United States 2, Mexico 0
COLUMBUS, Ohio — U.S. coach Bruce Arena didn't want to read too much into the American team's first victory over Mexico in a World Cup qualifier in 20 years.
"You can't make more out of today than what it really is . . . we are simply happy we were able to protect our home turf," he said. "It is a long haul, and it is going to be a real battle the next nine games."
But after losing two veteran players early to injuries, Arena saw his team respond when two youngsters stepped in to turn the game around.
Josh Wolff and Clint Mathis, both substitutes, combined on the first goal Wednesday in a 2-0 qualifying game victory. Wolff then set up veteran Earnie Stewart for the clincher with three minutes remaining.
"We obviously faced a lot of adversity having to make a couple of changes," Arena said. "I am real proud of the way our team pulled together at halftime and did the job in the second half to get the victory."
After losing forward Brian McBride and midfielder Claudio Reyna to injury, the Americans showed some depth with Wolff, who turned 24 on Sunday, and Mathis, also 24.
A flag-waving, "U-S-A" chanting crowd of 24,624 in the 29-degree chill of Columbus also did what they could to ensure a home-field advantage in the opener of the final round of qualifying.
"It was a great atmosphere, everyone on the bench felt it, a real home-field advantage," defender Jeff Agoos said. "I think this is a big step for (American) soccer in general."
The win was the Americans' third straight over Mexico, a first in the rivalry. The United States won both meetings with its archrival in 2000, blanking Mexico 3-0 and then 2-0.
It also was the Americans' fourth straight home shutout in World Cup qualifiers.
Mexico played well for 45 minutes. But Mathis' long ball in the second minute of the second half was misplayed by the defense.
Wolff ran onto it before goalkeeper Jorge Campos could get to it, and he easily slipped around Campos to deposit the ball into an unguarded net.
"I wasn't sure if he was able to get to it, he might have hesitated a bit," Wolff said of Campos. "I was able to touch the ball and pop it in."
With the Mexicans, ranked 12th in the world to the Americans' 16th, pressing for the tie, goalie Brad Friedel made several superb saves. His best came when he dived to stop Francisco Palencia's bullet in the 69th minute.
As the Americans attempted to run down the clock in the dying minutes, Wolff, of the MLS Chicago Fire, dribbled toward the right corner. Then he turned quickly along the end line, beating the defense and Campos before placing a perfect pass on Stewart's foot for the second goal.
"Wolff was terrific," Arena said. "He really pulled it off at the end of the game. It's not that we had to get him in the game, but we thought Josh's speed would be a factor, and he was able to get behind the defense."
A shoving match broke out in the U.S. end moments later, with even Campos coming all the way downfield to join the melee. But nothing developed from it, and Mexico went off meekly with its fifth loss in the past six internationals.
"Unfortunately, we didn't come away with the result we wanted," Mexico coach Enrique Meza said, "but I know the players worked hard, and they put in a tremendous effort."
McBride, the United States' most dangerous forward, hurt his right eye in an early collision. He was replaced in the 15th minute by Wolff, who subsequently drew a yellow card.
Playmaker Reyna began limping in the 26th minute and was replaced by Clint Mathis in the 43rd. Reyna barely touched the ball while on the field and left with a groin injury.
Six teams are in the round-robin regional final, with the top three advancing to the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan.
NOTES: In the other regional openers, Jamaica beat Trinidad and Tobago 1-0 and Costa Rica tied Honduras 2-2, leaving the United States in first place on goal difference. The Americans play Brazil in an exhibition game Saturday in the Rose Bowl and travel to Honduras on March 28 for their next qualifier.