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Jun 25, 2007

U.S. confirms dominance over Mexico

Remember when a U.S. victory over Mexico was a thrilling surprise? When a win against the bad guys in green actually served to justify the U.S. team's standing on the world stage? Remember when such a victory legitimized American soccer?

Those days are over. After scoring a ninth win over Mexico in 12 meetings, and ninth in 10 meetings outside of Mexico, the United States no longer measures itself by its results against its most bitter rival. Winning is something American fans have come to expect, and losing is something Mexican fans pray won't happen again because they've become used to it.

It is easy to forget that less than a decade ago the roles were reversed. Mexico was the untouchable rival with a skill and pedigree that was just too much for the United States. You could hear long sequences of "Oles" as El Tri oftentimes overwhelmed the Americans in front of large crowds of Mexican fans, both in the United States and in Mexico.

No, the Americans don't dominate Mexico the way they used to be dominated, but simply beating the Mexicans at their national sport over and over is just as painful. It is that pain that leads to the denial you hear in the voice of Mexican players, fans and coach Hugo Sanchez, who probably never envisioned the day when Los Gringos would own Mexico so thoroughly.

Do you know what the most surprising aspect of the U.S. team's success against Mexico this year is? The two wins over Mexico in 2007 have come during a time of transition for the American team and during a period when Mexico was supposed to transforming into a true world power.

When Bruce Arena departed as U.S. head coach and longtime national team stalwarts Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride and Eddie Pope retired, there was cause for concern about who would step in to keep the national team from regressing.

Enter Bob Bradley, who has silenced the critics who insisted the United States needed a foreign coach with more international pedigree to rescue the program from mediocrity. Bradley stepped in, instilled confidence and attitude, and immediately called on the program's best young prospects and threw them into the fray.

The result is a new generation for American fans to get excited about. Tim Howard, Benny Feilhaber, Michael Bradley, Jonathan Spector, Jonathan Bornstein and Ricardo Clark all come away from the Gold Cup with invaluable experience and confidence that they are capable of playing key roles as the United States continues its march toward the 2010 World Cup.

The feeling isn't quite the same for Mexico, which was supposed to be back to its dominant self by now. When Hugo Sanchez took over as head coach, Pavel Pardo, Ricardo Osorio and Carlos Salcido went to Europe's top leagues after last year's World Cup and Nery Castillo decided to play for Mexico, it was supposed to signal a boost that could help Mexico claim its place among the world's best.

It hasn't quite worked out that way. The Mexicans have stumbled and bumbled under Sanchez, and while the play of the team's European-based players has improved, that has not resulted in better team performances. Yes, Mexico put together a quality performance in the Gold Cup final, but the tournament as a whole was a disappointing display.

Not so for the Americans, who scored their first comeback victory against Mexico, added a fourth Gold Cup title and gave their fans reason to believe that the next World Cup cycle is something to get excited about.

So what else did we learn on Sunday, aside from the fact that the United States still owns Mexico? Consider the following:

1. Benny Feilhaber is ready for prime time. There had been some doubts about whether Feilhaber was really ready to be a first-team regular at such a young age, but he eased those doubts with a stunning goal and stellar second-half performance. He held possession better than most American players and showed a knack for getting out of tight situations and delivering smart passes.

2. Brian Ching is the best forward the U.S. team has. Yes, he started slowly and looked rusty early on, but Ching put himself in good positions consistently and made sharp passes that none of the other forwards in the mix can make. He does such a good job setting up Donovan, Dempsey and Beasley that he deserves to keep getting the nod ahead of the likes of Taylor Twellman and Eddie Johnson. Ching will be 32 when the 2010 World Cup roles around but is still good enough to help hold things down until the next generation of American forwards is ready.

3. Nery Castillo is going to be a terror. If you didn't know about Nery Castillo before Sunday's match, you do now. Castillo has been a star in Greece for a few years now and is already a target for several of Europe's top teams. The 22-year-old's speed, shiftiness and vision are going to be key for Mexico for years. Get ready for a Castillo-Carlos Vela forward line to be the class of CONCACAF in a few years.

4. U.S. defenders need to improve. It might sound crazy to say, since the U.S. team gave up only one goal, but there were too many instances when people made mistakes and were beaten only to be bailed out by bad Mexico finishing or great help defending and goalkeeping. Yes, defending is a team game, and if help defense is stopping attacks then things are good. But Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra and Jonathan Bornstein all need to sharpen their skills for the U.S. team to contend with anybody in the world.

5. The Copa America roster suddenly doesn't look so bad. With Feilhaber and Ricardo Clark looking so good on Sunday, the U.S. Copa America team doesn't seem as overmatched as it did when the roster was first announced. Having them play in front of a center back tandem of Jay DeMerit and Jimmy Conrad gives the U.S. team a solid foundation. Whether the rest of the team will be good enough remains to be seen.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.