Riddle for a Sunday afternoon: What wears green and white, excels at kicking soccer balls (and, sometimes, goateed defenders) and is a genuine threat to peace around Foxboro, Mass., today?


For at 2: 30 p.m. today (channels 2, 7), the United States will play the rival Mexicans in a World Cup '98 qualifier before an expected sellout of 57,877 at Foxboro Stadium.

It's big, this first of two games between these national men's teams trying to be among the final 32 competing in France next summer.

Mexico (2-0-1), which trashed Jamaica, 6-0, before more than 100,000 in Mexico City last Sunday, would like to stay unbeaten and on top in the six-nation Central and North America, Caribbean competition.

But the second-place U.S. team (1-1-1 in the same group), a disappointing, 3-2 loser late in Costa Rica on March 23, needs to answer a big question: Can it beat a genuinely good opponent?

Mexico is, for sure, a fair test. Just 14 weeks ago, the Mexican "varsity" easily beat a largely green American B team, 2-0, in the Rose Bowl during the U.S. Cup -- the first Mexican win on U.S. soil in 23 years. Plus, Mexico has simply pummeled the United States in World Cup qualifiers going back 47 years, losing only twice in 17 meetings, the last time in 1982 by 2-1.

But over the last six years, the improving Americans, who will start their "varsity" today, too, have been tilting at history. They're 3-2-4 in various national-team matches -- no World Cup qualifiers, true -- with Mexico.

Today's game is in Foxboro because U.S. soccer officialdom -- hoping for a heavily pro-American crowd -- wanted to play as far as possible from the border.

U.S. players toured raw, damp, tarp-covered Foxboro Stadium briefly yesterday afternoon. Afterward, several said in clubhouse interviews that they expect a defensive, counterattacking game from Mexico, not the free-wheeling offensive rush the "Tri-colores" used to crush Jamaica.

"They know we need to be the more aggressive team in this game," said U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller. "There's no reason for them to attack us in numbers. They'd be perfectly happy with a nil-nil draw."

The U.S. clearly has talked a lot about its own defense, as well, sometimes a problem for this team.

Alexi Lalas, a big man in the U.S. defensive picture, said: "The way we look at it, [Mexico is] probably the best team in the region, and we enjoy beating them."

One footnote: During January's U.S. Cup loss to Mexico, Lalas, the goateed U.S. defender, was deliberately kicked in the groin. "A full assault on my manhood," Lalas said at the time.

The kicker? Mexico's Ramon Ramirez. Whether he'll play today is a Mexican secret, but if he does, watch him.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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