On a night with no snow, the U.S. put in another gritty performance to outlast a Mexican team that seemed devoid of ideas and earn a scoreless draw.
The U.S. earned a vital road point, taking them into a three-way tie for second place with Honduras and Costa Rica in what is now a very crowded Hex. (The U.S. is technically third, on goal difference, behind Costa Rica.)
Estadio Azteca was near capacity, and the tension was thick as the players lined up for the anthems. As expected, Maurice Edu replaced the injured Jermaine Jones. Matt Besler came into the U.S. defense to replace Clay Goodson, who pulled out with a hamstring strain picked up in training. Otherwise, the squad was the same as started the match against Costa Rica.
First half – The U.S. bends, but doesn’t break.
To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Mexico came out strong and immediately began dominating possession. Their passing and movement were crisp, and the U.S. couldn’t keep the ball for any length of time.
The Mexican strategy was clearly to target U.S. left back DaMarcus Beasley, and in the early going, it bore fruit. Perhaps because Besler wasn’t communicating as well with him, Beasley was caught the wrong side of the offside trap more than once, and the Mexican right wing, Javier Aquino, was getting behind him. In the 9th minute, Beasley was booked for pushing Aquino from behind, just on the edge of the U.S. box. Luckily, the free kick came to nothing.
Beasley wasn’t the only nervous U.S. player early. Shortly after Beasley’s yellow, Michael Bradley almost gave away a PK of his own when he pushed Chicharito in the back as the Mexican forward ran offside in the U.S. box. Chicharito fell to the floor as if shot, and the linesman flagged for a foul, but the ball was away, and the ref played on.
While the U.S. wasn’t carving chances out from free play, not everything was going Mexico’s way. In the 15th minute, Clint Dempsey stole a Mexican pass in midfield and sprinted toward the goal. Herculez Gomez overlapped on the left, and Dempsey played the ball into his path. Gomez couldn’t get the cross in, but earned a corner. Geoff Cameron won the resulting ball in the air and should have put it on goal. It would have been moot, however, as the chance was called back for a phantom foul.
As the half wore on, Mexico carved out several chances, primarily from crosses into Chicharito. The U.S. defense handled the high balls well, though Besler was given a yellow card for a professional foul to stop a Mexican break on 20 minutes.
The U.S. was under pressure, but not continuously. The Mexicans had more possession, but weren’t pressing hard without the ball. The Americans had occasional periods of possession, but found it difficult to get into the final third. That is, until the 39th minute, when the best U.S. passing move of the night had Michael Bradley in the Mexican box before the ball was cleared. Beginning with Omar Gonzalez, the ball was played straight up the Mexican gut, to Edu, then Dempsey, then Bradley, who played a one-two with Jozy Altidore. The challenge came in and the chance passed, but it showed the U.S. could play it on the ground if it so chose.
Second half – The U.S. bends some more, and hey, still doesn’t break! (With a little help from the ref.)
In the opening minutes of the second half, it looked as if the Mexican team had been listening to Alejandro Moreno’s commentary and had come out with more energy and drive to take the ball away from the U.S. Well, for five minutes, anyway. After that, Mexico returned to its strangely subdued habits from the first half. Though they continued to make decent and more-than-decent chances from crossing positions, the Mexican players simply did not press the U.S. when they didn’t have the ball, and thus created almost nothing through the middle or on the ground.
The U.S., for its part, didn’t do much with the ball either. While they attempted to find Jozy Altidore and then Eddie Johnson (who replaced Altidore in the 55th minute) wide up the field with long balls, they rarely had periods of offensive possession. The U.S. retained the ball fairly well around the defense and through the midfield, but hardly troubled the Mexican back line.
In the end, the half played out with relatively few dangerous moments, with Mexico reduced to launching crosses at the U.S. back line, which the U.S. generally dealt with without difficulty.
There were two moments, however, that the Mexicans will look back on with real regret.
In the 76th minute, a dinked ball fell to Aquino in the U.S. box. Edu, challenging from behind, looked to have made contact, and Aquino went down. The ref signaled for a corner, but replays showed it was likely a penalty. Even if there was no contact, a penalty would not have been a surprising call.
Then, in the 86th minute, as Mexico closed the game out with a series of corners (15 total for the game!), one of those kicks dropped inside the U.S. six and Chicharito got a foot to it but blazed over from inside five yards. The ball was bouncing as he stretched for it, but it would not have taken much to poke it in.
In the end, though, Mexico’s final ball never found the back of the U.S. net. Guzan made one important save from a long-range effort in the 93rd minute, which was quickly followed by another shot that deflected narrowly wide for the final corner. But that corner, like all the others, was cleared away, and the clock soon ran out. The U.S. had earned only its second World Cup Qualifying point in history away to Mexico.
It was a strange game, truth be told. While the stat sheet will show that Mexico dominated possession and created far, far more chances than the United States did, for long stretches in both halves, the U.S. looked largely untroubled. A big reason for that was the play of Gonzalez and Besler, who got their heads to everything that came their way, but the Mexican team must take a share of the responsibility as well. Mexico was clearly the superior team on the ball, yet never pressed the U.S. team as they might have. The crowd, too, seemed subdued, getting most agitated during the singing of the U.S. national anthem. They were a non-factor thereafter.
As noted, the U.S. now sits in a three-way points tie with Honduras and Costa Rica for second place in the group, with four points, while Panama is in first, with five points. Mexico sits tied for last place with Jamaica, with two points. The Hexagonal is tighter now than perhaps it ever has been, with all six teams within range of the top spots, and goal differential may end up sorting the final places.
But for now, we can all breathe a sigh of relief as the U.S. answered its critics and righted the ship after the disappointing result in Honduras.
Brad Guzan: 7. Honestly, he had little to do, but he did it very well. Confidently came out and destroyed Jesus Zavala on a high ball in the first half that was called for offsides, and also calmly punched away a dangerous corner late in the second. Made the few saves that were necessary. Great showing from Guzan in these two games.
DaMarcus Beasley: 6. Looked very shaky early on, and had trouble with Aquino all night. And yet, nothing particularly dangerous ever materialized from his area, and he seemed to get a handle on things as the game went along. He won’t take Fabian Johnson’s job in the long run, but did very, very well standing in.
Matt Besler: 8. Honestly, he did fantastically well, considering the circumstances. The yellow card was unfortunate, but not the result of poor play on his part, and he simply refused to allow anything through the back line. Worked very well with Gonzalez. Great showing.
Omar Gonzalez: 8. Ditto. Was even more active than Besler in getting to aerial balls, and stepped out of defense to make early tackles. Also started the best (only?) U.S. offensive move of the night.
Geoff Cameron: 6. Much calmer performance from Cameron, with smarter passing. Less involved offensively, but that’s no surprise, given there was basically no offense anywhere. Good defensive work.
Michael Bradley: 6.5. Paired well with Edu to protect the defense. Was on the end of the best U.S. chance, but otherwise did little going forward.
Maurice Edu: 6. Good return to the starting lineup for Edu. Did his shielding duties well, and tried to chip in offensively, when the opportunity arose. Did have a couple of turnovers that might have proved costly on another day.
Herculez Gomez: 5.5. Worked hard again, and put in a lot of defensive covering work, but like his teammates, could not create anything going forward.
Clint Dempsey: 5.5. We went long stretches without hearing his name called. He chipped in defensively, of course, but I would have liked to see him on the ball more, driving at the Mexican defense.
Graham Zusi: 7. Also didn’t contribute much offensively, but worked his tail off, and gets bumped up for the long sprint back he made to flick a dangerous ball over the head of a Mexican attacker at the U.S. back post. A vital intervention.
Jozy Altidore: 5. Also worked hard again, and was perhaps taken off harshly—Eddie Johnson certainly didn’t do much when he came on—but also couldn’t retain the ball very much, and as the furthest forward U.S. player, his defensive contributions were not as obvious.
Eddie Johnson (sub): 4. Was basically invisible. Made no errors, but did no more than Altidore was doing, and only had to run for 35 minutes.
Brad Davis (sub): 4.5. Did his defensive duties after replacing Gomez, and put one decent set piece into the Mexican box, but was otherwise anonymous.
Brek Shea (sub): 4. No magic cameo for Shea this time. Came on late for Zusi and disappeared. Though, by that time, the U.S. had really hunkered down and was hardly looking to move forward, so perhaps it’s not his fault.