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Feb 4, 2008

1991 marked the turning point for the U.S.

Up until 1991, about the only thing the United States had won in its soccer battles with Mexico was a couple of coin flips. Yes, there was that epic World Cup qualifier the Yanks won in 1934, which we all remember so well. Then there was the Americans' 2-1 victory during qualifying for the 1982 World Cup, a win tempered by the fact that Mexico's advancement and the Yanks' elimination already had been assured prior to kickoff. All told, the Americans' record against their southern neighbors was a not-so-stellar 2-22-3.

Things have changed just a bit since then, of course. While victory in Mexico has continued to be elusive, the U.S. has proved to be almost as tough on its side of the border, in spite of some decidedly unfriendly crowds. And if there was one match that signaled the U.S.'s transformation from doormat to rival, it would be its 2-0 victory in the semifinals of the 1991 CONCACAF Gold Cup.

That match, along with the Americans' winning performance in the tournament, has been largely consigned to obscurity, so much so that Kansas City Wizards general manager Peter Vermes, a forward on that 1991 side, calls it "the forgotten team."

But it's worth remembering the squad was undergoing as important a transition as any in U.S. soccer history. The brutal memories of the 1990 World Cup still were fresh, and new coach Bora Milutinovic was attempting to put an unfamiliar imprint on the team, one that contradicts the perception of the Serb as a hyper-conservative coach.

"When Bora came in, he really changed a lot of the things that we were doing with the team and the way we played," Vermes said. "He tried to make us a very possession-oriented team, as well as take our game to the other team a little bit more."

To accelerate the process, Milutinovic called in Belfast-born Brian Quinn, a naturalized U.S. citizen who had forged a career playing in the old North American Soccer League and then indoors with the San Diego Sockers. For Quinn, along with midfielder Hugo Perez, Milutinovic's approach was one that suited him well.

"We loved that environment in that we didn't just have to fight for the long balls," Quinn said. "It was more, 'Get [the ball], play it, switch the attack, and if it's not on, start over again.' I was used to that, but I think it was new for everyone else."

The Gold Cup, being contested for the first time in 20 years, was Milutinovic's first chance to implement his plans in a tournament setting, and he was forced to do so without John Harkes and Tab Ramos, two of the biggest names of that era. Still, during group play, the U.S. won all three of its matches, including a 2-1 victory over Trinidad & Tobago that came courtesy of a last-minute bicycle-kick goal from Marcelo Balboa.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Mexico
Feb. 6
Reliant Stadium, Houston, Texas
9 p.m. ET, ESPN2

When goal difference saw Mexico finish in second place in the tournament's other group, a semifinal date with its usual whipping boy loomed. But Milutinovic, who coached El Tri at the 1986 World Cup, had his team well prepared for Mexico's own possession-based approach, and as the match unfolded, it was the Americans who were carrying the game.

"We literally just ran them ragged for the first time, just moving the ball in the midfield and making them chase," said Eric Wynalda, another forward on that U.S. team. "When the 'Oles' started when we had the ball midway through the first half, we knew were on to something."

Wynalda added that Quinn was the key to the Americans' success in midfield.

"He never hit the panic button," Wynalda said of Quinn. "I think it was something we were really lacking in that position."

The goals were slow to come, but come they did. A Perez free kick just minutes into the second half found John Doyle at the far post, and he side-footed it in. Vermes then extended the lead in the 64th minute when his 25-yard dart found the upper corner. And rather than the team hunkering down, the Americans' newfound confidence on the ball took over.

"Instead of it being a case of, 'Alright, you've rattled the cage, now they are going to come get you and win the game,' they were chasing us. We were spraying the ball around," Wynalda said.

Adding to Mexico's discomfort was the Yanks' application of some tactical gamesmanship. In prior matches, with the results in its favor, Mexico never had hesitated to milk the clock by dawdling over throw-ins and free kicks. This time, it was on the receiving end, and to say its players didn't take it well is a bit of an understatement.

"They were absolutely losing their minds," Vermes said. "They're trying to run after the ball, picking it up, and trying to tell us to hurry up. You could see the smiles on guys' faces like, 'Are you kidding me? You guys have been doing this for years to us, and now that we have the opportunity to do it you, you don't like it very much, do you?'"

When the final whistle blew, the repercussions were swift and predictable. The headline of one Mexico City daily simply said, "What?" Coach Manuel Lapuente resigned immediately following the game and wasn't on the bench for the third-place match against Costa Rica.

As for the U.S., in the short term, there still was the not-so-insignificant matter of the final against Honduras, in which the Americans prevailed in a penalty shootout, thanks to goalkeeper Tony Meola, who made one do-or-die save while Honduras missed another game-winning attempt.

As for the long term, it would be nice to think it has been nothing but sweetness and light for the U.S. ever since. But while progress has been steady, it has been of the sawtooth variety, something Milutinovic anticipated back in 1991 when he said, "You don't measure soccer in terms of one week."

Too true, although it is safe to say that tournament -- and the victory over Mexico -- did mark a turning point. The U.S. since has reached the quarterfinals of a World Cup at Mexico's expense, and ahead of Wednesday's friendly in Houston, the U.S. owns an 8-0-1 mark in its past nine matches against Mexico on American soil.

"It was a game where we really came into our own," Wynalda said. "It was the first time, obviously, that we had beaten them in a while, and I don't think we've ever looked back. It was always a rivalry because of the proximity of where we live; it's the 'Border War.' But the truth of it is that's when the power really changed hands. From that point on, I think we've been the better team."

For the forgotten team, that's not a bad legacy.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.