HAVANA, Cuba - The United States can no longer be classified as a tiny speck on the map of world soccer.
Last night, a team college players no older than 23 grew to maturity. They played through lightning, thunder and a light rain. They matched Mexico elbow for elbow and goal for goal in regulation. When one goal scorer was knocked out of the game on a foul, another stepped right in and pushed across the game-winner on a free kick five minutes into overtime.
Claudio Reyna got the tying goal, Joe-Max Moore slammed in a twisting shot on a free kick, and goalkeeper Brad Friedel made a pair of splendid saves in overtime to secure a 2-1 U.S. triumph and the gold medal at the Pan American Games.
It was the first time in 10 get-togethers among the Western Hemisphere nations that the United States had even played for a gold. Forget for a moment that the best South American countries - Brazil and Argentina - didn't send teams. This was a major victory for a country that went 40 years between World Cup appearances.
"It's a great end to the tournament, but it's only a start on our road to the Olympics," said Reyna whose tying goal came at 33 minutes. "We proved we could hold on for close victories."
The terrific match at Pedro Marrero Stadium had a little bit of everything - great goaltending, three good goals, and a rather ugly end. As the Americans celebrated the victory, reserve goalkeeper Kasey Keller attempted to intervene in a scuffle and was punched in the stomach and the nose by Mexican reserve player Augustine Valdez.
"They just got upset that we defeated them," said Reyna, a 17-year-old from Livingston, N.J., who is entering the University of Virginia in the fall. "They were pretty confident that they could beat us. What they did after the game was stupid and amateurish. They felt they should have won it, so I guess they got a little upset."
Mexico toyed with the Americans in the opening minutes, dominating the game offensively and getting the initial goal when Salvador Mariscal back-headed in a corner kick at 16 minutes.
"We were nervous and tight and everything was coming at us," said Friedel, the starter on UCLA's 1990 national championship team. "We had a great opportunity and we weren't showing anything."
Reyna unloaded from 15 yards for the equalizer at 33 minutes. Moments before the half ended, Reyna was taken out on a late tackle by David Rangel Torres, who received a yellow card. Play continued as Reyna was carried from the field on a stretcher, holding an injured right ankle and foot.
"It was no big deal," Reyna said.
His injury opened a spot for Moore, the Irvine, Calif., native who plays at UCLA. In the overtime, he rammed in his free kick from 22 yards, bending the shot around a wall of five Mexican defenders, sending the ball by goalkeeper Sergio Bernal.
"There was an opening, and I took it," Moore said. "I told the other guys I wanted the shot. I just had a feeling."
The United States sat back through the remainder of overtime, taking the best shots the Mexicans could deliver. Friedel made two wonderful saves, blocking a Donado Castaneda cross and diving to his right to blunt Ramiro Romer's magnificent scissors kick attempt.
"We hadn't beaten them in umpteen years," Friedel said. "Now, we've beaten them twice. We beat them here and we beat them in the Gold Cup in Los Angeles."
Now the United States can take aim at greater prizes. The 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona loom. So does the 1994 World Cup to be staged in the United States.
"This means we're progressing from a third-world soccer country to a second-rate power," U.S. coach Lothar Osiander said. "Maybe this means we can step up and beat the big powers."