COLUMBUS, Ohio— There was no better way for the United States to make the World Cup than with a shutout victory over Mexico.
The Americans are headed to next year's soccer championship in Germany after beating the Mexicans 2-0 Saturday night thanks to goals by Steve Ralston and DaMarcus Beasley five minutes apart in the second half.
"We had one blemish on our record when we lost in Mexico City," coach Bruce Arena said, "and it was nice to get that back, and it was very special to qualify against our archrivals."
U.S. star Landon Donovan said it more strongly: "They do a lot of talking. They haven't beat us in a long time here. I'm kind of sick of it. There's no better scenario than to beat them easily."
It wasn't all that easy, and it took those two quick strikes after a sloppy and chippy first half to lift the United States into the 32-team tournament with three games to spare. It was the first time since 1934 that the Americans were the first team into the World Cup from North and Central America and the Caribbean.
It will be the fifth straight World Cup appearance for the Americans, who are ranked sixth in the world, one spot behind Mexico — for now.
The win avenged a 2-1 loss in Mexico in March and gave American goalkeeper Kasey Keller his 50th career victory for the national team. The United States has not lost to Mexico on American soil in seven games since 1999, and has not yielded any goals in that span, either.
On both scores, Mexico seemed confused who should be where on set plays. Eddie Lewis' 35-yard floating free kick was headed by Oguchi Onyewu, whose 6-foot-4 height came in handy as he soared over the smallish, befuddled defense. His shot hit a goalpost and bounded into the air directly to the unguarded Ralston, who got his second career international goal.
"It was about the easiest goal I've scored," said Ralston, who has only 13 international appearances and never can be sure if he'll be in the lineup. "It was a scrappy game and we showed a lot of heart."
The goal woke up the flag-waving, red-white-and-blue clad American fans, who began pounding the bleachers with their feet. The noise seemed to further unnerve the visitors, and they were out of position on a short U.S. corner kick by Donovan.
The ball came to Claudio Reyna, and the unmarked U.S. captain fed an equally wide-open Beasley. His twisting left-footed kick soared over goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez, who had no chance.
"I kept telling him if I am open, just get it to me," Beasley said of Reyna, with whom he practiced that set piece on Friday.
From there, it was a matter of getting another shutout for Keller, who has blanked five straight opponents in qualifying and has a scoreless streak of 507 minutes in all. The Americans are 6-1 in the final qualifying round and play at Guatemala on Wednesday, when most of the regulars will be excused.
Mexico (5-1-1) still needs another point in its final three games to get one of the region's three berths at Germany 2006. Its coach, Ricardo Lavolpe, was not impressed by the winners.
"The U.S. is a small team," he said. "They play like my sister, my aunt and my grandmother."
At the final whistle, most of the 24,685 fans chanted "U-S-A! U-S-A!" as several players ran off the bench wrapped in U.S. flags. All of the Americans were handed flags, which they then draped on their shoulders or waved to the crowd as fireworks lit the sky.
"Obviously, this is a relief," said Arena, who guided the U.S. team to the quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup. "The whole purpose at the beginning of qualifying is to quickly make the World Cup, and we did it before anyone else."
The strong U.S. showing in the second half helped ease the ugliness of the first 45 minutes, in which neither team truly threatened until the final minute. Keller needed to make a diving hand save on Ramon Morales' free kick in injury time.
"That's what goalkeeping is all about," Keller said. "It's really having nothing to do at times, and then having to make sure you are concentrating and ready to make the save when called upon. Going in 1-0 down would have been a travesty."
Otherwise, the visitors seemed satisfied to keep the scoreboard empty — and to keep fouling midfielder Beasley, who was victimized four times in the half, five times overall.
"I think Mexico tried to set the tone in the beginning, kicking us and fouling us and trying to get us off our game," Beasley said. "But obviously it didn't work."
In turn, U.S. defender Frankie Hejduk committed four fouls in the opening 45 minutes.
"The first team to make a mistake would not win, and Mexico made the mistake," Lavolpe said.
Notes: Reyna drew a first-half yellow card, meaning he will be suspended for Wednesday night's game at Guatemala, which is insignificant — with the Americans already qualified, Reyna will head back to Manchester City in England. U.S. defender Gregg Berhalter also drew a yellow and also is suspended. ... Mexico's Duilio Davino's yellow card means he will be out for Wednesday's home game against with Panama. ... There were 38 fouls in the game. ... The national team is 3-0-3 at Crew Stadium. ... Costa Rica (3-3-1) is third with 10 points following a 3-1 victory at Panama (0-5-2). Trinidad and Tobago rallied to beat visiting Guatemala 3-2, leaving both teams with seven points at 2-4-1. The No. 4 team goes to a playoff against Bahrain or Uzbekistan.