2002 USA-Mexico Literary Replay

Imagine a sporting event where the intensity of any playoff hockey game was amplified by 100 except everyone was dressed up like they were on loan from the Raiders and, on top of that, national pride was at stake. That’s what the World Cup, the biggest sporting event in the world by any quantifiable measure, is all about. Every day for one whole month the world will stop as countries do battle to find the best footballing nation in the world. As a relatively young country when it comes to soccer, not a lot is expected of us Yanks. After failing to qualify for the tournament and being the little brother of our sector on this planet for 40 years, the United States has now qualified for 5 straight tournaments and has become the bully on the proverbial block when it comes to North American soccer. With a relatively favorable draw for the round robin portion that includes an opening match date with our former oppressors from England, the United States has a chance to make a stamp on this tournament and duplicate, maybe even surpass their surprising run to the final eight of the 2002 tournament. With the opening match kicking off in a little more than a month this is a perfect opportunity to revisit the greatest American soccer moment I’ve witnessed. From the 2002 World Cup in South Korea/Japan, I bring to you a literary replay of the U.S.-Mexico Round of 16 elimination match.

A little backdrop: Our biggest natural rival. It’s like an exponential version of when the little brother takes beatings from his older brother for the first 16 years of his life and then the growth spurt happens. Suddenly the little brother isn’t so little and the bigger brother has no identity. Think about that. Mexico’s identity is at stake. The winner here establishes themselves as the soccer power in this region and it stays that way until the next time they meet on a big stage.

Second, no one expected the Americans to even make it this far. They were drawn into a group that included one of the favorites for the tournament (Portugal), the host nation (South Korea), and another tough European opponent (Poland). After a 32nd place finish out of 32 teams at the ’98 World Cup in France, the U.S. were given as much of a chance as a big pile of coke left alone in a room with Whitney Houston. After shocking the world with an opening victory over Portugal and a draw with South Korea, the Americans lost to Poland but were able to back in to the second round when South Korea beat Portugal at the same time, making South Korea winners of the group and the States runners-up. Second round here we come! USA! USA! USA!

Mexico was impressive in advancing as well, winning a group that included Germany 2006 winner Italy, Ecuador, and the third place finisher from France ’98, Croatia. Well done Mexico. May the better team win.

June 17, 2002

Kickoff: Mass changes for the United States including Gregg Berhalter starting in place of injured Jeff Agoos, which is fine since Agoos basically turned into a soccer playing version of Benedict Arnold in this tournament. Thought to be one of the people to leaned on heavily in this tournament, he proved to be as sturdy as Lindsey Lohan. He was directly responsible for four of the six goals scored against the States in the group stage including an own goal. Anyway, he missed this game with a strained calf and a bruised ego.

1st minute: One minute in and it’s a free kick for Mexico.Claudio Reyna (our captain) got moved and took a professional foul stopping the man instead letting him stroll into the area. Blanco for Mexico puts in a dangerous cross that no one can get on the end of and U.S. goalkeeper collects the ball  in a manner that could be described as anything but calm.

4th minute: Mexico presses and Berhalter has to slide it back to Friedel who kicks it about 50 rows into the stands. Tense moments so far for the Americans, Mexico looks confident.

7th minute: Goal United States! Seemingly out of nowhere, an innocuous foul about 38 yards from goal turns into the opener for the match. Brian McBride restarts quickly while Mexico is still recovering. He finds a streaking Reyna who sprints the ball up the sideline and plays a pass along the goal line that is touched back by Josh Wolff to McBride who is following his initial pass and he hammers home a right footed shot into the top left of the Mexican goal. USA! USA! USA!

9th minute: Our ESPN play-by-play Jack Edwards tells us that Mexico gave up the first goal to Ecuador in the first round of this very World Cup and came back to win 2-1. Whose side you on Edwards?

13th minute: After some back and forth play, Friedel collects and punts the ball at least 75 yards in the air. Why wouldn’t that work in the NFL? Just get the best punter from MLS and pay him to punt in the offseason. I’m actually surprised Al Davis or Jerry Jones haven’t done this yet.

15th minute: Edwards and Marcello Balboa both keep referring to everything as Mexican. Mexican side of the field, the Mexican team, and everything else. This feels so politically incorrect even though they are technically accurate. I’d feel uncomfortable about it if the Mexican team weren’t such dirty players and such whiners. I’m going to milk this one.

16th minute: Rafael Marquez (the Mexican captain) fouls Landon Donovan while he and his already receding at 21 hairline from making a harrowing run that leads to a free kick from 32 yards out but Reyna hits it directly into the wall. Open play.

20th minute: Josh Wolff continues to cause problems for the Mexican defense with his speed and his ability to find open spaces. After a shaky few minutes to start the game, the Americans are giving as good as they get.

22nd minute: Balboa steals my sibling rivalry analogy eight years before I even use it. Whatever.

24th minute: Bit of a slow patch in play so I’ll take this opportunity to say that the winner of this match will get to face powerhouse Germany on three days rest while the Germans haven’t played in nearly a week. Incidentally the Germans are nicknamed Die Manschaft. That’s German for The Manschaft. I don’t like anyone’s chances against them.

26th minute: Cuathelmoc Blanco rips one from 32 yards and Friedel makes a diving save, beating it away for a juicy rebound but no Mexicans are around to capitalize.

27th minute: First yellow card of the game goes to Eddie Pope after he taps Blanco on the ankle followed by Blanco rolling around like he just got shot. Somewhere, I think Vince Carter is applauding.

28th minute: Our first substitution: Luis Hernandez for Ramiro Morales. Probably injury related as you only get three substitutions per match and you normally wouldn’t waste one this early. Edwards lets us know that Hernandez scored four goals in World Cup ’98  for Mexico. Hang on a minute while I check which country Mr. Edwards was born in.

31st minute: Technical difficulties on the World Wide Leader! Edwards gets lively and the feed comes back just in time to see the Mexicans called for offsides.  Mexico doing nothing near threatening at this point.

35th minute: Friedel punches the ball like Joshua Clottey punching at Manny Pacquiao and it travels about 5 feet to Blanco and he thankfully hits it close enough to Friedel that he could punch it again off Hernandez out of bounds.

37th minute: Vidrio earns the first Mexican yellow card as he loses a few studs in Eddie Lewis’ shin. Donovan heads the free kick into the box and right into Wolff’s path. He hits a strong volley but it is a little too close to the keeper and fights it off for a corner kick. Nothing special happens.That’s twice in a span of 4 minutes that it was just a keeper and goal but the ball was hit too close to the keeper allowing them to make the save. That’s why the keepers in soccer wear the bright jersey. It subliminally draws the shooters to shoot at them. Too bad hockey goalies couldn’t employ this tactic, or better yet, Jamarcus Russell’s receivers.

40th minute: Marcello Balboa tells us “Oscar Perez was voted the Mexican League’s best player in 2001” and this is followed by about 15 seconds of silence. Awesome.

45th minute: More back and forth play results in a whole lot of nothing. The crowd is into it though, doing the Indian chant, the one they do at the Seminoles games. I wonder who this is in support of? The Mexicans? The Americans? Or just the Native Americans? I know there isn’t a Native American team but I felt they got a raw deal. Count me in on this chant.

Halftime: I remember watching this game early in the morning during summer break and having so much animosity towards the Mexican team in the buildup to the game that I actually began to root against everything Mexico. I rooted against their economy, I ate at McDonald’s instead of Taco Bell, and I would change the channel if a Salma Hayek was on. Was that taking it a bit too far? Maybe. Salma didn’t ask for that but I was prideful damn it. That’s what soccer does when you are passionate about it. You’re not just rooting for your country; you’re rooting against every other country. USA-England? The Revolutionary War. USA-Russia? The Cold War. Germany-Everyone else? Every other war ever. No one likes the Germans. On June 12, USA and England will be the focus point of the sporting world and I’m already on my passion. I haven’t watched Shaun of the Dead in 6 months and I pray every day for John Terry to sleep with Wayne Rooney’s wife. Is that terrible? I guess. I just want my country to win.

46th minute: Kickoff and Mexico draws a free kick from 23 yards out and as Blanco steps up Edwards says, “Blanco, he’s got a tremendous swerve.” I really wish Jim Nantz would use that phrase to describe Tiger Woods.

50th minute: Hernandez shoves Berhalter and then dives into him to draw a foul on the right wing. Absolutely dirty pool but I’m not surprised. This is what the Mexicans do no matter who they play. It’s okay, even though we won’t play them in the upcoming World Cup, I’ll still be rooting for them to lose. And my local Chipolte to be shut down. On the following free kick, Friedel is caught off guard by a shot when he was expecting a cross but he gets enough of it to touch it onto the bar and out for a corner. The Karma Gods must not have seen Hernandez flop either.

55th minute: Mexico gets their fourth corner kick of the half already and John O’Brien gets away with a handball in the box. The Soccer Karma Gods did not miss this one as in the next round the Germans would be outplayed by the Americans and win 1-0 after Torsten Frings used his hand to stop the ball on the goal line.

57th minute: Both teams have some good buildup but neither keeper is troubled and the danger gives way to a highlight of O’Brien’s handball. Jack Edwards calls it a “terrible non-call.” I’m calling him Javier Edwards for the rest of this column.

59th minute: Earnie Stewart subs in for Josh Wolff. I like it and Wolff looks spent. Stewart scored an important goal for us at World Cup ’94 that beat Colombia and advanced us to the knockout stage in a huge surprise. Of course, Javier Edwards does not mention this but he does mention that the U.S. caught a huge break and says Mexico was deprived of a penalty kick after what appeared to be a John O’Brien handball. I’m thinking really hard of what crime to frame him for right now.

62nd minute: Luna with a bender that bent too much and goes wide after Jared Borghetti tripped over himself and Berhalter was blamed. I think the second linesman looks a little like Tim Donaghy. Maybe I’m imagining things.

65th minute: 2-0 United States! Donovan breaks up a Mexican attack and the ball finds Eddie Lewis on the left who crosses perfectly to a wide open Donovan about 6 yards from goal and it’s just a simple header from there. Perez was out of position and Donovan just needed to put it on net. Javier Edwards got so excited that I feel okay just calling him Edwards again. USA! USA! USA!

67th minute: Hernandez gets a yellow card for diving in the American box. I love it. The best yellow cards are when there are no fouls, just the referee deciding that you are such a meathead that you deserve to see the color yellow six inches from your face. Meanwhile Edwards reminds us yet again of the non-call on O’Brien. Let it go Javier.

68th minute: Mexico pressing now which is leading to some bad passes and hurried decisions and that turns into another U.S. counter-attack. McBride heads down to Stewart in the box who then lays off for O’Brien and he whistles his shot just past the upper left corner. The boys are playing with some swagger now.

69th minute: Blanco and Pablo Mastroeni tangle and Blanco shoves his knees into him as he tries to bait him into a second yellow card so Mexico can get a man advantage. Mastroeni keeps his cool though and Blanco gets the yellow instead. I’m getting pissed and this game happened eight years ago.

71st minute: Balboa pronounces the word havoc “have-awk.”

74th minute: Another corner for Mexico after Friedel pushes a rocket from 30 yards over the bar. Javier Edwards notes that Mexico has dominated play. Allow me to retort Javier. The United States has had two chances and they finished them. Mexico has had a couple half chance but have done nothing else. Sure they have more possession and corner kicks but they are playing right into America’s hands. Wait for the punch and then counter punch back. Styles make fights and the U.S. is getting more out of their style. Has Mexico controlled the play? Maybe. Have they dominated? No. Far from it.

79th minute: Mexico brings on Alberto Garcia Aspe on to try and get something out of the Mexican attack. A killer left foot, he scored against the U.S. in qualifying. Also, I think Edwards just wet himself. Meanwhile, Cobi Jones comes on for our hero Brian McBride. Great holdup play by McBride and he’s scored the game-winner against our most hated rival. Good work Brian.

81st minute: Aspe picks up a yellow card for fouling Jones with a late tackle. One minute later, Luna is fouled and carried off on a stretcher. You know what? I don’t even care if he is okay at this point. I’m cutthroat.

84th minute: The Americans are dominating ball possession and making the Mexicans chase now. Another Mexican yellow card as Donovan is fouled hard going to the corner. While Lewis’ free kick is headed out for a corner, Javier Edwards brings up the handball one more time, which begs the question, can we deport him?

88th minute: The Mexicans are frustrated by the stifling U.S. defense and they show it when Marquez intentionally head butts Jones. Instant red card and he is sent off. Adios. USA will play 11 on 10 for the rest of the game.

94th minute: The game ends with the U.S. fans singing Hey, Hey, Hey, Good-Bye. Absolutely awesome.

This was the highlight of my 2002 summer. It is a memory I will never forget. Watching with my brother and best friend at 2 in the morning and while the details were fuzzy, they aren’t anymore. Reliving this brought so many old emotions: nervousness, pure joy, delirium, and a hatred for Mexico and Jack Edwards. Maybe they didn’t win the tournament but those boys did the soccer fans in this country damn proud and that is something that will never be forgotten. At least as long as there’s this column.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Josh on May 16, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    First time i have read this blog, hysterical, javier edwards thats great, reading this reminded me of watching this game it brought chills


  2. Posted by TKW on May 16, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    Great to re-live. You are making me want to go and watch that game again. If only I can find it somewhere.


  3. Posted by DGH on May 19, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    Yeah, this brings back memories of that magical team. nervous about US/England, but a good kind of nervous. Vive Los Colonies!


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