press the attack, already an area of focus for the United States.
"The key for us with Mexico is try to keep them on the defensive, attack as much as we can and force them to defend, through attacking," Ryan said. "Because if you let that team attack, they can score some goals."
To that end, the coach made the point to his players during Monday's practice that they must continue working the ball to the flanks, the same plan that helped produce four goals against China.
"We need to dominate the flanks, the width on the field," Ryan said. "They play a little bit narrow in the defense, with a sweeper and three backs they're kind of tight, so you've got to open them wide before you can open them up the middle."
Using the attack and offensive creativity to its advantage has been a staple of Ryan's team, something that didn't always seem to be true toward the end of former coach April Heinrich's tenure. (Ryan, an assistant to Heinrich, took over in 2005.)
In four domestic matches since the middle of July, the team's first action of the year on home soil, the United States has scored 14 goals. And with Sweden, Canada and China among the victims (along with Ireland), the offensive production has come against the same quality opposition likely to be on hand for next summer's World Cup in China. Much of the credit goes to Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly up front, but the play of the midfield has earned good reviews. Especially key has been the emergence of Carli Lloyd.
The former Rutgers star earned her first two caps in 2005, including a win against Mexico, but it wasn't until this spring's Algarve Cup that she earned her first start. And in starting five of the team's last six games, she's shown an ability to create off the dribble and punish teams slow to react to her forays. She's worth watching now, but according to her coach, the best is yet to come.
"I'm really, really happy with Carli, and at the same time I say that, I feel like you guys are seeing about 40 percent of what she's going to become," Ryan said. "And so I'm pushing Carli, I'm not satisfied with Carli, because I see a Carli Lloyd that could just be incredible for this team. And she is just getting started. I'm so happy with how she's playing, but I've got to stay after her, to push her, not to let her settle to be less than what she can become, because she can be just a phenomenal player."
And in the bigger picture, fine-tuning the parts already in place seems to be Ryan's overall philosophy with World Cup qualifying looming in late November. Stephanie Lopez, a Hermann Trophy candidate for the University of Portland, was called up to the team for this game after a stint as captain of the Under-20 team at the recent World Championships in Russia (Lopez and Heather O'Reilly flew to Rochester after North Carolina's 1-0 win against Portland on Sunday). But it is mostly a familiar group.
"Some of the ones that went to the Under-20 World Championship played very well; I want to keep bringing them in to take a look," Ryan said. "But I would say 95 percent, or 90 percent, we are settled and we are really trying to gear up for the qualification with the players we currently have on this team."
So while Mexico hopes to show its current team is closer to the future than the past, players like Lloyd, Leslie Osborne, Tina Frimpong and others will be looking to prove the present is just fine for the United States.
Notes: Defender Cat Whitehill was not named to the roster for Wednesday's game after aggravating plantar fascia in her left foot against China. Defender Kate Markgraf also is not on the roster but is in Rochester and participated in practice on Monday as she continues to come back after giving birth to her first child in July. Briana Scurry missed the second half of Monday's practice after appearing to hurt her hand or lower arm during drills, but it wasn't clear if the injury would affect her availability for Wednesday.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com