MEXICO CITY — The Americans were clinging to a scoreless tie, seconds away from earning a rare point in Mexico, when Angel Reyna’s shot darted perilously close to the goal.
Brad Guzan lunged, smothering the ball with his body.
“It’s always going to be a bit hectic and a bit crazy, especially late in the game,” Guzan said. “You’re never going to come to a place like Azteca and go out and have it nice and easy. So we knew at some point, it was going to come, the pressure was going to come, and we were able to deal with it.”
Guzan swatted away shot after shot, young defenders Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler showed the poise of veterans and the Americans hung on for a 0-0 draw Tuesday night, earning only their second point in a World Cup qualifier at Azteca Stadium.
The tie moved the U.S. (1-1-1) into third place in World Cup qualifying for the North and Central American and Caribbean region after three of 10 matches, one point behind Panama (1-0-2). The Americans and Costa Rica both have four points, but the Ticos are ahead on goal difference.
After playing at Jamaica on June 7, the U.S. will be at home for four of its last six qualifiers.
“We wanted to win, but we are pleased with the result,” coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “They gave us everything they have.”
Klinsmann was criticized after the opening 1-0 loss at Honduras in February, with unidentified players and people close to the team questioning his tactics and leadership in a Sporting News report before last week’s home win over Costa Rica.
Mexico coach Manuel De la Torre is sure to come under fire after a third straight draw, which dropped El Tri (0-0-3) to second-to-last place in the standings. The top three teams in the group, which also includes Honduras, advance to next year’s World Cup in Brazil next year while the No. 4 nation meets New Zealand in a home-and-home playoff for another berth.
Mexico certainly had its chances with a whopping 17-1 advantage in shots and 15 corner kicks, three just in the last two minutes of stoppage time. But El Tri was plagued by poor finishing and dismal execution on set pieces.
“There are 21 points left. The leader has five; we have three. It*s tight,” De la Torre said. “It*s close, and of course we are not where we wanted to be. Our obligation is to win at home, and we have left points behind.”
Azteca is one of the world’s most imposing venues and, like just about everybody else, the Americans have a miserable track record there. They are 0-13-2 in World Cup qualifiers in Mexico, with their only other point — also from a 0-0 draw — coming in 1997.
But Klinsmann has never lost to Mexico, either as a player or a coach with Germany and the U.S., and he has bolstered the Americans’ confidence when it comes to their fierce rivals. The U.S. won at Azteca for the first time ever in an exhibition last summer, and the Americans talked repeatedly of making more history on this trip.
“Many people said it couldn’t be done,” said American forward Herculez Gomez, who plays professionally in Mexico. “We showed just a tremendous attitude, a tremendous willingness to sacrifice for one another.”
Not even a patchwork — and inexperienced — lineup could shake them. Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocagnegra, mainstays of the U.S. defense for a decade, were absent, and Clarence Goodson, who started Friday’s game at center back, was out with a strained hamstring. Klinsmann used his 25th lineup in 25 matches as U.S. coach and gambled by starting Matt Besler, who had played only one game for the Americans, a friendly.
But Besler and Omar Gonzalez — the last two Major League Soccer defenders of the year — looked like grizzled veterans as they repeatedly snuffed out shots by Javier Hernandez, Javier Aquino and Jesus Zavala.
“The guys were outstanding,” Klinsmann said. “Our back line, you know, many said they were inexperienced. They deserve a huge compliment. … If one guy is not here, that’s a huge opportunity to the next one stepping in, and I think the guys that stepped in here, they took their chance.”
Mexico dominated possession, and Aquino, Hernandez and Zavala repeatedly tested the inexperienced American defense, picking on left back DaMarcus Beasley in particular after he picked up a yellow card in the eighth minute. But Gonzalez came up with one big play after another, and Besler looked quite comfortable in the Azteca pressure-cooker.
But they got some help from El Tri, which blew numerous chances, including what should have been a couple of gimmes for Hernandez.
The Manchester United striker misplayed a bouncing corner kick in the 87th, getting only the back of his right foot on it. He pitched forward and into the net, but the ball popped skyward and over the goal. In the 28th minute, Jorge Torres Nilo sent a perfect cross in to Chicharito, who was right in front of the goal, just a few feet from Guzan. But Hernandez skied that one, too.
Guzan, who made his first start since 2010 in Friday night’s qualifier, was superb. When Carlos Salcido lobbed a gorgeous chip shot to Zavala in the 43rd, Guzan ended the threat by coming out and slamming into Zavala. Not only did Guzan clear the ball, Zavala was called for a foul.
The Americans also got a bit lucky. Mexico could have been awarded a penalty kick for a two-handed push by Michael Bradley on Chicharito in the 12th minute. And El Tri probably should have been awarded one in the 76th when Maurice Edu took down Aquino from behind with a sliding tackle. The Mexican players were livid when no penalty was called, surrounding Guatemalan referee Walter Lopez. Lopez didn’t back down, though replays showed Edu had clipped Aquino’s foot.
The United States never really challenged Mexican goalkeeper Guilermo Ochoa. But their defense was offense enough, and the Americans were thrilled to leave Azteca with a rare point.
“That’s a huge challenge before 100,000 people,” Klinsmann said.
Note: Earlier Tuesday, FIFA rejected Costa Rica’s appeal of the Americans’ 1-0 victory Friday night, played in a snow storm at Commerce City, Colo.
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