FOXBORO, Mass. -- Well, the U.S. varsity couldn't beat Mexico yesterday either. But this time, neither did the Yanks lose.

They and their border rivals tied their World Cup qualifier here, 2-2, in an engaging game that saw many things occur in pairs: Two Mexican leads, one taken in the game's opening minute, two U.S. comebacks to tie, two freak goals, two classic scores, and two halves of back-and-forth, give-and-take soccer.

And unlike the last time these teams played, a 2-0 lesson Mexico's varsity imposed on a younger, less-experienced U.S. team in January's U.S. Cup, both sides were OK, if not thrilled, with the result.

There were 57,407 in the stands, 470 shy of Foxboro's capacity, although all 57,877 tickets were sold.

Neither team was hurt in its pursuit of a berth in next summer's 32-team final round of World Cup '98 in France. Favored Mexico (2-0-2, 8 points) remained atop the six-nation group trying to qualify from North and Central America and the Caribbean, and the U.S. (1-1-2, 5 points) remained, for the moment, in second.

"This team played the best brand of soccer I've seen in a long time," American coach Steve Sampson said of his squad afterward. "It was important that our players gained confidence that they can play with, and create, and score against Mexico.

"It's important to continue to get points" in World Cup qualifying, he continued.

Then he added: "No, I'm not satisfied with a tie. We still have some improvement to make."

Wearing a Boston Red Sox hat after the game, ebullient Mexican coach Bora Milutinovich said he was "always happy to win one point [on the road] but particularly one today, because the U.S. played very well. The last 20 minutes for us were very difficult."

Yes, they were. Playing with an extra man because of a 69th-minute red-card foul in midfield given Mexico's speedy Luis Hernandez that even Sampson questioned later, the U.S. tied the game 2-2 five minutes later.

That was the second of the game's freaks -- an own-goal put off the far post by Mexican defender Nicholas Ramirez, who was trying to head away American Tom Dooley's headed flick-on of Ernie Stewart's neat cross from the left into the penalty box.

The Yanks kept pressing forward, substituting with attacking players, trying for a win, and creating at least six threatening forays into Mexico's penalty area.

"I wanted to make a statement to the American people," Sampson said, "that this team is going to play to win."

The best shot off those attacks came in the 89th minute, taken by U.S. captain John Harkes from just outside the penalty box. Mexico defender Joaquin Del Olmo headed it off at the goal line.

"I thought it was in," Harkes said. So did thousands of disappointed U.S. fans. Del Olmo's save was a feat.

The game opened with disappointment, too, for the pro-American crowd. That was the game's first freak goal, a clearing kick by U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller about 40 seconds into the match that deflected down sharply off the head of charging Mexico forward Carlos Hermosillo, bouncing high, long and lazily over Keller's head into the U.S. net.

"It was not the most ideal way to begin a match," Sampson said.

Pub Date: 4/21/97

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