CARSON, Calif. -- If pride goeth before a fall, this week could be a potentially delicate balancing act for the United States women's soccer team.
Winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup being contested this week at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. is a matter of pride for the United States. The six-team tournament is an opportunity to reassert regional supremacy even as the team seeks to reclaim its place atop the world order in women's soccer, a standing that was compromised by a loss to Germany on home soil in the semifinals of the 2003 World Cup and only partially regained in winning gold in the 2004 Olympics.
But long-term aspirations cannot supersede short-term realities, and defeating Mexico in a semifinal Wednesday evening is a matter of simple and immediate necessity.
Win, as is expected, and Greg Ryan's team qualifies for the World Cup in China next year. Lose and the United States would have to win both the third-place game on Sunday and a subsequent playoff against Japan in order to qualify for China.
This year's Gold Cup, the first edition of the regional tournament on the women's side since the 2002 event served as the qualifier for the 2003 World Cup, is once again the qualifying mechanism for CONCACAF teams in advance of next year's World Cup in China. Greatly abbreviated from the prolonged qualifying process familiar to fans of the men's game (the product mostly of budgetary constraints for women's soccer programs elsewhere in the region), the format affords the opportunity for both relative comfort and potential disaster for the United States.
Based on past domination of the region, the United States and Canada received byes to the semifinals, but a blind draw for the opening round that included Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Panama and Jamaica left the Americans in the same half of the bracket as Mexico, clearly the third-best team in the field.
|2006 CONCACAF Women's Gold Cup Schedule|
Semifinals, Nov. 22
Canada vs. Jamaica, 7:30 ET U.S. vs. Mexico, 10 ET
Third-place game, Nov. 26
Final, Nov. 26
The two sides have played seven times in the last three years, with the United States winning all seven games by an aggregate score of 20-3 (including a 3-1 win in the most recent meeting on Sept. 13 in Rochester, N.Y.). Overall, the United States boasts a 17-0-0 record against Mexico, scoring 82 goals and allowing just six. But while a record of statistical domination exists, there is little doubt Ryan's team would have faced an easier task against Jamaica.
"They're a very crafty team," Abby Wambach said of Mexico. "Leo [Cuellar] and the girls do such a great job. They are, as Jerry Smith would have said back in 2001, they're cheeky. They have very good skill on the ball. They're technical, they get behind defenses, and you know, you never know with Mexico."
Captain Kristine Lilly was part of the U.S. team that played Mexico for the first time in 1991. The United States won that game 12-0 in Haiti, but that kind of one-sided result is a distant memory.
"They're making huge strides," Lilly said. "The players are technically very good, and [Wednesday's] game is going to be a great game because of that."
Of the 82 goals the United States has scored against Mexico, 51 came in the first seven meetings, all of which took place before 2003. Mexico, under coach Leo Cuellar, is a program on the rise -- in the 2004 Olympics the team advanced to the quarterfinals after tying China in group play and posted a respectable 2-0 loss against Germany. With Maribel Dominguez back in the lineup (she has scored half of Mexico's goals against the United States but missed the game in Rochester), this should be the best team Mexico has ever put on the field against the United States.
"They've improved tremendously, but I think they were actually quite good in 2004, you know, they qualified for the Olympics," Ryan said. "So they've improved a lot. I think the main thing with Mexico is they've got two very good strikers in [Iris] Mora and [Maribel] Dominguez, and then [Monica] Ocampo who comes on, or sometimes she plays wide-mid. They've got some very talented attacking players. You've just got to try and keep those players quiet and get your goals."
Even home-field advantage, seemingly a given playing at a venue that doubles as the home of residency training for the United States, isn't necessarily what it appears. In a city with as large a Hispanic community as Los Angeles, and with a number of Mexican-American players suiting up for Mexico, the crowd is likely to sport divided loyalties.
At least rust shouldn't be an issue for the United States, despite the shortest qualification process of the four instances in which the team has attempted to qualify for the World Cup (as hosts, the United States qualified automatically in 1999). After completing its domestic schedule against Iceland on Oct. 8, the United States headed to South Korea three weeks ago for the Peace Queen Cup and played games against World Cup qualifiers Denmark and Australia, as well as likely qualifier Canada and a good Dutch side.
After tying Denmark 1-1 in the opener, Ryan's team beat Australia and the Netherlands to capture the group, before eventually beating Canada 1-0 to win the title.
The championship game gave Ryan an opportunity to experience a reality he probably would have just as soon left in the realm of nightmare. After injuring her ankle against Holland in the final game of the preliminary round, Wambach was unable to play in the match against Canada. The heart and soul of the team's attack, Wambach has 15 goals and eight assists this season, representing 27 percent of the team's total points. At 26, she is on pace to break Mia Hamm's all-time record of 158 goals, having scored 64 goals in 82 matches (Hamm needed 94 games to reach 50 goals).
Without Wambach in the middle of his standard 4-3-3 formation, Ryan gave Natasha Kai her third start of the tournament alongside Lilly and Lindsay Tarpley. In the end it was Lilly, she of 116 career goals, who saved the day for the United States with the game's only goal, but the experience of playing without key components may pay off in the long run.
"It does help," Lilly said of playing a game when the team, especially the young players, couldn't rely on Wambach to bail them out. "And the thing that I think has been great about this year -- there were two games I wasn't there, Boxxie [Shannon Boxx] has been gone. We've had different players start. ... I think this team is well-rounded enough to know that whoever is on the field can make things happen and have the confidence to do that. And I'm not sure if we had that so much in the past, because we always had a nucleus that started and was there."
To that end, Ryan used the condensed schedule of four games in seven days in South Korea to expand his playing rotation. All six midfielders who made the trip started at least a game, including the usual reserves Angela Hucles, Marci Miller and Joanna Lohman (Lohman isn't on the Gold Cup roster), who started together in the 2-0 win against Australia. The lineup for Wednesday's game will bear a more familiar look, but the strong play of the reserves was one of the highlights of the Peace Cup.
"We're going with the players we've typically had in there: Leslie [Osborne], Carli [Lloyd] and Aly [Wagner]," Ryan said. "And we know Ang [Hucles] and Marci [Miller] will do a great job if called upon, so we're really happy with the depth in midfield right now, especially without Shannon Boxx on the field."
In fact, the only player to start all four games in the Peace Cup was Cat Whitehill, fresh off a foot injury that kept her out of the lineup for the latter part of the summer. In addition to anchoring the center of the defense, Whitehill gives the United States an added offensive weapon. She had just six goals in 83 appearances before this year, but after adding her fifth goal in 14 games this year in the 3-0 win against Holland, it's time to accept her newfound finishing touch is no fluke.
"The thing about Cat is she scores goals, you know, set pieces and free kicks," Ryan said. "And she's a good central defender, so we're happy we've got her back and she's ready to go."
Beating Mexico on Wednesday might be another step on a journey of redemption that began for some of these players on a field in Portland in 2003. But for a team that has spent this year becoming the sum of its parts, both young and old, it's also the final step of a year-long trek that has seen the players chase a single objective from Portugal to South Korea.
"It's our last step of this leg," Lilly said of Wednesday's game. "This is what we've been training for all year, and we need to win. And that starts a new leg. And that's pretty much it."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.