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Mexico shows newfound resilience


PASADENA, Calif. -- Mexico has often been viewed as a talented team, but rarely as a tough one. Though the team now features perhaps more skillful players than ever, it's the new backbone and hardiness of the team that has turned them into a stronger squad.

El Tricolor didn't get a goal from wunderkind Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, the player Landon Donovan recently called "the hottest striker in the world" in the Gold Cup final. Mexico didn't need it, winning handily, 4-2.

Yet the score line doesn't tell the full story of Mexico's transition from a team full of technical skill, but too easily frustrated, to a squad that fights through adversity and perseveres to victory.

The match was less than half an hour old when Mexico, despite some sparkling early chances, was coping with a 2-0 deficit. That "Dos a Cero" score line still haunts Mexico from the 2002 World Cup, and just as back then, Donovan had scored the second U.S. goal. The opener for the U.S. had also come from a frequent Mexico weakness -- a set piece.

"It was very difficult for us," said defender Carlos Salcido, who had to exit the match in the first half due to a heel injury. "We were down 2-0, and we had already used two subs."

Despite the sadly familiar scenario to El Tri fans of Mexico wasting opportunities and the U.S. making good on fewer ones, these Mexican players refused to crumble. Perhaps their resiliency was forged in their difficult road to the final. The squad overcame the unexpected suspensions of five players early in the tournament, weathered a tough game versus Costa Rica, and needed overtime to take down a gritty Honduras squad.

"We earned this championship," said defender Salcido. "We came through a lot this tournament, and we kept our focus and gained our objective."

Hernandez turned provider in the 29th minute, showcasing his passing talent in getting the ball to Pablo Barrera, who, despite the constant spotlight on Hernandez, or perhaps because of it, has quietly had a stellar tournament. Barrera finished well, the fans in the stadium roared to life and suddenly, the tables were turned, even though the score line still favored the Americans.

The next goal came just over five minutes later, with Andres Guardado, the engine of the team, notching the equalizer.

"We were strong mentally," Guardado said. "We worked hard for each other."

Though the U.S. had a chance to regroup during halftime, Mexico's pressure was unrelenting. Guardado set up Barrera for the go-ahead goal in the 50th minute. Giovani Dos Santos, often criticized for being all flash and no finish, had the final goal with a gorgeous chip to corner in the 76th.

"It made a difference for us to have our fans pulling for us," said Efrain Juarez of the pro-Mexico crowd in the Rose Bowl. "We knew we couldn't let them down."

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The U.S. players were stunned. Clearly, this wasn't the fragile El Tri team they knew from past encounters.

It's likely that those previous matches had left an impact, but one that El Tri has managed to turn into a positive.

"We know the U.S. is a complicated rival," said defender Hector Reynoso, who made his debut under trying circumstances, after captain Rafael Marquez left the match with an injury with the score tied. "We refused to get discouraged and kept on doing what we were doing. We kept up our intensity and that led to our success."

Real Madrid fans surely appreciate that Barcelona is a worthy rival, one that makes the Copa del Rey trophy, won at Barca's expense, all the sweeter. Similarly, Boston Red Sox fans love when their club takes down the powerful Yankees. For their part, the supporters of Mexico's national team enjoy with gusto wins over the Yanks of Team USA.

There was once a time when victories by El Tri over the Americans were so routine, they were almost a foregone conclusion. No more. The Gold Cup trophy was celebrated with joy and enthusiasm by the Mexican squad and fans alike.

"We're not going to focus on what we could have done better," veteran Gerrardo Torrado said when asked how Mexico could still improve. "Tonight we deserve to enjoy the championship."

That's partly because the win carries more weight than just regional bragging rights.

"This was an important tournament," said Torrado. "This takes us to the Confederations Cup before the World Cup."

This Gold Cup counts, and also, the confidence Mexico has gained can carry over to another important tournament coming up in just a few days, where a young squad of Mexico players will take on the best teams in South America.

"I leave tomorrow to join the Copa America squad," Reynoso said. "I have high hopes for our squad."

It was telling that Mexico's players kept talking, about the group as a whole.

"We're not about who is the star," said Hernandez, who seemed to care not a whit that he hadn't scored. "Everybody works for the team. We're very happy with the win."

Andrea Canales is a soccer writer based in Los Angeles. She also writes a blog called Sideline Views.