June 18, 1999

Mexico Faces Challenges of Biblical Proportions

By John Philip Wyllie

With Mexico assigned to the "Group of Death" along with third ranked Germany, fifth ranked Brazil and seventh ranked Italy in tomorrow's Women's World Cup, which opens at Giants Stadium, the Tricolors could be in for some hard times.

To say that Mexico's recently appointed head coach, Leonardo Cuellar faces a formidable task would be an enormous understatement. The Biblical David faced better odds with his slingshot against the seemingly invincible Goliath. But to even be a part of the prestigious quadrennial tournament is an achievement in itself, especially for a team that little more than a year ago, had never won a World Cup qualifier.

Mexico's surprising emergence on the women's international soccer radar screen is due in no small part to the persistence of one man, a Tijuana restaurateur named Karlo Pedrin. Pedrin's idea was to enhance Mexico's existing team by tapping into the vast talent pool north of the border. With its well established collegiate system, the United States churns out quality soccer players faster than Japan turns out cars. Using a network of coaches, Pedrin soon had the names of dozens of Mexican-American collegiate players from which to draw upon.

Maribel Dominguez, team Mexico

Invitations were sent out and enough interest was demonstrated to indicate that his plan might work. Since players can only represent one country in World Cup play during their lifetimes, those with serious aspirations of playing for the United States had an important decision to make.

Still the Mexican Soccer Federation had to be convinced, so Pedrin proceeded to use his skills as a salesman and eventually won the support of the Mexican Federation's Enrique Silva-Teran. And through the support of Silva-Teran, the program was pushed ahead.

Meanwhile Pedrin's search had uncovered some promising talent. Heading the list was Notre Dame's All-Time leading scorer, Monica Gerardo. "Without Monica, it would have been very difficult to attract new players," Pedrin said. But with the explosive attacker committed to play, others soon followed. UCSB's All-American midfielder, Laurie Hill, Cal Poly's Gina Oceguera and San Diego State's Linnea Quinones quickly signed on.

Laurie Hill of team Mexico, and Krisine Lilly of the US.

Then in December Mexico fortified its defense with Santa Clara captain, Lisa Nanez. More than half of the 20 players in uniform for Mexico tomorrow will be American born, American educated or both. Despite the influx of American talent, Mexico will have a very difficult time with powerful Brazil.

"Our goal is to try to get to the Olympics," said assistant coach, Henry Sosa. In order to do so, Mexico will have to pull a major upset and find a way to advance to the second round. If they can somehow do that, they will gain admission to the 2000 Olympic Games. Sosa thinks it's possible.

"Nobody has seen the current Mexico team with all of its key players. Last summer we had two Brazilian girls combine for eleven goals against us (while several of Mexico's key players were away at college). But I'll tell you this, they are not going to run by (defenders) Gina Oceguera and Lisa Nanez."

In order to make up for the delayed opening of their training camp, coach Leonardo Cuellar scheduled two a day practices along with a rigorous schedule scrimmages with several local collegiate and club teams. International friendlies with the United States, Canada and several club and collegiate teams helped Mexico prepare.

"Leo gives us credibility in the eyes of the Mexican people," says Sosa. "He's an awesome coach, a national celebrity and somebody who knows what it is to play in the World Cup." Having played and coached on both sides of the border, Cuellar seems the perfect choice for Mexico's bicultural team. "He works really well with the players on and off the field," says Gerardo. "He's made connections with everybody. I think that is important in a coach. If all you can do is the on the field coaching, you are going to end up with a lot of very unhappy players."

There were some questions raised early on about how Mexico's bicultural team would mesh. But that turned out to be a non-issue. "We had a few meetings in the beginning in which the importance of becoming one team was stressed, " remembered Gerardo. "I've grown and learned a lot from the people on this team. Spending time with the Mexican players day in and day out, we've gotten to know everyone. I hang out more now with the Mexican girls than I do with the Americans."

Former UCSB All-American midfielder Laurie Hill addressed the question of commitment at a recent press conference. " People think there must be some ambiguity playing here (for Mexico). I don't feel that way. I'm with Mexico 100%. There is no doubt in my mind and no doubt in my heart."

As for Mexico's chances this summer Hill simply says, "It's been a hard road just to qualify. We've had to fight to get here and we will continue to fight. We'll play each game one at a time."

Mexico battles Brazil tomorrow (6/19/99) at 2:30 pm live on ESPN as the second game of a double header which also features the United States against Denmark. The U.S. -Denmark game kicks off on ABC at noon.

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