More than pride was at stake going into Wednesday’s World Cup qualifier in Mexico City. Mexico, 2-1 winners in the altitude and smog, needed all three points to ease their qualification effort for next summer’s World Cup after gathering only six points in their first five qualifiers. The United States, meanwhile, needed a win if they wanted any chance of being granted a favorable grouping in their World Cup draw, a decision that could make or break their tournament.
For the first time ever, the United States had a chance of being considered for the second pool of FIFA make-up of the World Cup groups next year, a decision that would grant them the chance to face one or two of the weaker nations in the group stages—say teams from Asia or Africa— instead of facing two favorites, like say Czech Republic and Italy, as they did in 2006.
It all hinged on a good performance in a hostile environment against a respected opponent. All they wanted to do was start strong and not concede in the first ten minutes. Stay tight, stay compact, and keep possession. They did just that and a little bit more early on, scoring first thanks to a visionary through ball by Landon Donovan and cool finish by Charlie Davies in the 9th minute.
Donovan continued his fine play stemming back from this summer’s Confederations Cup when he received the ball in the middle of the field, turned quickly and threaded a perfect diagonal ball to space behind the Mexican defense. Two clean touches and a clinical finish to the far post later, and Davies had given the Americans an early lead.
That was the good for the Americans, as the last thirty minutes of the half showed the bad and the ugly. Continued Mexican pressure in front of 114,000 supporters paid off when Castro leveled the game, his first for El Tri, with a twenty-five yard screamer that swerved and dipped over an outstretched Tim Howard. The replays show a cowering captain Carlos Bocanegra, who failed to pressure the shooter, as the knuckling shot flew into the underside of the crossbar before crossing the line.
The atmosphere at the Azteca emanated through the television when Mexico almost took the lead in the 24th when Franco and dos Santos combined in a cheeky one-two and Santos’ left footer screamed past the post.
As the first half wound on Mexico made the most of their possession, forcing both Demerit and Onyewu into yellow cards by the 29th minute. Imagine a basketball team having both their big men in foul trouble before halftime. Toss in a Bocanegra yellow before the break and the Yanks had their work cut out for themselves with the lightning quick Mexican attack the rest of the way.
Guardado and dos Santos were definitely the best players on the field in the first half. Man, they have some exciting young players! And Castro and Vela, who gets his paycheck from Arsenal, didn’t even come on until the second half.
There is a changing of the guard in the Mexican ranks. Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who played ninety minutes for the Chicago Fire earlier this week, increasingly looks like an old man who had one too many beers in the bar before coming out for a men’s league game, and Vela fittingly came in for him ten minutes into the half. His passes are a little long, his touch a bit heavy.
One more game, for one more great, on one more big stage.
I hate when men’s National team games turn into one-sided affairs with the United States defense turning back wave after wave of attack for long stretches of time. They clear to their opponent’s back line and wait for the next push.
For the Americans to have any success going forward in the second half, the midfield had to find a way to link to the defense and keep some possession going forward. I for one, am tired of long balls to Davies and Donovan. Keep it on the ground and play it to space.
Bob must have agreed with me because his substitutions in the 60th minutes aimed to do just that. He finally made an early substitution and I liked the decision. Ching and Clark off for Holden and Feilhaber. Possession, possession, possession. Dempsey moved up top and coupled with Jozy when he came on for a cramping Davies in the 77th.
Numerous calls in favor of the Mexicans throughout the game started to wear on the American players and all the frustrations exploded in the 73rd outside the American box as players began pushing and shoving after a Mexican free kick.
The game looked like it might end as a draw until the Mexicans struck the final blow on the tired Americans nine minutes from time when Juarez shook Donovan on the outside and broke into the box. Demerit tackled the ball away but it fell to substitute Sabah, whose toe poke—his first touches of the game—beat Howard, who couldn’t get a hand above his head fast enough.
All too often gutsy Americans efforts, where they dominate games in the early going, have gone without reward. Early goals are never enough when leads routinely evaporate by the final whistle.
On a side note, did anyone else notice the new marketing and advertising campaign Telemundo has introduced in the world’s first bi-lingual broadcast by a single company? Two stations, two versions of the game, one company. Every corner kick featured an advertisement for Degree deodorant in the corner of the screen. A soccer version of the “Degree-All in Moment”, as advertised on ESPN’s World Series of Poker broadcasts. Whatever it takes to get the sponsors on board with soccer in America, I guess.