A great game took place at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus Friday night.
By “great” I mean exciting, dramatic, passionate, compelling, a match full of hard tackles and slick passes and rife with harrowing, end-to-end attacks and balls pinging off bodies on the goal’s doorstep as well as the woodwork. Action flowed back and forth as the teams took turns pushing the play and in the final moments the oldest player on the field delivered the decisive blow.
It just about lived up to all the hoopla and anticipation that had been simmering about "Dos a cero" and four in a row and the fortress that is Columbus, except that only one team came out of the blocks determined and sharp and intent on winning, and that team wasn’t wearing red, white, and blue.
Instead, Mexico, led by the great tinkerer and ex-MLS head coach Juan Carlos Osorio, looked the more likely winner for much of the match and not only did it score a crushing goal in the 89th minute to secure a 2-1 victory, one of the rivalry’s all-time villains – or heroes, depending on which side of the border loyalty resides – inflicted the killer finish.
And just to rub in some sal (Spanish for "salt") defender Rafael Marquez scored from a corner kick with his head, thus smiting the Americans with two of their own best weapons. Marquez darted to the near post and glanced a curling corner kick from Miguel Layun over keeper Brad Guzan and inside the unguarded back post.
The goal cancelled out a superb equalizer by Bobby Wood during which the U.S swept upfield about 70 yards to score within a handful of seconds. Layun had provided a 1-0 lead during an opening period of Mexican superiority and American ineptitude, and though the USA righted itself sufficiently to control the ball for significant periods it did not outplay Mexico often enough or ruthlessly enough to win the game.
Mexico, as usual, played the more polished soccer but unlike in previous visits to Ohio, for the most part kept its poise. Taking the lead for the first time in a qualifier since Kasey Keller's attempted clearance crashed off the head of Carlos Hermosillo in Foxboro, Massachusetts, and into the net 19 years ago, Mexico dictated the tempo, lost command, and then finished the stronger of the two teams to claim an historic victory.
It was great entertainment if not great soccer, which is about the best you can hope for in Concacaf World Cup qualifiers, which are often plagued by insipid attempts to defraud the referee and all manner of scuffling and barking and macho posturing. This game produced those elements as well and late in the match Mexican midfielder Carlos Salcedo duly checked off another box by drawing a second caution and thus a dismissal.
He will miss the second round of the Hexagonal, as will USA goalie Tim Howard for a very different and more worrying reason. Howard strained his right groin taking a goal kick, which required head coach Jurgen Klinsmann to replace him before halftime with Guzan, who moves into the No. 1 slot for a match Tuesday in Costa Rica.
Said game now takes on staggering importance. Though it is just the second of 10 Hexagonal tests, away qualifiers in Costa Rica are nightmares on most occasions. The Mexico game not only confirmed a few nagging fears of American fans it also coughed up a couple of new ones.
Blame for the Americans’ poor play in the first half-hour fell upon a formation that Klinsmann labelled a 3-4-3 yet could have been a 3-5-2; whatever it was, an injury to linchpin midfielder Andres Guardado and switching to a 4-4-2 formation yielded much better play by the USA in the latter stages of the first half, and a strong start to the second half produced Wood’s impressive equalizer. But midway through the second half, the momentum shifted again and of the chances that fell to both teams only Marquez delivered a first-class finish.
A labored, constipated start is surely not what Klinsmann forecast when he left Sacha Kljestan and Alejandro Bedoya on the bench in favor of Christian Pulisic in the middle and Timmy Chandler at right midfield, or wingback if you prefer. Pulisic, though he improved when shifted to left mid, didn’t look overmatched or confused in the unfamiliar formation, but several teammates did.
Clean touches and crisp passes shifted the ball amongst the Mexican players while Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones chased shadows in central midfield. Layun and Giovani dos Santos ran rings around Chandler and took aim at Omar Gonzalez, marooned as the right end of a three-man back line. John Brooks bailed out the USA by heading clear numerous crosses and though Matt Besler, deployed on the left, won several tackles he also fouled in risky areas to provide Mexico with free kicks. Only late in the first half and early in the second did the USA look like it had the measure of Mexico, which forced two good saves by Howard before injury forced him out of the game and also dinged shots off the post and crossbar.
Along with poor touches, bad decisions plagued the Americans. Bradley took a weak shot instead of serving up a wide-open Wood, Jones flew into a few reckless tackles, Besler challenged in vulnerable spots, etc.
Before the game, Marquez said Mexico relished the opportunity to exorcise those demons of four straight defeats and through the best qualifying performance seen from a Mexican team since a 2-2 tie at Foxboro Stadium in 1997 the visitor did just that.
The Americans have their own demons to contend with on Tuesday, along with a bevy of questions of how they will play and if they can play well. The Columbus streak is of the past. The future starts in just a few days.