USA must avoid old memories to reach common goal vs. Mexico

USA must avoid old memories to reach common goal vs. Mexico

Published Oct. 23, 2014 10:03 p.m. ET


The similarity of the circumstances is eerie. Four years ago, the United States women's national team played Mexico in the semifinals of the CONCACAF qualifying tournament, with a guaranteed berth for the Women's World Cup on the line. On Friday night, that history repeats itself (live, FOX Sports 1, 7.30 p.m. ET). 

The Americans had never lost a qualifier for any tournament before --€“ whether it be for the World Cup or the Olympics --€“ and haven't since. But on that day, Mexico bested them 2-1 and sent the Americans scrambling to earn passage to the playoff via the third-place game against Costa Rica and reach the 2011 World Cup in Germany through a home-and-away series with Italy. 

It seems unfathomable now that the Americans should lose. But it did then, too. Yet in a narrow and rowdy baseball stadium in Cancun, they were stunned. The memory lingers. "I don't think I'll ever forget that game," recalled captain Christie Rampone. "As an athlete, you definitely remember the tough times. It's always in the back of my head."


"I'll never forget the field, the atmosphere, the frustration," said midfielder Carli Lloyd, adding that it made the USA aware that its dominance was no longer a given. "It was kind of a wakeup call. Nothing is guaranteed with this team anymore. Any opponent you play, we're not guaranteed to win. It kind of humbled us a bit."

Mexico's long-time head coach Leo Cuellar, of course, has fonder memories. "I think the US experienced an atmosphere they never experienced before, with a very small field, with the fans barking very close to them and being very excited," he said. "I think we ran the adrenaline very high."

There is much more recent history between these teams, and it paints a far bleaker picture for the Mexicans. In September, the two sides faced off in a pair of stateside friendlies and the USA prevailed 8-0 and 4-0. Cuellar blames the team's lack of rhythm and familiarity at the time. Indeed, they hadn't played a game together in 9 and 1/2 months and arrived in camp with very different levels of fitness: "We definitely paid a price." 

Rampone doesn't think those games are a relevant guide to Friday's contest. "It's a semifinal," she said. "The level is raised. They're getting better; we've gotten better. It's definitely a better game."

The question is which Mexico the Americans will be faced with. In their first game in September, El Tri tried to attack toe-to-toe with them and did fairly well at it until defensive lapses blew out the score line. In the second game, Mexico bunkered in and shipped only half as many goal. Cuellar was understandably mum on his intentions, saying only that he wants Mexico "to create our own chances."

Midfielder Veronica Perez wasn't much more descriptive or specific. "We got back to Mexico and worked really hard," she said, mysteriously. "I think we're better prepared now. We've watched film and we have a game plan."

This poses a quandary of sorts for USA head coach Jill Ellis. "I don't know exactly what to expect," she said. "I think Mexico will come out and play. Leopards don't change their spots too much."

If Mexico doesn't, however, and concerns itself only with defending, the way every opponent so far in this tournament has against the USA, it could frustrate the Americans. This year, they have seemingly faced more parked buses --€“ in the soccer parlance --€“ than ever before, exacting a toll on their results. "It's a different challenge," said Lloyd. "We faced that a bit at the last Algarve Cup [in March] and obviously the results weren't great there [a worst-ever seventh place]. This team does a really good job of when things are going well, everything is great. And when things are maybe a little bit off, we tend to kind of freak a little bit."

Lloyd sees progress though. "I think we're getting better at that, being able to play against a bunkered team," she said. "We're still scoring a decent amount of goals."

Regardless of all that, Mexico is the clear underdog. "On paper, they are way superior but the game needs to be played," said Cuellar. "We will be as aggressive as possible. But this is one of those games where you have to make a perfect game."

He argued that since their last contest, the Americans have played some 100 games together whereas Mexico has only had about 20. The USA has had 89, actually, but his point stands: The difference in ability and resources is vast. 

None of that will hamper Mexico's hunger to upset the Americans though. And it wouldn't be the first time they pulled it off.