MEXICO CITY -- There are too many times the United States men's national team has walked out of Estadio Azteca seething, on the wrong end of a scoreline, to count. Usually it was because the visitors had been subjected to death by 1,000 passes, no match for Mexico's methodical possession game, and taunted by the "¡Olé!" calls of the crowd. And, on the rare occasions when the U.S. left Mexico City with a draw, it was with the feeling that it had survived rather than thrived.
On Thursday, the U.S. team's 0-0 draw came from a much different place. It was the visitors who carved out the better chances at the Azteca, especially in the first half. It was Mexico that rode the hot hands of a goalkeeper, in this case Memo Ochoa, to survive. Mexico's xG of 0.55 was its lowest in its qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup.
Yes, the U.S. limped across the finish line, taking an anywhere-will-do approach to passing over the last 15 minutes. Manager Gregg Berhalter threw on just about every available defender he had -- both Erik Palmer-Brown and Aaron Long earned their first appearances in a World Cup qualifier. It was enough for the U.S. to secure a valuable point on the road.
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So it's difficult to know exactly how to feel about the result and its impact in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying standings. Heading into this fixture window, four points seemed sufficient to get the U.S. to Qatar. This result sets Berhalter's side up well to achieve that goal. That it did so missing a quartet of important players in Weston McKennie, Brenden Aaronson, Matt Turner and Sergino Dest added to the good vibes at the final whistle.
Yet that sense of achievement walked side by side with disappointment, and for multiple reasons. This was one of those CONCACAF World Cup qualifying nights that served up a gift in the form of Panama drawing 1-1 with bottom-of-the-table Honduras. A win by the U.S. over the Canaleros in Orlando on Sunday and the U.S. can reach its four-point goal and stop worrying about Panama edging it out of a World Cup spot as it did four years ago.
But here comes Costa Rica. The U.S. didn't get the requisite help from Canada, with Los Ticos prevailing 1-0. Now Costa Rica has crept within three points of the U.S. and Mexico. There's a chance the final-day fixture the U.S. has in San Jose against the Ticos could still have some meaning. A win on Thursday would have kept them at arm's length. Perhaps that's why Berhalter called Thursday's result a "positive disappointment," although for the players it strayed toward the former rather than the latter.
"The group is jazzed, they're psyched," Berhalter said. "We wanted to be the first [U.S.] team to beat Mexico at the Azteca. We fell a little bit short, but the mood's not down, not at all. It's the opposite."
Perhaps later, the U.S. team's collective thoughts will drift to the chances it failed to convert, and the two points that were left on the table. Yunus Musah's 13th-minute drive forced a diving save from Ochoa. No disgrace there. But Christian Pulisic spurned a glorious chance in the 35th minute, contriving to hit his shot right at Ochoa after good approach work by Kellyn Acosta.
An even more glorious opportunity beckoned in the second half, with Gio Reyna appearing to tee up fellow substitute Jordan Pefok for a wide-open opportunity, only for the Young Boys striker to make a better clearance than an attempt on goal, all from a mere 8 yards. Mexico wasn't without its chances either. The U.S. will be thankful that El Tri's attackers either missed the target or hit the ball straight at keeper Zack Steffen.
Regardless, the opportunity in front of the U.S. now is in some way similar to what it faced over four years ago. Two games left and the U.S. team's destiny in its own hands. The home match against Panama is well within this U.S. team's ability to get a victory. Take care of business in Orlando and the trip to Qatar is nearly there. There's still a chance it could be a night of celebration if other results go the U.S. team's way. It would be fitting if El Salvador, with former U.S. international midfielder Hugo Perez at the helm, can do the U.S. a solid.
There are some reasons to worry. Reggie Cannon's positive test for COVID-19, combined with DeAndre Yedlin's suspension for a second caution in qualifying, leaves the U.S. with a scarcity of right-backs. Shaq Moore is already waiting for the team in Orlando, but that only goes some of the way toward addressing the depth issue in that position.
The yellow card Tim Weah picked up will force him to sit out the Panama match as well, but this is countered by the return of Reyna. The Borussia Dortmund attacker logged his first minutes in a World Cup qualifier since last September after suffering an injury, and a mazy run in the second half showed off his ability. He certainly deserved an assist for the way he set up Pefok.
Another bit of good news was that Tyler Adams made it through the game caution-free, making him available for the weekend. "I thought he was outstanding, particularly with his energy levels," Berhalter said of Adams. "Maybe I'd like to see him on the ball a little bit more. But overall a really solid performance. Our goal was to get him off around 60 [minutes], and I think we went a little bit past that. But he should be good to go for the next game."
That is if Adams and the rest of his teammates can even move after the energy they expended against Mexico. Berhalter said his team will have plenty of time to recover. If the players do, a ticket to the World Cup could be theirs, with no ambiguity as to how they'll feel.