Luis Bueno
Thursday August 13th, 2009

MEXICO CITY -- The CONCACAF Gold Cup is long over, and Mexico's 5-0 drubbing of the U.S. last month was left in the past well before the two teams met again here in Wednesday's World Cup qualifier. But the tournament's impact not only has steered the U.S.-Mexico rivalry in a different direction, it also has seemed to awaken the Mexican national team.

After a 2-1 victory against the U.S., Mexico officially has regained its swagger, beating the Americans in consecutive games for the first time in more than a decade. No, things are not all fine for Mexico quite yet -- a glance at the Hexagonal standings will attest to that -- but by the time the seventh and eighth games roll around, Mexico very well could be in the driver's seat, or at the very worst in prime position, to secure a World Cup berth that, just a couple of months ago, seemed in jeopardy.

"The momentum has changed," Mexican Football Federation executive Nestor de la Torre said after Wednesday's win. "Mathematically speaking, we are a few short points from the top."

The Gold Cup squad, which now officially serves as the base of the Mexican national team, was in full force Wednesday. Israel Castro, who formed a strong partnership with Gerardo Torrado, cemented his spot on the national team (and may well have put to rest Pável Pardo's Tricolor future) with a stunning strike in the 14th minute to wipe out the Americans' early lead.

Miguel Sabah, who led the Gold Cup in goals, also solidified his future as he came off the bench to score the biggest goal of his career: a winner to finish off the U.S. in the 82nd minute. A career journeyman, Sabah's rise to prominence has been stunning -- five goals in 10 games -- and he has rewarded the faith manager Javier Aguirre has shown in him.

Other 2009 Gold Cup veterans who played key roles in the game:

Guillermo Franco started and did well to rough up the U.S. back line and midfield and soften them up for Sabah.

Giovani dos Santos, although not as flashy as he was during the Gold Cup, created several dangerous set pieces as he constantly drew fouls in dangerous areas.

Carlos Vela, a late substitute, also did well to attack the U.S. defense and get it off balance.

• Torrado, always a key midfielder, is now one of Mexico's most important players.

Guillermo Ochoa wasn't tested much after giving up Charlie Davies' early goal, but he still proved worthy of a starting spot in such an important match.

Jonny Magallón contributed to Mexico's gritty defensive effort.

Aside from dos Santos and Vela, who play their club ball in Europe, and the club-less Franco, this newfound base all plays domestically.

This unearthing and revival of domestic talent is nothing short of a masterful stroke by Aguirre. While his Gold Cup roster initially seemed to raise concerns over the validity of fielding what was then an untested group, now these trials by fire have turned around the national team.

Federation officials sought such a turnaround when they made their third coaching move in a 20-month span by bringing in Aguirre to replace Sven-Göran Eriksson in April. Now that a new foundation has been established, de la Torre likes what he sees from the latest wave of players.

"I know the players' personality, their mental strength, their desire to play, the responsibility they had," he said, "but overall, their patience."

Still, this hasn't been as dramatic a turnaround as it was in '01, the last time Aguirre saved Mexico's World Cup qualifying hopes. Mexico went 4-0-1 in five games under Aguirre then, and clinched a spot in the '02 World Cup on the final day of qualifying. Nevertheless, Mexico can now breathe much easier.

Three points are one thing, but to see a confident and effective Mexico team having its way with a strong opponent at home is what gives hope for the near future.

"The points are what will earn us our qualification," de la Torre said. "What is important about the team is that you can see a style, the team is functioning and that gives you a good feeling for the upcoming games."

Beating the U.S. was massive for Mexico. Had the Americans escaped with even a point, the situation might not have been dire yet, but desperation would have been around the corner. Faith was restored once again at Estadio Azteca, but what will get Mexico to within reach of South Africa is success in San José, Costa Rica, on Sept. 5.

"The key game now is the one that is coming up," de la Torre said. "We are in Costa Rica already."

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