Mexico once again derailed the U.S. men's soccer team's dreams of international glory this afternoon, snatching a 1-0 victory in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup on Cuauhtemoc Blanco's goal in the seventh minute of sudden-death overtime.
The United States had its second consecutive close call in this city to extend its winless streak here to 21 matches. Almost two years ago, the Americans played a scoreless tie in a World Cup qualifying match at Azteca Stadium and today they were in position for an upset.
Mexico (3-0-1) advanced to play Brazil (4-0) in the championship game Wednesday night. The Brazilians powered to the final today in Guadalajara, Mexico, with an 8-2 rout of Saudi Arabia. Ronaldinho, a 19-year-old forward, scored three goals to give him six in the tournament, and Alex added two goals.
The United States (2-2) will play the Saudis (1-2-1) for third place Tuesday night in Guadalajara.
Today, before about 80,000 spectators in the 115,000-seat stadium, Mexico's Miguel Zepada floated the ball into the box early in overtime. Jose Abundis's header ricocheted off defender Robin Fraser's back and to the feet of a waiting Blanco, who on his second stab at the ball, spun it into the left corner.
"A goal is always a problem, but there's no one to blame on that one," U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller said. "It was a scramble, Blanco stepped on the ball and it just kind of squirted in."
It was a just result in an intense game that was as much a test of fitness as it was of skill. The Americans appeared tired after beating Germany, 2-0, in their first-round finale Friday in Guadalajara.
Said U.S. Coach Bruce Arena: "Not to be disrespectful to FIFA [soccer's world governing body], but the cadence of this tournament is very difficult on the players. Playing one day, then traveling, then playing on the third day at a [7,350-foot] altitude . . . the thinking behind that is very poor."
The Mexicans had more energy and forced the United States back from the kickoff. The U.S. squad played well, especially in the back, but it was dependent once again upon Keller to keep it in the game.
Keller made four superb saves, including world-class stops of two early shots that could have altered the match.
"Their goalie played very well," Mexico Coach Manuel Lapuente said. "It was a tough game."
In the 10th minute, Rafael Marquez found a rebound off a closely placed Mexican free kick and blasted one squarely at Keller's head. But, with an quick reaction, Keller fisted the ball as he was falling backward.
On the next run of play, Ramon Ramirez beat defender Frankie Hejduk into the box and sent a shot whistling toward the top corner. But, once again, Keller came up with a save, pushing the ball wide with an outstretched hand.
"I was able to make some big saves and help," Keller said. "It's a shame we couldn't get one at the other end. Jorge [Campos, Mexico's goalkeeper] came up big, too, and I thought both teams played really well. I'm so impressed by what I see in front of me that I'm really happy."
The U.S. team's inability to press the Mexicans effectively cost it any chance to get into the game. Jovan Kirovski was stranded up front as the Americans never completely connected.
"We wanted to go at them," said Jeff Agoos, a D.C. United defender. "Give Mexico a lot of credit; they just put a lot of pressure on us."
Said Arena: "I thought we were too slow at the start. I told them at the half to get up there."
But after playing two full-tilt running games against Brazil and Germany, that was too much to ask.
The Mexicans took advantage of the U.S. ineffectiveness. Pavel Pardo and Isaac Terrazas were consistently dangerous and second-half sub Francisco Palencia was a spark. In the 49th minute, Palencia set up Gerardo Torrado, whose shot forced Keller to make a stellar play.
Despite the loss, the Americans went further than expected in this tournament playing without playmaker Claudio Reyna, defensive midfielder Chris Armas and defender Eddie Pope.
"There were two champions in the game," Arena said. "I want to congratulate Mexico."