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Monday, April 16, 2012
U.S. wins old fight among friends

By Scott French

CARSON -- The scoreline in Sunday's U.S.-Mexico “legends” reunion at Home Depot Center might have been inevitable, given how everything else seemed to fall right into line.

Big crowd? Check. Rooting for El Tri? Of course. Early Mexican domination? Just like in series history. Lights-out goalkeeping? Shades of Tony Meola, Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel. An American triumph on home ground? Bingo.

“Same old same old, right?” Eric Wynalda chirped afterward. “2-0. That's the way these games finish.”

This one did, lending a red, white and blueish glow to a surprisingly delightful evening at the Clasico de Leyendas match between great U.S. and Mexican players of yesteryear, primarily the 1990s and early 2000s, when the rise of American soccer created the region's greatest national teams rivalry.

These games do finish 2-0, as most everyone on the field noted.

“Reminds me of the [2002] World Cup,” said Cobi Jones, who like former Westlake High School teammate Wynalda played in three World Cups for the U.S. “Same score, always fabulous.”

2002 is the apex of the rivalry, the only World Cup encounter in 59 meetings, but it was 2-0 U.S. in the home qualifier for the last three World Cups, in the 1991 Gold Cup -- the first of 13 U.S. victories in the past 21 years -- and in 2000 and 2007 friendlies.

The goals came from Roy Lassiter (Major League Soccer's first scoring champion) and Brian McBride (a legend in the U.S. and parts of England), and both arrived in the second half, after Galaxy goalkeeper coach Ian Feuer (capped just once, in 1992) had made the best of eight fantastic saves -- on Francisco Palencia, Ramon Morales, Jared Borgetti twice,  Alberto Garcia Aspe, Ramon Ramirez and Luis Hernandez twice -- that kept the Yanks in what had been a very one-sided game.

It wasn't played at near the pace of the battles a generation ago, and those who have retired in just the past year or three -- McBride, John O'Brien, Jovan Kirovski and Chris Klein, Palencia and Mariano Trujillo for Mexico -- clearly were sharper and fitter than those who've been on the sidelines longer, like Wynalda, Jones, Paul Caligiuri and U.S. captain Thomas Dooley.

RUNNING? OVERRATED: Wynalda, the all-time U.S. goals leader before Landon Donovan, played on the left flank in the first half and barely moved.

“There was, like, a little patch of grass over there that he did not move from,” observed Alexi Lalas, who looked good paired in central defense with Chivas USA assistant coach Greg Vanney, his former Galaxy teammate. “Although he had the audacity and gall to tell us what to do constantly, but that's Eric.”

Wynalda, who fed McBride's goal -- a real beauty: a curling drive to the upper-left corner from above the box with eight minutes to go in the 70-minute contest -- was more active in a 15-minute second-half turn, when he took the captain's armband from Dooley.

“I put the captain's band on, and something happened,” he said. “I didn't have the option of taking a play off. I put everything I could into the last 20 minutes. ... Once I came on the field in that center spot, I had to run. Guys were kidding me. Vanney was yelling at me. It was fun.”

Wynalda, a most opinionated analyst for Fox Soccer Channel, won a wager with deskmate Warren Barton.

“I told him,” Wynalda said, “the one thing I can guarantee is that Brian McBride will score, and it will be on an assist by me. I've got to go collect on that bet.”

The crowd was about 12,500 -- Jones called it a “fabulous turnout,” noting that expectations among the U.S. players was “that maybe 100, 200 people would be here.” Most were garbed in green, jeered the U.S. It lent a real atmosphere to the friendly, fueling the competitive juices.

“At the start, it felt like we were doing it for entertainment and just having fun,” said O'Brien, arguably the most gifted of U.S. players, his career cut short by injury. “Then it got competitive, which I guess you can expect from this group. It's kind of a flashback to the old days.”

O'Brien, just 34, looked very good, “as silky smooth in tight spaces as ever,” marveled McBride. He fed Lassiter's goal in the 51st minute, a first-time finish from a diagonal ball into the box, and noted afterward that he greatly enjoyed sharing the field with Mexican striker Luis Roberto Alves.

“I never played with him [in a game before], but I always liked watching him play,” O'Brien said. “So that was a pleasure.”

The intensity of the rivalry surfaced on occasion -- Lalas said he “got a few hits in here and there; they don't like it when you hit them,” and Hernandez sprinted to get into referee Daniel Radford's face near the end when he didn't get a call -- but, as McBride said, “it's not a real game in the sense of getting kicked up the backside and [throwing] elbows. I got maybe one off-the-ball bump when I was looking away, but that's in the box, and that's part of the game.”

OLD ENEMIES, OLD FRIENDS: It was very much a friendly: Players on both sides are still involved in the game, as coaches and commentators and so forth, and have built relationships. Some were teammates. Nine starters have been involved with the Galaxy (including Mexicans Hernandez and Jorge Campos) and seven players have Chivas USA ties (five of them from El Tri, including Palencia, Ramirez and Claudio Suarez).

Wynalda's lasting memory of the game: His 3-year-old son at halftime dribbling in on Campos, who just couldn't stop the toddler's shot.

“There's just a ton of respect [among the players],” Wynalda said. “When you go back and look at the stuff, all those games, all those misconceptions of how we felt about each other. We were in the middle of a war. It was two teams that were fighting to see who could the dominant, and we still are [at the national team level].

“But in that golden era for them, [for us] to be able to beat the likes of [Carlos] Hermosillo, Hernandez, [Benjamin] Galindo, Campos, Claudio [Suarez], all on the top of their games. Aspe, for me, is still one of the best Mexican players ever. And then, of course, Ramon [Ramirez] is an icon. Maybe we can't run the way we used to, but the personalities still kind of came out today.”

And winning made it sweeter.

“I'm just happy,” Lalas said, “because when you really look at it, and it hurts me to say this, but at the under-17 level, at the under 20 level, at the under-23 level and at the national team level, they've bested us in the last couple of years. I'll be damned if I was going to let them come out and best us at the legends level. At the very least, U.S. soccer fans, you can go to bed tonight with the comfort that at least at the legends level, we dominate.” Home Depot Center (Carson)
United States 2, Mexico 0

USA -- Roy Lassiter (John O'Brien) 51
USA -- Brian McBride (Eric Wynalda) 62

United States: Ian Feuer; Chris Klein, Alexi Lalas, Greg Vanney, Paul Caligiuri (Cle Kooiman, 21; Paul Caligiuri, 36; Cle Kooiman, 59); Thomas Dooley (John O'Brien, 14), Jovan Kirovski; Cobi Jones (Thomas Dooley, 36; Eric Wynalda, 50; Clint Mathis, 65), Clint Mathis (Ted Eck, 22), Eric Wynalda (Roy Lassiter, 25; Cobi Jones, 62); Brian McBride.

Mexico: Jorge Campos (Martin Zuniga, 36); Mariano Trujillo (David Oteo, 36; Mariano Trujillo, 59), Joel Sanchez, Claudio Suarez, Ramon Morales; Francisco Palencia (Luis Roberto Alves, 65), Alberto Garcia Aspe (German Villa, 36; Marco Antonio Ruiz, 59), Marco Antonio Ruiz (Ramon Ramirez, 36); Luis Hernandez (Missael Espinoza, 36; Jorge Campos, 70), Jared Borgetti (Jesus Olalde, 46; Jared Borgetti, 63), Luis Roberto Alves (Luis Hernandez, 52).

Yellow card: O'Brien 67.

Referee: Daniel Radford. Att.: 12,500 (est.).