History, passion and drive.
Mexico had all of it in abundance for this World Cup qualifier and took advantage of an overly cautious United States start to win 2-1 in Estadio Azteca, taking them to first place in the CONCACAF Hexagonal standings.
Coming into the match the US talked about the advantage Mexico had at home with the smog and altitude associated with playing in Mexico City. To that end, it appeared that Bruce Arena was prepared to slow the game down and pack the midfield to thwart the Mexican offense. However the formation would leave Eddie Johnson alone up top and it ultimately proved to hinder the young forward’s effectiveness as he received little service from the midfield.
The build up to the match was marked by lots of comments in the press from the Mexican team about revenge for the 2002 World Cup defeat the US handed them and wanting to win for the millions of Hispanics “who suffer from various situations there.” The US didn’t bother responding, knowing that just playing in a stadium where they had lost 21 previous times would be tough enough.
Both sides started the game feeling each other out. The US started in 4-5-1 formation that included DaMarcus Beasley, Johnson and Oguchi Onyewu (a curious pick for a starting spot in the back-line over Cory Gibbs) subbing for the injured Eddie Pope. While the US continued to rebuff the Mexican advances, they did little to generate any offense of their own, leaving Johnson to fend for himself during counter attacks that lacked any real conviction. Noticeably absent from the attack was the presence of Landon Donovan and Beasley.
After 20 minutes the Mexicans began to step up their offense and the first signal of their intent was Jared Borgetti’s header from about 10 yards out that barely sailed over the cross bar. That perked up Mexico’s belief who continued to pressure the back-line that was clearly missing Pope in the middle.
The pressure paid off for the home side as Fransicso Fonseca laid a pass back to Salvador Carmona who lofted a right to left cross, eluding Steve Cherundolo and finding Pavel Pardo. Pardo headed back across the goal for Borgetti who made no mistake from 3 yards out. The roar from the 100,000+ fans packed into the Azteca confirmed Mexico’s deserved 1-0 lead after 30 minutes.
The US were clearly rattled and it didn’t get any better. Two minutes later, Borgetti got involved again as he out jumped two American defenders on the right side and headed the ball to a wide open Antonio Naelson. The Brazilian born play maker was so completely unmarked that after he hit the ball low to Kasey Keller’s left, off the post and into the net for a 2-0 lead, the US defenders all stood for a second looking around as if to say, “See, what had happened was…”
DaMarcus Beasley then picked up a yellow card 5 minutes later, his second of the qualifying campaign meaning he’d be ineligible to play in the US’ next match. It was all going wrong for the US, even if Mexican coach Ricardo LaVolpe was sent off for abusing the 4th official; no offense to speak off, a rattled defense and they were serenaded with shouts of “OLE” every time the hosts completed a pass. A dominant first half for Mexico ended 2-0.
The US were forced to come out of their defensive shell in the 2nd half to make an account of themselves and their increased passion nearly paid off 8 minutes into the second half through the Young Guns. Beasley started the sequence with a nice feed on the right side to Donovan who broke towards goal. He pulled it back for Johnson who executed a brilliant dummy, leaving the ball for Eddie Lewis. He smacked a hard shot that required an excellent save from Mexican GK Osvaldo Sanchez. The first sign of true life from the offense.
The continued pressure paid off in the 58th minute as Eddie Johnson got loose on the right side. Unselfishly, he pulled the ball back to Donovan who escaped a lunging defender and laid the ball off to his left for Eddie Lewis. His low drive to the left of Sanchez found the corner of the net and the US were back in it, 2-1.
The US continued to press but Mexican substitutions reinforced the midfield and slowly the Mexicans regained control of the match. They found acres of space in front of the US back-line and it resulted in Fonseca & Morales forcing great saves out of Keller, the latter on a well taken free kick from just outside the penalty area. Combine that with some poor crossing by substitute Medina & the Mexicans could have been up by much more than one goal.
The US never looked up to the task of grabbing the equalizer and a thunderous roar from the crowd greeted the final whistle. The Mexicans had exacted a small measure of revenge against the US while the Americans were left to rue their slow start and conservative game plan. In all a deserved 2-1 win for the El-Tri.
The US has no time to hang their heads, though, as they travel to Birmingham, AL to face a dangerous Guatemala side Wednesday night (8pm EST, ESPN2). Yours truly will be in house, hoping the US can rebound from a tough defeat.