SINSHEIM, Germany -- The chances of either team advancing in the Women's World Cup were gone. New Zealand had no chance before Tuesday's game. Mexico's chance disappeared when England scored twice against Japan.
And yet the final few minutes here were the most dramatic so far at this year's World Cup.
Mexico had its first World Cup win in its grasp with a 2-0 lead going into the final minutes, while New Zealand struggled to put shots on goal. Suddenly, New Zealand was the team celebrating a first. With goals in the 90th minute and deep into stoppage time, the Ferns ended their World Cup losing streak at eight games and took a 2-2 draw, their first in World Cup history.
New Zealand's players celebrated with a postgame haka, the traditional dance and chant made famous by the country's rugby teams, while Mexican players left the field in tears.
"I think it would have been a really good Cup for us if we had grabbed those three points," said Mexico coach Leo Cuellar, who was proud of his young team's performance against England (a 1-1 draw, Mexico's first in World Cup play).
Though the Mexico-New Zealand game featured two non-marquee, non-European teams, a substantial crowd of 20,451 fans was on hand on a warm day. Several waved Mexican flags, but the New Zealand contingent -- along with neutrals thrilled by the late action -- made its presence known after the game.
"Certainly we wanted to get three points out of this game and be the first New Zealand team to win a game at the senior level," New Zealand coach John Herdman said. "For us, it's like winning the World Cup when you come back from a 2-0 deficit. If it was another five minutes, I'm sure we would have nicked it."
Knowing it needed to win and make up a five-goal gap in goal difference to advance, Mexico wasted little time getting its attack under way.
Pouncing on a New Zealand giveaway in midfield, Mexico worked the ball to Maribel Dominguez in the center. The veteran captain played wide to Stephany Mayor, who blasted the ball through New Zealand keeper Jenny Bindon for the 1-0 lead in the second minute.
New Zealand managed one point-blank shot against 16-year-old goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago but spent most of the second half defending. On a long goal kick, Veronica Perez flicked the ball forward to Dominguez, who calmly settled the ball in stride and shot past Bindon for a 2-0 lead.
The New Zealand defense tried to provide some offense late in the first half. Anna Green's powerful 40-yard free kick was close. Ali Riley cut in and found her hard shot blocked by former Stanford teammate Alina Garciamendez.
"She got in the way, what can I say?" Riley said with a laugh. "Alina's such a strong defender, and it was great to see her playing for her country."
Riley traded jerseys after the game with another former Stanford teammate, Teresa Noyola, who's a little closer to Riley's height than the towering Garciamendez.
"Two-nil is known in soccer as the most dangerous lead, and we experienced that in the Olympics with Japan," Riley said. "We had a very good halftime talk."
Early in the second half, Riley got up the wing yet again and crossed to Green, whose header was deflected for a corner kick. The Ferns continued to press through much of the second half while Mexico played for the counterattack.
"We had our own expectations," Dominguez said. "We didn't really care about the [England-Japan] game. Our goal was to score at least three goals. We had lots of scoring opportunities, but unfortunately, we didn't use them."
After an appeal for a penalty was turned down, New Zealand finally got on the scoreboard in the 90th minute, with captain Rebecca Smith heading a shot into the net from a corner kick.
Then came the shocker. New Zealand's Hannah Wilkinson was injured in a clash of heads, and the referee dropped the ball for a restart. New Zealand regained possession, and Riley lofted the ball into the box for Wilkinson. The 19-year-old forward scored with the last kick of the game.
"I was asking the players to contest the drop ball," Herdman said. "I don't even think Wilkinson knew where she was at."
She did. Barely.
"Getting knocked in the head kind of cleared my mind, made me relax a little bit," Wilkinson said. "I sort of blacked out for a second and saw some stars. I came to and realized there wasn't much time left."
Prior to this tournament, New Zealand had scored only one goal in six World Cup games.
New Zealand's players are slowly making their way through the soccer world. Smith plays professionally in Germany with Wolfsburg and spent several minutes fielding questions in German from a group of reporters ignoring the France-Germany game on TV. Hayley Moorwood plays with Chelsea in England. Betsy Hassett plays at UC Berkeley, Rosie White is enrolling at UCLA this fall and Wilkinson will consider American college options after next year's Olympics.
Riley, the 2010 WPS Rookie of the Year, spent much of the first half getting up into the New Zealand attack. The Ferns lacked cover for her, and Mexico found some success attacking in her absence, but the pressure paid off in the dramatic final play.
"We're a little country but with a big heart," Herdman said. "And that heart comes through when it needs to."