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January 24, 2012
U.S. team have been waiting for a Mexico game that means something for a while

By Michael Lewis Editor

Abby Wambach and the U.S. Women are looking to exact some revenge against Mexico.
Abby Wambach and the U.S. Women are looking to exact some revenge against Mexico.
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
VANCOUVER — When the draw was made for the CONCACAF women’s Olympic qualifying tournament on Oct. 24, U.S. striker Abby Wambach and her teammates realized that exactly three months later would be a date to remember.

That would be Tuesday, Jan. 24, the day the U.S. would face Mexico for the Group B crown. The winner will play Costa Rica — 5-1 losers to Canada on Monday night in Friday’s semifinals, rather than the hosts for a spot in the London Olympics this summer. The semifinal winners will clinch an Olympic berth, the losers will go home empty-handed.

The last time these two rivals met, the Mexicans stunned and defeated the Americans for the first time, 2-1, in the CONCACAF qualifying for the 2011 Women’s World Cup. The result boosted Mexico into the tournament Germany while the disappointed and humiliated U.S. was forced to win a special playoff against Italy to book a spot.

“It’s important that everyone is firing on all cylinders when we play Mexico,” Wambach said. “That’s obviously the game that has been marked on our calendars this entire tournament. Whoever wins that game goes through out of our group in first place. That’s going to be the most important thing. That’s what we’re thinking about and we’re prepared for it.”

The Americans have bulldozed their way through the tournament, recording 14-0 and 13-0 wins over the Dominican Republic and Guatemala on Friday and Sunday, respectively.

The memory of what transpired in Cancun some 15 months ago has motivated the U.S. beyond belief.

“Absolutely,” Wambach said. “You know, it’s really hard. We understand that 13-, 14-goal games can be looked down upon by some of our viewers, by our fans by fans of other countries. But the truth is that we didn’t get our job done the last qualifying tournament and this is a statement that we are making to the rest of the world, we’re making to our region, CONCACAF. We can’t take any game for granted. We have to play hard, play physical and respect the game. That’s why the results are the results that you have seen.”

The U.S. needs a victory or a draw to finish first, the Mexicans a victory. If the teams draw, the Americans will get the nod because of superior goal differential (27 to 12).

El Tri coach Leonardo Cuellar, whose team also hasn’t allowed a goal in its group stage matches (blanking Guatemala, 5-0, and rolling past the Dominican Republic, 7-0), knew that the Mexicans have their work cut out for them.

“They are the best in the world, a constant opponent that we have to face,” he said.

While the Mexicans have made dramatic improvements in recent years, Cuellar still saw a great divide between his side and both North American teams in terms of preparation.

“They are dedicated to the National Teams,” he said. “For us, we still have some players who go to school, that work. We are at a different level. So it’s a big challenge for us for the next two matches. But I think the girls are hungry. The girls are humble. They want to give it a good try.”

Since that qualifier in Cancun, the rivals met one other time, a 1-0 U.S. win in Harrison, N.J. prior to the Women’s World Cup. The Americans scored in the 90th minute.

“We are closer to them, but we need to prove it again,” Cuellar said.

As it turned out, the two coaches had contrasting philosophies towards resting players in their second match of the group in preparation for the confrontation.

Cuellar used only two players from the win over Guatemala, while Sundhage decided to deploy close to a strong lineup that included stalwarts Lauren Cheney, Megan Rapinoe, Christie Rampone and Wambach, among others in its second match.

Cuellar figured that catching the U.S. on goal differential was out of the team’s control, so he gave his reserves an opportunity to play and get some vital experience.

“I decided to give rhythm to the rest of the players,” he said. “Also, it’s a young team, so they need to experience these scenarios. What happened today give me a better idea of how I’m going to balance the next two games, who has responded well to the pressure. This is the first time they have come to this kind of tournament.”

Given that the U.S. has outscored its opposition, 27-0, U.S. coach Sundhage realized picking a starting 11 won’t be an easy task.

“We look at each of them and see their performance and who is playing well with each other,” she said. “Soccer is not only the 11 best players, it’s about finding a good relationship with the starting lineup and looking at the bench and being comfortable with whomever we bring in. They have made it really hard for us and I’m really happy about that.”

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