June 17, 2002. It’s the Round of 16 matchup between Mexico and Team USA. The setting is Jeonju World Cup Stadium, in Jeonju, South Korea. The game is barely in its 8th minute with a Mexican National Team dominance thus far. The referee has just whistled a hand-ball by Jared Borgetti. Ensuing, USA Midfielder (MF) Claudio Reyna takes the ball in his own half and sends a ball past midfield through the air looking for Brian McBride, who is met from behind with a hard foul by Mexico Center Back (CB) Salvador Carmona. McBride quickly takes control of the ball and looks to his right as he sees a clear lane, awaiting his teammate to send the ball in motion.
But why is there a clear lane in the first place? Mexico was playing with 3 CB, 2 wingers, and 3 CM. The LWB was Ramon Morales, who by strategy and tactic was designed to press Reyna into sending up a divided ball, just like he did. And since he was forced forward, that meant Braulio Luna (the Left Center MF) had to cover the left lane until Morales could return from his tactical duties. Luna at first covers the left lane, but then proceeds to walk toward the dead ball, not minding his surroundings and making sure there was no one open on his side. Both McBride and Reyna immediately notice this, as Reyna sprints forward full speed being chased by a trailing Morales, and McBride simply touches the ball to him in a matter of 4-5 seconds, in front of a distracted Braulio Luna, who was ultimately covering nobody.
Reyna takes the ball, makes a poor lunge from “Chava” Carmona miss, and runs the ball all the way to the byline where he sends in the cross ball straight to Josh Wolff, who with his back against the goal, plays it brilliantly back to McBride, who then crosses a shot from about the distance of a penalty kick on target and leaves GK Oscar Perez with no chance for a save. This put USA up 1-0.
Mexico would continue to dominate possession the rest of the way, with a lack of clarity and play creation, even though Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Ramon Morales got their chances to pull even, and even Braulio Luna had a bouncing ball from a corner kick which he let go by. But somehow or another, a very defensive-minded USA squad were able to keep them from scoring. Team USA spent nearly the entire game with 10 to 11 players in their own half, waiting for Mexico to come after them. And it proved the right strategy for head coach Bruce Arena, as finally, in the 65th minute, Landon Donovan plunged the final dagger in Mexico, sending the Stars and Stripes through to the Quarter-Finals. It was all downhill for Mexico from there on, culminating in a red card for Rafa Marquez.
So, what would’ve been if Braulio Luna simply guarded his side while Morales got back? First off, Brian McBride would not have scored, and the game would’ve remained 0-0. I believe that with Mexico’s dominance and the level of play Borgetti, Blanco, and Morales were all displaying at that particular point in time, they would’ve eventually pierced Brad Friedel’s net as the game progressed. But the early goal and playing with the disadvantage throughout the game forced Mexico to play with much more added pressure than they should’ve.
What was to come next for the Mexican National Team had they moved on? Their foes from the previous World Cup awaited. They were more dangerous than ever, with GK Oliver Kahn now fully established as the starter, and defenders like Torsten Frings and Christoph Metzelder to go along with a refreshed offense made up by young Michael Ballack and Miroslav Klose. It was no easy task to say the least, but it again would’ve made for an interesting matchup to see Mexico have the chance to get their “payback” 4 years later. I believe Germany would’ve eliminated Mexico and the story of them reaching the Final vs. Brazil wouldn’t have changed one bit.
On a positive note, Mexico would’ve reached the WC Quarter-Finals yet again, just like they should’ve 4 years prior, and once you get through and prove to yourself you can win a tough, single elimination game, you never know what can happen next.