U.S. sends Mexico to New Zealand

When is it okay for an American to root against a U.S. sports team? Anytime, I think. Folks can root for whichever sports teams capture their fancy.

However, until Tuesday night I never thought I would root against a U.S. sports team. Here’s what led me to do it:

As of Tuesday, the U.S. had long since qualified for the 2014 World Cup. Mexico, however, was in danger of missing out.

It was shocking that Mexico — winners of the Olympic Gold Medal in soccer just last year — would be this position. Three North American teams qualify automatically by finishing in the top half of a six team group (determined by preliminary play). A fourth team gets to try to play into the World Cup against a team from another region. This year, that team is New Zealand.

Finishing in the top three in North America is pretty much a given for the two regional superpowers, Mexico and the U.S. We’ve done it six straight times, and Mexico has been better than the U.S. during most of that period.

Finishing lower than fourth should be out of the question. For Mexico not crack the top four would be something like Duke failing the make the NCAA tournament, except that the way college basketball is these days (one-and-dones, and so forth) any school can have a bad year.

But Mexico has had a terrible qualifying campaign. Normally, unbeatable by North American competition at home in the Azteca Stadium, the Mexicans managed to win only once there in five tries (for some reason Mexico played its matches at night instead of in the afternoon heat/smog that opponents hate so much).

The lone home win came against Panama on a sensational bicycle kick in the last minutes of the match. Thanks to that victory, Mexico needed only a draw in Costa Rica in the final qualifying match to edge out the Panamanians for fourth place. But the hapless Mexicans couldn’t get that result. Costa Rica defeated them 2-1.

Even so Mexico would still qualify for the play-in against New Zealand unless Panama defeated the U.S. in Panama. As the end of the match approached, the score was 1-1.

But then, in the 84th minute, Panama scored a go-ahead goal. The Panamanians, who have never accomplished anything of note in international soccer, were minutes a way from ousting Mexico for a spot in the play-in game.

At this point, of course, all Mexican fans were rooting for the U.S. — their hated rival — to score. And I’m sure I was not alone among American fans in rooting for the U.S. not to score. Nothing against the country of Mexico; it’s all about the sports rivalry.

Score we did, though — twice in “stoppage time” to win 3-2. Mexico lives to fight another day.

I should note that the U.S. did not field its strongest team for the Panama match. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann used the contest to take a look at some players on the fringe of his squad. That’s standard practice once a team qualifies.

I should also note that two of our players Tuesday night — both of them on the fringe of the squad — were born in Mexico and play their soccer there. Defender Michael Orozco, who scored our first goal, considers himself Mexican. He says he’s delighted to have gone from being hated there — due to his choice to play for the U.S. — to being a national hero.

Will Mexico make it to Brazil? Normally, they’d be very heavy favorites to beat New Zealand over two matches, one in the Azteca. But New Zealand has become a decent side — better, I imagine, than Honduras which edged out Mexico for a guaranteed place in Brazil and beat them in the Azteca.

So Mexico will have to pick up its game.

It looks like they’ll be trying to do so under a new coach. Word is that the Mexican Soccer Federation is set to name its fourth coach in five matches.

Is Billy Martin available?

Mexico nonetheless will be favored to advance to Brazil. And I’ll make this prediction — if the Mexicans get there, they will regroup and give a good account of themselves.


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