The United States equalized Mexico, an extension of the World Cup

MEXICO CITY – While the last whistle sounded late Thursday night, Jordan Pefok fell on the grass and covered his face with his hands.

Pefok, the striker of the men’s national football team of the United States, must have been tired. He and his teammates have just battled Mexico to a 0-0 draw at the Estádio Azteca, a commendable result at a height from which even elite athletes can be left without air.

But more than that, Pefok seemed to have fallen. About 20 minutes earlier, he missed a great opportunity from close range, hitting so far from an open goal that everyone in the stadium, fans of both sides, were left breathless with surprise.

What made the mistake even harder to believe was that Christian Pulisic missed a safe opportunity in the first half from a creepy similar spot, a shot from close range right at the Mexican goalkeeper, even as the entire net gaped before him.

Any chance could secure the winning difference in the crucial, penultimate qualifying match for the American World Cup. How many will complain about mistakes? It will take a few more days to be sure.

But in this way, the night – at a stadium in the Mexican capital and within others around the world where simultaneous competitions were played on Thursday – provided more reminders of fine margins, hidden traps and cosmic plot twists that are regularly conspired to make world qualification cycles for the Cup so fun and so insane.

Italy created dozens of chances in the playoffs against Northern Macedonia, but the current European champions will miss the World Cup after failing to score, and the guests have found a way. Sweden is also still alive after finding a winner in overtime against the Czech Republic and Ecuador won his place in Qatar despite defeat, 3-1 by Paraguay.

It’s Uruguay goes to the World Cup after the win at home, but Canada lost and will have to wait at least a few days. The same is now true of Mexico and the United States; like the Canadian team, they are close enough to touch a spot in the World Cup, but also aware that they can still get away with it.

“I am disappointed that I missed the chance, and I wish I had won the game,” Pulisic said after his team’s draw in Mexico. “But this is the situation we are in now and we are happy with it.”

Happiness, of course, has a way to go out in the evening, and in other ways, the United States was lucky on Thursday.

All week, players have been asked how they will manage their nerves in an atmosphere that raises their hair in the Aztecs, where a noisy, full crowd can cause claustrophobia in visiting teams. But the stadium they entered on Thursday was unusually tame.

Capacity in the building has been drastically reduced – to 50,000 from 87,000 – as part of the Mexican Federation’s ongoing efforts to curb the persistently offensive chanting of home team fans. Traveling American fans, locked as a group in the corner of the upper deck, occasionally made more noise than their far more numerous counterparts.

It was the third consecutive draw for the Americans in the qualifications for the Aztec World Cup, a quietly surprising statistic that may give a picture of a team that feels more and more comfortable in the home of its main rival.

The United States also benefited from an unexpected result in one of the other games: Panama, which started the day in fourth place, only managed a draw at home against Honduras, a team that was in last place with little left to play.

The Americans will meet Panama in the next match, on Sunday in Orlando, Florida, and the results on Thursday now mean that a victory there would put the Americans in a strong position to win one of the three automatic places in the qualifications in the region. They end their World Cup qualifying campaign on Wednesday away to Costa Rica, which also recorded a surprising result, with a 1-0 victory over first-placed Canada, skipping Panama in fourth place.

“I’m looking forward to coming home and performing well,” said United States coach Gregg Berhalter.

Berhalter’s biggest challenge for the game could be managing staff in his somewhat exhausted traveling company. The team was already missing due to injuries, as four important players were missing in the three-game period: right-back Sergiño Dest, midfielders Weston McKennie and Brenden Aaronson, and goalkeeper Matt Turner.

Then the team ruled out defender Reggie Cannon, who tested positive for the coronavirus, before the game, and during it two other starters, Timothy Weah and DeAndre Yedlin, picked up yellow cards for being excluded from competition on Sunday night. To fill the sudden gaps, Shaq Moore, a defender who plays in the second Spanish league, was quickly called up. He will meet the team in Orlando before Sunday’s game, and will more than likely be in the starting lineup when it starts.

For available players, the game in Panama could be a punishing turnaround. Many of them, especially those in the starting lineup against Mexico, visibly worked until the end of the match.

After that, Berhalter praised his players for spending every ounce of energy and in the same breath mitigated the potential physical consequences for it.

“We will recover,” he said. “There’s plenty of time to recover.”

One of the factors that will help the team will be the reappearance of attacking midfielder Gio Reyne, who came in as a substitute in the second half. This match marked Reyna’s first appearance for the team since September, when he suffered a leg injury that left him off the field for months.

Reyna was a player who provided potential assistance to Pefok, skillfully dropping the ball from the air onto his teammate’s leg before it was wasted. Reyna became visibly upset after the miss, holding out his hands in disbelief, staring at Pefok for a few seconds after the ball leaked out of bounds.

The gesture may have seemed rude, but a few moments later Reyna delighted the audience with dizzying dribbling, a winding journey at high speed from behind near the U.S. penalty area almost all the way to a Mexican goal won by half a dozen opposing players, some of them multiple times.

Berhalter compared the series to the famous solo goal scored by Argentine Diego Maradona at the Aztecs at the 1986 World Cup.

“I had visions of that while Gio was dribbling,” Berhalter said. “Unfortunately, he didn’t have a chance to finish it.”

After all, there is often a fine line between fame and disappointment in World Cup qualifiers. The Americans will hope to land on his right side in the coming days.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.