Some American players, coaches, and fans will be left wondering if they let a chance at history go begging in Mexico City on Sunday night.
Many more will be basking in the glory of four crucial World Cup Qualifying points in a four day span, capped off by a 1-1 draw with their bitter rivals at Estadio Azteca.
It’s a sensible claim to say that most everyone involved with the U.S. team would have gladly taken the point on the road against a dangerous Mexican team. But the question still remains; could it have been more?
In the 6th minute when Michael Bradley gave the Americans just their third ever lead inside the hallowed grounds of the historic Mexican fortress, a simply superlative chip from forty yards that will forever bring chills to El Tri goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, the U.S. captain sent his side into a brief state of euphoria.
As the high pitch screams of celebration wound down, there was a collective realization of circumstance. Bruce Arena’s underdog side were up 1-0, and looked to have no intentions of easing off the accelerator.
The mood in the stadium and around the American camp was eerily similar to the vibes of the summer of 2009, two qualifying cycles ago when Charlie Davies gave the Yanks a shock 1-0 lead at Azteca inside ten minutes. That lead was of course short lived, as Israel Castro cannoned one home just eleven minutes later, as Mexico went on to win that match 2-1, their last win against the U.S. at Azteca.
When Carlos Vela equalized in the 23rd minute on Sunday night with a low left-footed drive past a hapless Brad Guzan, you couldn’t help but get a strange sense of deja vu. The U.S. advantage was again short lived.
It was the details of how this particular American lead was surrendered that made the goal so agonizing from a U.S. point of view. This wasn’t 2009, when Davies right footed bender was the only shot on goal registered by Bob Bradley’s team in the entire match. This was much different.
It very well could have been 2-0 to the visitors just seconds prior to Vela’s equalizer, as the U.S. had sent a significant amount of bodies forward for a short corner kick routine involving Borussia Dortmund wonderkid Christian Pulisic and Club Tijuana winger and San Diego native Paul Arriola, their combined age of 40 certainly an intriguing number when looking to the attacking future of the national team.
A long searching ball from Arriola did a number on the Mexican defense, as players were forced to move laterally on an increasingly slippery surface. After a brief moment of panic and poor play from the home side, U.S. defender Tim Ream was able to nod a headed pass to forward Bobby Wood. The Hawaiian number 9 was presented with a golden opportunity to double his team’s lead, but whiffed on his left-footed swing after chesting the ball down no more than six or seven yards from goal.
As Wood buried his head in his hands, Guillermo Ochoa saw an opening and rifled a throw toward midfield. Ochoa knew the Americans were stretched, with both Ream and fellow center-back Omar Gonzalez scrambling to get back defensively after both pushing up for the set piece.
As the action quickly transitioned toward the American half, Kellyn Acosta, who played an outstanding match in just his 17th appearance for the senior national team, may have missed an opportunity to pick up one of the smarter yellow cards of the night, Acosta flying toward the ball at full speed and getting nothing but air with a half-hearted challenge on Chicharito, in turn allowing the all-time Mexican goal scoring king to easily cut by him in the center circle and into open space.
It was a scintillating counter from El Tri, and when the ball found its way to the in-form Vela on the right wing, with 35 year-old Damarcus Beasley standing in front of him, you could see exactly what the left-foot dominant Real Sociedad striker wanted to do.
Beating Beasley for pace, Vela cut in towards the top of the eighteen. With no American players stepping to help Beasley, Vela unleashed a left-footed strike low and hard to the near post that gave Guzan no chance to stop.
So close to a 2-0 lead for the Americans. Instead, a swift movement and a whole new ballgame with momentum back with Juan Carlos Osorio’s team and the heavy majority of 87,000 fans inside the stadium.
What followed, stylistically speaking, in the subsequent 70 minutes of soccer on Sunday night was very much to be expected. Arena had his team well disciplined defensively, the Americans maintaining their shape and displaying a strong commitment to organization for the remainder of the match. They conceded possession, and did not allow Mexico to create many clear cut scoring chances.
Midway through the second half, FC Porto midfielder Hector Herrera hit the under side of the cross bar with an audacious and sweetly struck free kick that was just centimeters from giving Mexico the lead and sending the Azteca into sheer bedlam.
Moments later, Bradley let loose with a stunning half volley from thirty yards out that tailed away from the sprawling Ochoa and hit the outside of the keeper’s left post before going out for a goal kick.
Herrera and Bradley’s efforts were very much a like for like exchange of near golazos.
Mexico had a few half chances late on, and Pulisic was unable to put his shot from twenty yards on frame in the dying moments, one of the better opportunities for the Americans on the night.
As the heavens really began to open up, and rain began to smother the playing surface, the crowd at the Azteca had grown quite frustrated with what they saw as a disappointing Mexican display. Thousands fled for the exits before the final whistle had blown, a combination perhaps of frustration and a desire to stay dry.
The draw in the game of soccer is one of the most circumstantial concepts in the sporting world, and when the final whistle did blow, it was most definitely the Americans that looked to be celebrating what they knew in their heart of hearts was a heroic effort in an always intimidating and challenging environment.
Many players in the Mexican squad looked dejected, disappointment palpable as the first place side in the hexagonal now looks to Russia and the 2017 Confederations Cup.
Bruce Arena’s side now sits in third place in the six team World Cup Qualifying group, Arena’s current qualifying record of 2 wins 0 losses and 2 draws helping to bring the Americans out of the last place cellar they occupied during the final days of Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign. Following this 2017 qualifying formula of clean sheet victories at home and 1-1 draws on the road would almost certainly see the U.S. through to Russia for next summer.
We can always look back on what could’ve been, and June 11th could’ve have been a day that would live on in pure American soccer folklore. Who knows what happened if Wood finds a way to score in the 1st half. It very well could’ve been the first ever qualifying victory for the U.S. at Estadio Azteca.
But it also could’ve easily been a Mexico win. While El Tri simply did not do enough to defeat their rivals, a 1-1 draw seeming like a fair result, a few fortuitous bounces could’ve gone Mexico’s way. Some better finishing may have seen the home side do what was expected and take all three points from their noisy northern neighbors.
There was also some inch-perfect defending from Gonzalez, Ream, even Beasley, and most notably from Geoff Cameron and Deandre Yedlin. Acosta was brilliant in the defensive midfield role. Pulisic and Arriola both brought brief moments of flair to the attack. And Bradley, well, what more can we say about the game he played?
A lineup that was widely scrutinized in the build up to kickoff came through with a result that is being widely applauded. Arena’s got the Yanks paving their road to Russia, and Sunday’s 1-1 draw in Mexico City was a fine piece of engineering along the way. This road however is far from finished.