The United States' improbable romp through soccer's 2002 World Cup continued in dazzling fashion this afternoon, as the Americans, with a drastically revamped lineup, shut out longtime rivals Mexico, 2-0.
With today's victory, the U.S. team will play in the tournament's quarterfinals for the first time since 1930. The Americans will face Germany, the Cup's most prolific scorers to date, in the industrial port city of Ulsan, South Korea, on Friday.
And Mexico returns home with much to explain. The Mexicans dominated possession and appeared to control the flow of play but by late in the game were resorting to desperate fouls that led to their captain's ejection.
"It's a rivalry, we definitely know each other," Coach Bruce Arena said. "There's been a lot of bad blood, but at the end of the day we're friends. Mexico has a great team, but I'm proud of our guys. It's a great day for American soccer."
For the Americans, today's victory was a telling gauge of the progress they have made in the world's most popular game since their last-place finish in France '98, the last time the tournament was contested.
It was also the latest installment in one of soccer's most enduring, and historically lopsided rivalries. And the Americans couldn't have acquitted themselves better on both fronts, taking their place amid the eight countries remaining in the tournament and notching their by far most significant victory over Mexico in their last six meetings.
Before 36,380, the underdog Americans got a goal from forward Brian McBride just eight minutes into the match. Midfielder Landon Donovan, one of two 20-year-olds on the squad, put the game out of reach with a header in the 65th minute.
In a game that had 10 yellow cards and one red card issued to both teams, the U.S. benefited from a non-call when John O'Brien's apparent hand ball in the box was missed. Instead of getting a penalty kick, Mexico trailed 1-0.
The Americans had traveled halfway around the globe for today's match-up with their neighbor and most familiar foe, advancing to the tournament's round of 16 by stunning world power Portugal, drawing with South Korea and losing to Poland.
In simply earning the right to play today's match, they achieved far more than anticipated. It was only the third time in World Cup history that the United States advanced past the tournament's first round, and the first time since the inaugural tournament in 1930 that they had done so on foreign soil.
But they entered today's match as underdogs, viewed as having far exceeded their talent by getting this far. It was the United States' fourth match in less than two weeks, and the grind had taken its toll, sidelining three starters because of injury, suspension and general fatigue.
No teams are better acquainted in this World Cup than the United States and Mexico. Lumped in the same region of the globe for qualifying, they meet often both in competitive battles and friendly contests.
Whether a point of strategy or a measure of last resort, Arena fielded a starting lineup that looked radically different than what Mexico expected, with four new starters. Most notably missing were forward Clint Mathis, the team's top scoring threat, and midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, its speediest player. But even perennial starters, such as captain Claudio Reyna, appeared in unfamiliar positions, with Reyna sliding from the customary position at the center of the field over to the right and spending the most of the game playing defense.
Arena's tinkering somehow worked, and the Americans struck quickly, scoring in the eighth minute thanks to a solid right-footed pass by McBride from about 12 yards out. The ball had been crossed from the right by Reyna, then funneled to McBride by a deft-footed Josh Wolff. Goalkeeper Oscar Perez had no time to react, and as the ball rocketed past, McBride thrust a triumphant finger in the air, then kissed his wedding ring as players descended upon him.
Mexico reacted with poise, taking its time with carefully placed shots. U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel was tested often, but lunged and punched his way out of trouble.
Trailing 1-0, Mexico came out aggressively in the second half, bombarding Friedel from close range, long distance, side angles and straight ahead. But the lanky keeper was like a supercharged Gumby, contorting his limbs with lightning reflexes to keep the lead in check.
The Americans struck again in the 66th minute. Midfielder Eddie Lewis, who had played just 16 minutes in the three matches to date, lofted a perfect cross in front of Mexico's goal, and Donovan, who stands just 5 feet 8, headed it in from the far post.
It was an unexpected display of athletic skills and vigor from a squad that seemed so depleted on the eve of the match. There was no mistaking that the Americans' quality of play was slipping as the tournament ground on. After stunning the soccer world by scoring three unanswered goals in the first 35 minutes of its opening match against Portugal, the U.S. squad scored just twice and surrendered six goals in the fives halves of play that followed.
But if the Americans entered the match viewed as overachievers, Mexico took the pitch as historical underachievers. Only twice had the soccer-steeped nation advanced to the quarterfinals -- both times (1970 and 1986) when they hosted the tournament.
For decades, Mexico dominated the soccer played in North and Central America, but seemed to wilt on the World Cup stage. Only recently, under Arena, had the United States closed the gap, winning four of the last five matches between the countries.
But in this World Cup, Mexico under Coach Javier Aguirre managed to coax the best out of his players.
For the Americans, the biggest moment of their careers started with a phone call from President Bush, who wished Arena and the players well.
"The country's really proud of the team," Bush told Arena, with the players gathered around a speakerphone. "A lot of people who didn't even know anything about soccer, like me, are all excited and pulling for you."
Arena stopped short of guaranteeing victory, but promised an all-out effort.
"We know we represent the greatest country in the world," Arena told Bush, "and we're going to give the kind of effort that you and all Americans will be proud of."
The match was played at Chonju World Cup Stadium, about three hours southwest of Seoul, and a spirited crowd of American and Mexican partisans jammed onto trains headed that direction. They filled only about four-fifths of the stadium, but compensated with raucous cheers, chants, whistles and drumbeats.
Sombrero-wearing Mexican supporters filled on end of the stadium, dangling signs that read, "Vamos Mexico! Si Se Puede!" (Yes, You Can!)
Across the way, a smaller band of flag-waving Americans bounced up and down, their banners proclaiming, "The Yanks Are Coming!"
The month before the tournament, Arena was asked what he felt would constitute success as U.S. coach in World Cup 2002. Scoring one point? Winning one match? Advancing to the second round? Arena said simply that success, in his eyes, would be if the U.S. team turned in a performance that was better than its past showing. He and his players march on having accomplished all of those things.