Before Sunday, the USMNT played seven World Cup qualifiers at famed Estadio Azteca. Only twice did they finish with anything other than a loss.
But in front of a raucous crowd of 81,000, the Stars and Stripes played to a hard fought 1-1 draw with their fierce rivals south of the border. Michael Bradley put the Yanks up early, with Carlos Vela getting one back for El Tri later on in the first half. The result moves the US to 0-5-3 all-time against Mexico at the vaunted venue that is Azteca.
USMNT Escape Estadio Azteca With Historic Draw
New Faces, New Formation
Manager Bruce Arena made waves earlier in the day when he announced he was making seven changes to the lineup from Thursday’s 2-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago. The short turnaround, combined with a third straight game at altitude, necessitated some rotation. Not only were there new faces in the starting XI, Arena also changed the team shape.
After trotting out a 4-1-3-2 against Trinidad, the US opted for a 3-4-3 formation against Mexico. Brad Guzan got the start in goal while Tim Ream, Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez comprised the back three. DaMarcus Beasley and DeAndre Yedlin played as wing backs on the left and right respectively. Kellyn Acosta joined Michael Bradley as dual holding mids protecting the defensive line. Finally, the front three included Christian Pulisic and Paul Arriola operating as slightly withdrawn wide attackers underneath center forward Bobby Wood.
Only Cameron, Yedlin, Bradley and Pulisic reprised their starting role from Thursday. The 21-year-old Acosta made his first ever start for the US in World Cup qualifying. And with his appearance, Beasley became the first player in American soccer history to participate in five qualifying cycles.
Mexico attempted to set a physical tone early. It included two rough challenges on aerial duels to Beasley and Wood. In Wood’s case, he caught an elbow to the face from Carlos Salcedo. The former RSL academy product received no card for the incident.
El Tri was expected to dictate the tempo from a possession standpoint. It meant that the lion’s share of chances for the US were going to come on counterattacks. The Stars and Striped needed to remain resolute defensively while looking for chances to pounce in transition.
In the sixth minute, opportunity presented itself. And Michael Bradley made the most of it. The Toronto FC man intercepted a Chicharito pass near midfield and quickly sprang towards goal. A few dribbles later, he attempted to catch Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa off his line. The resulting chip floated into the net to give the visitors a 1-0 lead.
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Not content to sit on the advantage, the US continued to push forward looking to potentially double their lead. Gonzalez pushed forward and connected on two headers in the box, even though neither forced a save out of Ochoa. And Wood found himself with the ball at the top of the six-yard box but whiffed on the attempted shot.
Ochoa collected the ball and with the US having too many bodies forward, he quickly threw it out towards Chicharito. The 29-year-old striker then found Carlos Vela with a diagonal ball out to the right. Vela then tucked in side, dribbled past Beasley and blasted it at goal, beating Guzan near post for the equalizer.
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Though not surprising, the possession disparity in Mexico’s favor was quite pronounced in the first 45. El Tri enjoyed over 70 percent of the ball and that translated to them making over 150 more passes than the US. Bradley, known for being an engine of distribution for his club team in MLS, registered just eight passes.
It was more of the same from the home team in the second half. El Tri owned the possession edge in all nine five-minute intervals during the second stanza. For the game, they finished with a 73.7 percent edge.
The US dodged a bullet in the 71st minute. After conceding a free kick about 30 yards away from goal, Hector Herrera stepped up and ripped a laser of a shot at goal. The attempt beat Guzan but glanced off the crossbar, maintaining the deadlock.
Two minutes later on the other side of the field, Bradley had a chance to get his second. And it came in similar fashion to his opening tally considering the shot was from distance. His 40-yard volley had plenty of pace on it, and Ochoa reacted late to it. But it ultimately grazed the right post and trickled harmlessly out of bounds.
Late in the game, the US had a legitimate opportunity to escape with the full three points. In the 89th minute, Pulisic found himself with the ball and plenty of space to dribble towards goal. But his effort from outside the box went a few yards right of the goal and didn’t trouble Ochoa too much.
Mexico pushed forward in stoppage time in search of a possible late game-winner. But the Yanks remained stout defensively, effectively dealing with anything that came into the box. It included a late cross which Cameron chested out of bounds for an inconsequential corner, followed by referee Joel Aguilar blowing for time.
What It Means, What Lies Ahead
With the result, the US remains third in the Hex with eight points. Though tied with Costa Rica, the Ticos have the edge in goal difference. They also have a game in hand since they don’t play Trinidad and Tobago until Tuesday. But if the current standings hold, the Stars and Stripes would automatically qualify for Russia.
It’s a far cry from where the program was when Arena took over. After the “Dos A Cero” mystique of Columbus ended, followed by a humiliating 4-0 loss to Costa Rica on the road, uncertainty abounded after he replaced Jurgen Klinsmann. But pessimism about the future of the USMNT has quickly morphed into optimism with the Yanks undefeated in Arena’s second go-around as manager thus far.
The USMNT now has four games left in their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, with slightly less than three months before their next match. They host Costa Rica September 1st at a venue to be determined, followed by a road match against Honduras in San Pedro Sula four days later.