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Feb 5, 2008

U.S. and Mexican talent coveted by Europe

The final score will interest most observers of the U.S.-Mexico game in Houston Wednesday night. Will the U.S. continue its home winning streak against Mexico? Will the Mexicans break their away scoreless streak against the U.S.?

But there will be significant subplots as European scouts closely watch young players on both teams. The U.S. and Mexico have only recently started exporting players. And what started as a trickle could become a gusher of talent.

The latest MLSers to go abroad were Freddy Adu and Eddie Johnson, who signed with the league at ages 14 and 16, respectively. The next to go could be Jozy Altidore, 18, who made his MLS debut two years ago.

Adu and Altidore are expected to play important roles when the U.S. meets Mexico, a game which will be a preview of the teams' matchups for the next several years.

The U.S. starting lineup could include eight players 25 and younger. Michael Bradley, 20, will draw much of the attention since he has scored 12 goals for Heerenveen in The Netherlands this season. Bradley is on course for a move to England and, if he continues to produce, European scouts will be lining up to seek bargains in the MLS.

Adu and Altidore, both 18, are the youngest players on the U.S. roster. Significantly, they could be on a parallel course with some of their Mexican rivals, since they have been targeted by Iberian clubs (Benfica signed Adu last year and Real Madrid is interested in Altidore).

U.S. agents and players have usually developed relationships in Northern Europe, and have only recently started looking at Portugal and Spain. U.S. players should have a wider range of alternatives. Many U.S. prospects are going to Scandinavia, where clubs in Denmark, Norway and Sweden are acting as middlemen for those hoping to continue on to England.

But U.S. players might have fared better on the Iberian peninsula than in Germany. Speedy, technical types such as DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan would fit in well in Spain. Bigger, stronger U.S. players could dominate in Portugal or even Mexico. Johnson might have thrived had he accepted Benfica's offer a few years ago. New England's Taylor Twellman (who will miss the U.S.-Mexico match with a groin injury) is envisioned as a successor to goal machine Mario Jardel in Portugal and is coveted by Mexican clubs.

Mexican players have traditionally stayed home, mostly because of the golden cage salaries provided by Primera Division clubs. Hugo Sanchez was the first Mexican to make it big in Europe, winning five Spanish League goal-scoring titles in the 1980s. Defender Rafa Marquez followed, going to AS Monaco in 1999, then to Barcelona. Now, Sanchez is coaching Mexico and has said the national team will not reach its potential until at least 30 Mexicans are performing in top leagues outside the country.

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

Mexican players have been targeted by top clubs since winning the FIFA U-17 title in Peru in 2005.

Giovani Dos Santos, named the best player at the '05 FIFA event, is being touted as Ronaldinho's successor at Barcelona. Carlos Vela followed the path most U.S. players would like to have traveled, to Arsenal in 2005. Vela has since been loaned to Osasuna in Pamplona, indicating Spain could continue to be the destination of Mexico's top prospects. Cesar Villaluz, now with Cruz Azul, will probably be the next member of that team to depart.

The most significant exodus of Mexican players occurred after the '06 World Cup, with Ricardo Osorio and Pavel Pardo (both Stuttgart) and Carlos Salcido (PSV Eindhoven) departing. The biggest transfer fee ever paid for a Mexican player went to Andres Guardado, who went to Deportivo La Coruna for $10 million last year. Guardado, 19, and Osorio will miss Wednesday's game with injuries.

The next major Mexican transfer will likely be goalkeeper Guillermo "Memo" Ochoa, 22, who has been linked to Atletico Madrid, a club coached by Mexican Javier "El Vasco" Aguirre.

Just as U.S. players could add a physical dimension to leagues traditionally emphasizing skill and technique, Mexican players such as Osorio and Pardo are finding a niche by bringing quickness and precision to the overly physical Bundesliga. Guardado and Villaluz are 5-foot-6. Nery Castillo, also out because of injury, is listed at 5-7, 129 pounds.

The size difference carries over to goalkeepers. Ochoa, the best Mexican goalkeeping prospect in many years, is listed at 5-foot-11, 160 pounds. Brad Guzan, 23, possibly the most valuable goalkeeping prospect in U.S. history (Celtic offered more than $3 million for him) is 6-4, 210 pounds.

Mexico-U.S. games always have been a David-Goliath tactical matchup. And this provides an excellent measuring stick for European shoppers. Can Villaluz hold up against stronger U.S. opponents? How will Altidore fare against lithe defenders who are used to skillful attackers?

Houston was built on the petroleum industry. On Wednesday, it could provide a connection in the talent pipeline linking North America and Europe.

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