Midfielder Michael Bradley scored late in each half as the USA kicked off the Hexagonal campaign by beating its archrival, 2-0, in wet and windy conditions at Columbus Crew Stadium. He tucked away a rebound during a goalmouth scramble to post a 1-0 lead shortly before halftime, and in stoppage time buried a low shot that sent Mexico down again by a scoreline that seems preordained.
"As a player, these are the games we want to play in," said Michael Bradley after scoring the fourth and fifth goals of his international career. "In the locker room before the game, we looked at every guy and knew we were ready to play. I don't think it's one guy, it's not just Landon [Donovan], it's 11 guys committed to do every little thing on the field to make sure we were going to get the result."
Bradley played his finest game for the national team, tending to central midfield duties alongside Sacha Kljestan with confident touches, sharp tackles, and intelligent positioning. The goals were fitting reward for his polished performance and a solid team effort. While a few of the Americans showed the effects of rust and nerves, for the most part they dug in determinedly to blunt Mexico's attacks and wait patiently to launch their own.
"Our midfield play tonight, their work as a group, was really important and that sets the tone in the game," said Bob Bradley. "Tonight is a night where we'll go around and talk with each guy about how they played. I don't think it was necessarily a night where we got our best performances from each guy. But I think collectively there was an understanding of the game that had something to do with Mexico and something to do with the conditions."
Mindful of gusting, swirling winds, the Americans preferred to keep the ball on the ground when in possession and keep a spare player nearby anytime they contested a ball in the air.
Coaches and players change, yet still Mexico refuses to learn from past experience as its futility against the USA continues. In the last 11 games played against the Americans in the USA, Mexico has lost nine and tied two and been outscored, 19-3. Shorn of several important players by injuries and suspensions, it had no margin for error, and err it did.
Not only did the familiar 2-0 scoreline repeat itself yet again, but other elements recurred: Mexico squandered an early chance to take the lead and it failed to contain Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley; a header by massive defender Oguchi Onyewu produced a goal; and a very experienced Mexico player lost his head.
In the same venue 2 ½ years ago, Steve Ralston pounced on a rebound of an Onyewu header to score in a 2-0 win that clinched qualification for the 2006 World Cup. When the teams played a 2-2 tie in Houston a year ago, Onyewu headed home the first goal from a Donovan cross.
Donovan provided both goals Wednesday night. He went deep to the back post to track a Beasley corner kick and nodded it back across the goalmouth. Onyewu redirected it on goal, Sanchez parried, and Bradley blasted it high into the net from just a few yards away.
Prior to its goal, the USAcreated its best chance with another deep ball to the back post. In the 32nd minute, Beasley darted down the left side to bend a ball beyond the frame that Donovan headed into the goalmouth. Clint Dempsey hit it first-time at waist-height; he didn't get a lot on the shot but he did get it on frame, and forced Sanchez to alertly swat it away.
Two minutes into stoppage time, substitute Jozy Altidore controlled a Bocanegra clearance and dribbled upfield before tapping the ball to Donovan under a crunching midfield tackle. Referee Carlos Batres let play continue, and Donovan laid the ball to Bradley, whose stinging, dipping low shot slipped under a clumsy Sanchez lunge, somewhat similar to his pathetic attempt to trip Eddie Johnson after a Donovan goal in a past encounter.
Mexico followed a familiar script. It squandered a great chance in the third minute when a weak clearance by Bocanegra allowed Giovanni dos Santos to hit a close-range rip that cannoned off Howard's foot. It fell behind on a set play at a critical phase of the match. And midway through the second half, defender Rafael Marquez studded Howard in the knee as he caught a high ball and Batres whipped out his red card.
Seven years ago at the World Cup, a flying head-butt on Cobi Jones earned Marquez a red card in that 2-0 defeat. Some people never learn.
Still, Mexico self-destructed spectacularly in unique circumstances just seconds after it had almost tied the game on a free kick. A partial clearance relayed the ball to Fausto Pinto on the left side and his low driven ball actually struck dos Santos as he lay on the ground near the goalpost; the play looked offside but it continued, and when Howard charged out to collect a ball lobbed high into the box, Marquez crashed into him high and late and stupidly.
Mexico absorbed another setback when speedy attacker Nery Castillo, who tormented the USA at the 2007 Gold Cup final, went off injured in the 33rd minute. He hadn't caused many problems but his replacement, Israel Martinez, did even less.
Mexico tried to use its pace to get in behind the U.S. back line but found only occasional success. The U.S. back four used the offside trap a few times yet by smothering Mexico on the flanks and shutting off service from midfield, it seldom offered Mexico opportunities to hit decisive through balls, and as a result, Onyewu and Bocanegra weren't exposed one-v-one by balls played into space.
Bradley and Kljestan played off each other seamlessly, outside backs Frankie Hejduk and Heath Pearce held their corners secure, and Brian Ching absorbed a lot of punishment up front to create time and space for his teammates.
Howard came out to collect over-hit long balls, cleanly handled a dangerous cross, and also saved well on a low shot from a sharp angle prior to the first goal. He must sit out the March 28 game at El Salvador, however, after earning his second caution of the qualifiers when he tossed the ball away angrily after being felled by Marquez.
Other than that occurrence, all went as planned, even down to the scoreline.
"We were always around the ball and we made it hard for them to play," said Hejduk, who saluted his hometown fans as well as his teammates. "That was our game plan and Columbus did its job again. The weather came in and the fans were there and it was crazy like it was supposed to be. We're just all excited and it's good to get a win tonight."
GAME SUMMARY, Concacaf Final Round World Cup
Feb. 11 in Columbus, Ohio
USA 2 Mexico 0. Goals: Bradley 43, Bradley (Donovan) 92+.
USA -- Howard, Hejduk, Bocanegra, Onyewu, Pearce, Dempsey, Bradley, Kljestan (Clark, 86), Beasley, Donovan, Ching (Altidore, 83).
Mexico -- Sanchez, Galindo, Salcido, Marquez, Osorio, Augusto, Medina (Naelson, 60), Pardo, Ochoa, Castillo (Martinez, 34), dos Santos (Bravo, 72).
Stats Summary: USA/MEX
Shots on Goal: 5/3
Corner Kicks: 5/1
Yellow cards: USA -- Howard 67.
Red cards: Mexico -- Marquez 65.
Referee: Carlos Batres (GUA), Assistant Referee 1: Roberto Giron (HON), Assistant Referee 2: Edwin Gonzalez (GUA), Fourth Official: Walter Lopez (GUA).