Well now, that was special. Never have I been happier to be proved wrong. For the first time in history, the United States’ Men’s Soccer Team has beaten Mexico in Mexico—at the Azteca, no less, the most fearsome stadium in all of Mexico. I barely know where to start, so I suppose I’ll start at the beginning.
First half—no real surprises
We knew coming in that the backline of the U.S. would be makeshift, and indeed it was. Maurice Edu partnered Geoff Cameron in the middle, and Klinsmann, instead of handing the only specialist right back on the roster, Steven Beitashour, his first cap in such intimidating circumstances, elected to play Edgar Castillo on the left and move Fabian Johnson to the right.
While the defense, on paper, looked like a weakness, it turned out to be a strength, and the four men across the back, and Tim Howard behind them, contained Mexico’s attack almost completely. Javier Hernandez—Chicharito—was anonymous, and while Mexico had almost all the possession—indeed, for much of the half, the United States barely made it across the halfway line, such was Mexico’s hold on the ball—it was a half almost entirely devoid of drama. Mexico attacked, but didn’t threaten, while the U.S. calmly defended, then promptly gave the ball back. Rinse and repeat.
Up front, Herculez Gomez, Jose Torres, and Landon Donovan ran about industriously, but did more defending than attacking. The same went for Danny Williams, Jermaine Jones, and Kyle Beckerman through the middle.
At the half, Klinsmann removed Donovan for Terrence Boyd, and Torres for DaMarcus Beasley. Mexico also made two changes, including bringing on Elias Hernandez. The game opened up, and the U.S. defending began to look less assured, with Mexico getting better looks, open headers. Elias Hernandez was combining well with Chicharito, and twice the latter had decent looks off crosses, only to miscue them. Cameron, at one point, snuffed an opportunity by diving back toward his own goal and flicking an oncoming cross over the onrushing head of Chicharito.
The misses would prove costly as the match soon settled back into a rhythm not unlike the first half, with the U.S. looking comfortable, and Mexico looking out of ideas. Graham Zusi made an appearance on the hour mark, then Aldo de Nigris came on for Mexico, changing their formation to a two-striker set. 0–0 seemed possible, if not likely, but the story hadn’t really begun.
In the 77th minute, an old Philly friend, Michael Orozco Fiscal, came on for Edgar Castillo. Orozco Fiscal slotted in at right back and Fabian Johnson moved left. A minute later, Brek Shea came on for Herculez Gomez, taking Beasley’s position wide left and pushing Beasley up behind Boyd. Before I had time to wonder whether it made sense to move Fabian Johnson to the left and disrupt the rhythm the defense had created, or if Brek Shea was ever going to find the exciting form that had rumors of a move to England flying fast and furious last winter, the two substitutes combined to make some magic.
After a throw-in in the Mexican half, the ball came central to Beckerman, who quickly fed Shea high on the left. Without hesitation, Shea drove at his defender, feinting left then drifting past his man and into the box. His touch took him to the endline, and he was forced to send in a low cross instead of shooting, but his pass found Boyd—himself a substitute—who collected the ball with his back to goal. With no options, he flicked a back heel toward the far corner. The ball was spinning—Boyd hadn’t caught all of it—but who was there but Michael Orozco Fiscal, still forward after the throw-in, who took a swipe with his left foot. The glancing shot spun away from Guillermo Ochoa, the Mexican keeper, and another defender on the line, and into the corner of the net.
The U.S. celebration was immediate, and jubilant—there were only 11 minutes left! Could they do it?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—it’s nice to have Tim Howard
The Mexican crowd didn’t quite know what to make of being down a goal. It seemed wrong, somehow. Could the U.S., impotent in 24 previous visits to Mexico, actually win a game in Azteca? The Mexican team didn’t seem to understand it, either, but twice in the final few minutes nearly had their equalizer, and it would be Chicharito with both chances.
First, the ball fell kindly to Chicharito at the top of the box after a cross from the left wing was poorly cleared. He had a free shot, but three U.S. defenders closed him down as he struck it. The ball looked headed for the left corner, and Howard began moving that way, only for the ball to deflect off Edu and whistle toward the opposite side. Howard changed direction in a flash. Replays showed that both of his legs, from his instep to his knee, were in contact with the ground—it reminded me of what happens when a quarterback gets tackled low at the wrong moment, and his leg is practically ripped off at the knee—and yet, at the last possible moment, Howard lunged from that awkward position, reached out his left hand, and palmed the ball away, then fell on it before it skittered out of reach.
A few minutes later, another teasing cross from the Mexican left found Chicharito’s head. Chicharito’s night had not gone well. He’d fluffed several chances that on another night he might have buried, but he caught this one clean. He headed it down and to Howard’s left, but again, Howard was there, diving and slapping the ball down to the ground. As he fell, he managed to kick the ball away from the goal line, as it sat there, just waiting for a Mexican boot to slide in and poke it home. The ball was cleared, and a shot of Jurgen Klinsmann on the sideline showed him with a bemused, disbelieving smile. Sometimes, you’re just lucky enough to have the hot keeper.
This is bigger than the win over Italy. It’s certainly Klinsmann’s biggest win as U.S. coach. To come into Mexico with half the first-team squad—if that—missing arguably two of your four best players, without three-quarters of your starting defense, and win? That’s really something.
Mexico will rightly lament their missed chances, and some might call it “smash and grab.” It may just be a friendly, and not count toward anything but regional bragging rights. But it means much more than that. This victory opens the door to the future. When the U.S. and Mexico meet later on, in World Cup Qualifying, the players now know that it can be done—the U.S. can beat Mexico on their home soil.
These players will remember this game for the rest of their lives, and rightfully so. I’m just glad I saw it. It wasn’t pretty, not for long stretches, but I’m glad I can say I saw Brek Shea, and Terrence Boyd, and Michael Orozco Fiscal, and Geoff Cameron, and Tim Howard do something that had never been done before. Go U.S.A.
Match: USA vs. Mexico
Date: August 15, 2012
Competition: International Friendly
Venue: Estadio Azteca
Kickoff: 7pm CT
Weather: 72 degrees, mostly cloudy
Scoring Summary: 1 2 F
USA 0 1 1
MEX 0 0 0
USA – Michael Orozco Fiscal (Terrence Boyd) 80th minute
USA : 1-Tim Howard (capt.); 23-Fabian Johnson, 20-Geoff Cameron, 7-Maurice Edu, 15-Edgar Castillo (4-Michael Orozco Fiscal, 77); 13-Jermaine Jones (14-Joe Corona, 89), 5-Kyle Beckerman, 6-Danny Williams (8-Graham Zusi, 60), 16-Jose Torres (18-Terrence Boyd, 45); 10-Landon Donovan (17-Damarcus Beasley, 45), 9-Herculez Gomez (11-Brek Shea, 78)
Subs not used: 3-Matt Besler, 19-Chris Wondolowski, 22-Nick Rimando
Head Coach: Jurgen Klinsmann
MEX : 1- Guillermo Ochoa; 5- Severo Meza (3-Enrique Perez, 88), 2-Francisco Rodriguez (capt.), 15-Hector Moreno, 20-Jorge Torres Nilo; 17-Jesus Zavala, 6- Manuel Viniegra (23-Edgar Lugo, 45), 18-Andres Guardado, 7-Pablo Barrera (11-Elias Hernandez, 45); 10-Angel Reyna (9-Aldo de Nigris, 73), 14-Javier Hernandez
Subs not used: 4-Hugo Ayala, 8-Adrian Adrete, 12-Alfredo Talavera
Head coach: Jose Manuel de la Torre
Stats Summary: USA / MEX
Shots: 6 / 15
Shots on Goal: 3 / 3
Saves: 3 / 2
Corner Kicks: 0 / 10
Fouls: 11 / 10
Offside: 0 / 4
USA – Maurice Edu (caution) 14th minute
MEX – Hector Moreno (caution) 31
USA – Jermaine Jones (caution) 69
USA – Graham Zusi (caution) 82
Referee:Walter Quesada (CRC)
Assistant Referee 1: Leonel Leal (CRC)
Assistant Referee 2: Octavio Jara (CRC)
Fourth Official: Alfredo Penaloza (CRC)