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Jul 10, 2008

U.S. U-20s face stern test vs. Mexico

After a successful tour of North West England in May, Thomas Rongen's squad faces an even tougher test against Mexico in the border town of Laredo, Texas. To followers of international soccer, the U.S.-Mexico rivalry is keenly observed, and Rongen knows that, although his side is growing in stature, any arrogance or lack of heart will be exposed.

Rongen is clearly excited about competing in another U.S. versus Mexico confrontation, but admitted he was wary of the added psychological pressure of playing the U.S. team's historic rivals.

"One of the reason why we brought in Tab Ramos as a third assistant coach is we want him to verbalize to the kids what it means to wear the jersey of the U.S. national team, and to explain what playing against Mexico is all about," Rongen said. "They have become over the years our biggest rivals in CONCACAF.

"Also being in this environment, there will be thousands of Mexico fans so we will be facing a very hostile crowd. The contest will be meaningful and it's the best way for us to evaluate players."

Beyond the excitement of the storied rivalry, Rongen revealed his caution about how well his side can tackle Mexico. "We don't have our best team here," he said. "We don't have our European players and we have some injuries, so we are testing the depth of the squad.

U.S. U-20 schedule
Friday
U.S. U-20s vs. Mexico U-20s
Texas A&M Int'l Univ. Soccer Complex, Laredo,Texas.
9 p.m. ET

"Mexico are always very good. Their head coach [Jesus Ramirez] won the U-17 World Cup and coached the U-20s to the quarterfinals at the World Cup in Canada. Their players come from high-caliber clubs in Mexico and some have first-team experience."

For the players it represents a stern examination, but fresh from touring South America with the University of Michigan, Peri Marosevic exuded determination as he discussed the upcoming fixture against one of America's fiercest rivals.

"At any level playing against Mexico is a huge rivalry," Marosevic said. "Our senior team took care of things; now it's our turn. The two countries have been playing each other for a long time now.

"It's going to be a battle. There are going to be times when it's not the prettiest of soccer, but it's about who puts it in the net, and it's my job to put it in the net and hopefully I can score."

Marosevic is aware that at this stage the U-20 team is about development but pointed out playing Mexico added further dynamics to the contest:

"We have to show the most passion and desire for the game. It's about who wants the ball. We can't be scared when we go out there. We have to show them what we can do and get off to a great start before going to the Milk Cup."

Though Marosevic and Rongen have contrasting outlooks on Friday's game, they do share the same belief that the experiences of Portugal and England have hardened the side and forged a strong bond within the camp. Marosevic explained:

"It was a great experience for us to play against England's top-class clubs at their grounds. It was just great we were able to pull off some wins. It was a tour that helped us as team. We grew in confidence, and it helped us with our mentality as a team."

After a poor run of form in Portugal, Rongen has widened his search for talent, bringing some new players, including Brandon Manzonelli, a product of the Villareal's youth system now playing with New England Revolution.

"We are not familiar with him but he is an interesting player technically and tactically, he went to Europe, things didn't work out, but since going to New England, Steve Nicol highly recommends him," said Rongen. "He said we should look at him, and I guess he owes me one after I mentioned Clint Dempsey to him!"

The roster has a familiar feel, with Ike Opara, Brian Perk, Sheanon Williams and Richard Balchan providing muscle and guile in the defense. In midfield Jorge Flores and Jose Altamirano are likely to create offensives sparks, while up front Felix Garcia and Marosevic are street-smart and dangerous in the final third.

Interestingly, the squad includes seven college players. For parents and players alike, the transition from youth to professional soccer is precarious, but Rongen's latest roster suggests they can develop their future as soccer players through the college system.

Marosevic explained NCAA Division I soccer had matured his game and helped him grow up on the field:

"It's very physical. The pretty side of things don't show as much; it's more rough tackles and being hard. The chances are few so it's the team that makes the most of their opportunities that wins. On any given day any team can beat any team, DII can beat DI.

"At international level there is more expectation and pressure because it's assumed you can beat certain teams and that brings it own pressures. The soccer is different there... a little more finesse and style with one-touch passing and movement."

Andrew Rogers is a freelance contributor to ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at andrewrogers@optonline.net.

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