There’s usually not much doubt when the U.S. and Mexican national football teams face off: just mutual dislike and a shared desire to crush the opposition. But last night’s World Cup qualifying game in Columbus, Ohio, introduced an unusual level of angst.
The Mexicans had just dumped their coach José Manuel de la Torre after losing at home at the Azteca Stadium — unthinkable — to Honduras. Mexico had won only one of seven games in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament for a World Cup slot. The Americans had looked awful away against Costa Rica, falling 3-1 and losing their influential midfielder Michael Bradley before the game even started. Before it ended they also lost their top striker Jozy Altidore and top defender Matt Besler to yellow-card suspensions.
The Yanks needed a win at their Mexico-killing venue of Crew Stadium to get back on the qualifying track; El Tri needed something, anything to restart its engine or risk the unfathomable — failing to qualify for the World Cup.
Goodbye, Columbus, hello Brazil. Eddie Johnson’s thumping header in the 49th minute, combined with Panama’s failure to win against Honduras, punched the Americans’ ticket to the World Cup, as the U.S beat its archenemy dos a cero.
The first half would provide no answers as to which team would solve its problems. Keeper Tim Howard saved the U.S. a couple of times while the Americans couldn’t produce much in front of Mexico’s goal. At this point, a draw might have suited both teams. But one area where the U.S. is demonstrably stronger than Mexico — corner kicks and free kicks — provided the pivotal goal that could now send Mexico halfway around the world into a desperation playoff with New Zealand. Johnson, filling in for the suspended Altidore, showed his heading power in the box, running around a pick and outjumping everyone to nod home Landon Donovan’s corner kick, leaving Mexican keeper José Corona sprawled on the floor after he had failed to come close to the ball.
As usual when a team goes up a goal in a high-stakes game, the U.S. defense fell back and let Mexico attack. But this is a Mexican team that is strangely without fight, or attacking ideas, even though interim coach Luis Fernando Tena paired his European stars Giovani dos Santos and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández for more offense. The Mexicans were reduced to launching hopeful crosses at the U.S. defense, where its central defenders Omar Gonzalez (1.96 m) and Clarence Goodson (1.93 m) were not going to be beaten.
Still, anything can happen in a 1-0 game, and shortly after both teams made substitutions around the 75th minute mark, it did. Mix Diskerud, who came on for a wobbly Johnson (dizzy from hitting his head) flicked a loose ball over the Mexican line at the edge of the box and, running on to it, hit a ball across the goalmouth that Clint Dempsey couldn’t catch. But Landon Donovan — who else — was there at the far post to knock home the goal that ended any Mexican hopes of a comeback.
Dempsey, who worked tirelessly as usual, could have made it 3-0 after he got taken down in the penalty box in the 94th minute. But he drove his penalty kick halfway to Pittsburgh. The game ended on that note, but the celebration was about to begin.