For reasons I’ll never comprehend, they call matches like the United States and Mexico facing off at Azteca Stadium “friendlies.” Despite the fact that these matches rarely fulfill their oh-so-pleasant billing, the notion of a friendly game could also lead casual fans to believe that the result is inconsequential.
But the 1-0 victory earned by Jurgen Klinsmann's American side on Wednesday night was anything but. Michael Orozco Fiscal's first goal for the Red, White and Blue—in the 80th minute, no less—claimed the U.S. men their first victory ever over their archrivals on Mexican soil.
“I think it’s huge,” Klinsmann told reporters after the match. “It’s huge for all American fans and it’s huge for the team. It’s historic. We were well aware that we’ve never won here at Azteca and this is an amazing experience for all the players. We told them before the game, ‘This moment is for you, go and grab it.’"
A win in this match seemed especially improbable, with Mexico taking control of the rivalry in recent years, going 3-0-1 against the U.S. since July of 2009, thumping the Americans to the tune of 5-0 and 4-2 in the process.
"No big deal. It’s a friendly, not a World Cup qualifier," critics will claim. And they’re right. This sort of prep match, especially one coming very early on in the several-years-long qualification campaign for Brazil 2014, isn't meaningful in the sense that it puts points on the board toward their ultimate goal of reaching the World Cup.
But a win like Wednesday's, one that ends an astounding 75-year winless streak as visitors to the rowdy stadia of our Southern neighbors, gives a rebuilding U.S. side some valuable self-assurance heading into what is always a harrowing qualification process.
“We know we still have to improve in many elements,” Klinsmann continued. “We have to keep the ball longer, we have to create more chances and we have to do a lot of work still, but I think this gives us a lot of confidence.”
Not only had the U.S. struggled of late against El Tri, but the American men's under-23 side failed to even qualify for the recent Olympics in London—a tourney in which Mexico's youngsters defeated a star-studded Brazilian side to win gold.
Similarly, despite a victory over the Azzurri in Italy on Feb. 29, the U.S. performances of late have lacked the staunch defending and offensive panache for which the Americans have—at least in the CONCACAF—become renown.
But Wednesday night at Azteca was a different story.
Sure, the USA was on its heels for a large portion of the match. Mexico dominated possession, holding onto the ball for 66 percent of the 90-plus minutes. They outshot the U.S. 19-7 and had 10 corner kicks to the Americans' zero.
It didn’t come as much of a surprise. After all, the Americans were facing a lifetime 0-23-1 record south of the border that included a 45-4 goal deficit in their last 15 matchups.
And it didn't come without some luck. Chicharito missed several point-blank chances he'd normally put away in his sleep.
But the U.S. defense, led stoutly by newcomer Geoff Cameron and the oft-brilliant goalkeeping of veteran Tim Howard, stood strong against the incessant threats of El Tri.
And though there was little American offense to speak of—Landon Donovan was subbed off at halftime after a forgettable first half—Terrence Boyd added some energy to the attack in the second 45. Brek Shea returned from oblivion to spark and set up a fabulous counterattacking chance.
Shea, who entered the match just a minute earlier, beat a Mexican defender on the left side of the penalty area, and despite a poor touch, managed to cross the ball into the six-yard box. Boyd trapped the ball, and managed a clever back-heel in an apparent attempt on net.
His cheeky flick didn't go in, but it beat several defenders and found its way to Orozco Fiscal, a late defensive sub who had entered the match just two minutes before. The 26-year-old, who plays professionally for San Luis in the Mexican first division, slotted the ball home with his left foot for his first international goal.
It was all the Americans would need.
No one knows how this impressive U.S. triumph will affect the rest of their 2014 World Cup qualification run. But for one night, it’s shown that one monumental and enduring trend in a rivalry of this nature can be turned around with one fluke goal. And that maybe the U.S. hasn’t fallen as far in the CONCACAF ranks as its fans have feared.