The USA and Mexico renewed their rivalry at the soccer fortress that is Azteca Stadium in Mexico City last Tuesday night. The goalless draw revealed much about the slow shift in power within the CONCACAF region as the final qualifying round for the Brazil 2014 World Cup unfolds. The USA seems to have unshackled the hex of losing south of the border, while Mexico’s CONCACAF powerhouse status may be on the wane as emerging Panama shows that parity is the latest trend in the region.
Going into Tuesday night’s CONCACAF World Cup, final round qualifier at the Azteca Stadium, the USA had garnered only a single point from a draw in the six previous qualifiers at this overwhelming venue, where 100,000 partisan Mexicans and a high altitude creates misery for opponents. On Tuesday night, though, these intangibles were moot as the USA played a much disciplined game to stymie El Tri.
U. S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his team were coming off a hectic week, which revealed player discontent with the coach after the opening round loss at Honduras and a controversial 1-0 win over Costa Rica in a snow storm in Commerce City (CO.) that caused injuries to starters Jermaine Jones in midfield and Clarence Goodson at central defense. Jones’ replacement was an easy choice as World Cup veteran midfielder Maurice Edu stepped into midfield, but there were questions about substitute central defender Matt Besler with only two previous international games.
Besler answered the call and put in and solid performance alongside a confident Omar Gonzalez in his seventh international; newly inserted left fullback - Da Marcus Beasley playing, in his 99th senior international - recovered from a rocky start and eventually kept the ever-threatening right winger Javier Aquino in check; and Beasley’s teammates worked hard for each other to neutralize Mexico’s dominant play for most of the contest. Midfielders Graham Zusi and Hercules Gomez adjusted to new positions and supported their full backs with constant retreats; goalkeeper Brad Guzan proved more than an adequate replacement for injured Tim Howard and Edu teamed well with Michael Bradley in midfield to add much needed composure and confidence to the Americans.
As the Americans stood their ground, the Mexicans slowly lost theirs. This was Mexico’s second goalless draw in as many games at the Azteca Stadium since the final round started on February 6th; the previous draw was against Jamaica, when the home side was booed consistently throughout the second half. Mexico’s other point came in Honduras when it surrendered a two-goal advantage. Clearly this is not Mexico – powerhouse of CONCACAF.
With a mere three points from three games as a result of its inability to defeat teams at the Azteca Stadium and also maintain a lead on the road, Mexico occupies fifth place in the six-team final group and not among the advancing top four. Hardly anyone looking at Mexico’s play and the standings now and asked to predict a change in Mexico’s fortunes will be hard-pressed to pick Mexico as a sure qualifier.
Parity in CONCACAF is evident as underdog Panama (5 pts.) sits atop the standings after its home defeat of Honduras on Tuesday night to add to its previous two draws against Jamaica and Costa Rica. Three teams are tied in second place: Honduras (4 pts.), which defeated the USA (4 pts.) and Costa Rica (4 pts), which knocked off Jamaica, are all square, while Mexico (3 pts.) and Jamaica (2 pts.) bring up the rear.
The norm used to be a Mexican waltz through qualifying, a constant place atop the standings and a billing as a shoo-in to qualify; but Panama is the revelation of change in CONCACAF, as is the USA‘s undefeated record in its last two games at the Azteca Stadium. Despite depleted by injuries and its inconsistent play overall, the Mexican hex seems a thing to the pass. This makes the Mexico-USA rivalry, one of the most competitive in the game and one that is good for CONCACAF, even more exciting and more competitive. Kudos to the Yanks!
The New York Red Bulls (0-2-2, 2 pts.) lost, 1-0, to host Montreal Impact (4-0-0, 12 pts) at Olympic Stadium on Saturday, March 23rd. Marco Di Vaio scored in the 14th minute for the Eastern Conference leader, off to its best start in MLS since its expansion to the league two years ago. In other MLS games last weekend, Columbus Crew beat DC United, 2-1 and Houston Dynamo knocked off Vancouver Whitecaps with the same score; New England Revolution and Sporting Kansas City played to a goalless draw; Los Angeles Galaxy defeated Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes topped Seattle Sounders, both on 1-0 scores; FC Dallas defeated Real Salt Lake, 2-0.