As the quality of the U.S. men's soccer team has improved over the last decade, the United States' games against Mexico increasingly have become regional grudge matches. In Mexico, victory is a matter of national pride. Although today's crowd of about 80,000 at famed Azteca Stadium was relatively small (it holds 115,000), the fans whipped themselves into a horn blowing, flag-waving, confetti-throwing frenzy.

The Mexicans, currently ranked 10th in the world, have lost only once at Azteca in the last 18 years and were heavily favored to win today's Confederations Cup semifinal. They advanced to the final on Wednesday night in Mexico City against defending tournament champion Brazil, which routed Saudi Arabia, 8-2, in today's other semifinal in Guadalajara.

In addition to Mexico's home advantage, the 30th-ranked United States also had the weight of history against it. The U.S. team has never won a game in Mexico since the countries began playing each other in 1934 and it hasn't scored against Mexico on Mexican turf in 15 years.

The raucous, unforgiving and impatient Mexican crowd booed every time the U.S. team passed backwards to set up a play.

"We defended too long today, and we didn't capitalize on our chances," said defender Jeff Agoos, who plays for D.C. United.

But the gritty defense has paid off in this tournament, with only three goals allowed. The players' physical training allowed them to keep up with the Mexicans, despite the 7,350-foot altitude and Mexico City's renowned pollution.

At the same time, the team was clearly fatigued and Coach Bruce Arena and his players criticized a schedule that had them play three games in five days in two different cities. The tournament has come under criticism from other teams as well for being poorly planned.

"It was an endurance issue," Arena said. "It's survival of the fittest."

The coach also criticized the referee, Kim Young Joo of South Korea, who he said was "over his head," adding, "It's all part of playing in this stadium. You're not going to get calls going your way, and it didn't happen today."

Despite the loss, the U.S. team seems to have redeemed itself in the eyes of the world soccer community and restored its own self-respect. Many credit Arena, the former coach of D.C. United, for bringing in younger players and boosting the team's enthusiasm and confidence.

In the first round of the tournament, the United States handled weak New Zealand, 2-1, beat Germany, currently ranked fifth in the world, 2-0, and lost a squeaker to top-ranked Brazil, 1-0.

"We feel really proud with the way the whole team has played," goalkeeper Kasey Keller said. "We're continuing to grow from our disappointment in 1998 in France," when the United States lost three first-round World Cup games and finished last in the 32-team field.

"We could have taken it from [Mexico], there's no doubt about it," Keller added. "They knew they were in a difficult game, and they knew they could have lost it."

Said Arena: "I'm proud of my team--I thought they played well. To see that our team could play them pretty well tells me we're making progress."