Suddenly, US has continent's premier team in ... futbol

Win over Mexico closes an era when many Latin American nations could tout supremacy over US in soccer.

Soccer had always been North America's great equalizer.

On the fields of Tegucigalpa and Guatemala City or in the coliseum of the Azteca in Mexico City, the great American empire was a figment of long-ago treaties and wads of green paper. Here, in these crucibles of national pride, in the world's most beloved sport, the United States was a weakling.

There was a 4-0 loss to Guatemala, a 4-1 loss to Honduras. From 1934 to 1980, the US beat Mexico twice in 27 games.

Early Monday morning, however, that role officially ended. In this new world order that is emerging from perhaps the most improbable World Cup in history, America's convincing 2-0 win over Mexico is evidence that the United States, for the first time ever, is North America's best soccer nation.

For many – and many Mexicans in particular – it is a bitter realization fraught with deep cultural undertones. Long overshadowed by America's economic and military might, these countries are being toppled in their national pastime – by a nation that barely even knows the sport exists.

"This is the worst thing in the world that could happen," says German Garcia, a Mexican who watched the game in the United States. "You don't understand. Mexico's not supposed to lose with the US.... That's one of the few things that Mexico can feel superior [about] with the US – with soccer."

In truth, this has been coming for some time. Over the past decade, the United States has reshaped its soccer image, rising to No. 13 in the world rankings after a half-century of embarrassment, including a 10-0 loss to England and a 4-0 loss to Bermuda.

The change began with the creation of the North American Soccer League (NASL) in the 1970s. Although it was a financial failure, it brought Pele and other world greats to America, firing the imagination of a new generation of young players. In 1990, those players took the US to its first World Cup in 40 years.

Today, the children of Major League Soccer – the NASL's modern-day reincarnation – have pushed America to the next step: Monday's win marks the first time the US has advanced as far as the quarterfinals since the first World Cup 1934.

And this is no fluke. Since 1991, the US actually has had a winning record against Mexico, and it has now won five of the past six meetings with Mexico. But this was the first meeting in the World Cup, and many had expected the result on the world's biggest stage to be different.

Ana Laura Holguín, a Mexican-American who lives in Boston, says her friends were celebrating before the game. "They were sure that Mexico was going to win."

The US win accomplishes something that Mexico has never done: advance to the quarterfinals of a World Cup on foreign soil. (Mexico has made it to the quarterfinals only when it was host.)

Yet America's steady climb to respectability has won few converts among the Latin American immigrants who have come to America. The United States Soccer Federation has even taken to scheduling games between the US and Central American countries in places like Portland, Ore., and Foxboro, Mass., knowing that venues like the Rose Bowl near Los Angeles will be overwhelmed by fans for the other team.

"I wouldn't take this as disloyalty," says Nestor Rodriguez, a sociologist at the University of Houston. "That's just how they know soccer."

• Reporting by Mark Trumbull and wire services was used in this story.

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