In the end, Gregg Berhalter did everything we asked, what most USMNT fans asked. He didn’t treat the trip to the Azteca as something to just get through. It wasn’t just a lottery spin. It wasn’t about keeping the powder dry for Sunday. Berhalter looked at the Mexico squad, looked at his, and thought, “We can win this.” And he went for it.
He put out just about the strongest lineup possible. His tactics weren’t balls-to-the-wall, which no team can really do at 7,200 feet above sea level while breathing in tangible beer farts. But they weren’t conservative either. The U.S. picked its spots to press, it picked its spots to attack and throw men forward, and it knew when it needed to call off the dogs and just defend. For 80 minutes, it went about as well as any USMNT manager or fan could have hoped.
What Berhalter can’t do though is stop his forwards’ feet from turning to concrete when it matters most. Which is why the U.S. only ended up with a 0-0 draw.
It is probably a sign of progress, though an infuriating one, that the U.S. can walk out of the Azteca with a draw, its third straight there, but this time feel as though it left something on the table. That it should have won. And it can feel that way while missing three of its four most important attackers in Weston McKennie, Brendan Aaronson, and Sergino Dest. It’s just hard to recognize progress when it leaves you feeling, “What if?”
Because as a manager, you can’t go out there and finish this:
And you certainly can’t legislate for your most in-form striker to forget which way he’s facing and come closer to the corner flag from six yards out than the goal:
You can understand Gio Reyna going full LeBron on Jordan Pefok, because anywhere on frame and the U.S. is taking all three points. To be as fair as one can be to Pefok, maybe he was expecting Reyna to shoot himself. But if you’re a No. 9, you’re always expecting that ball to come to you and to finish it off. But even that’s being awfully charitable.
From there, Berhalter basically declared for a draw at 80 minutes, switching to a back five, hauling off Tyler Adams to spare him a yellow card that would rule him out for Sunday’s game against Panama, as well as Pulisic. They had to hang on a bit, but then Mexico didn’t really generate any truly scary moments either. This was about the easiest way to see out a draw in Mexico City as the U.S. has had. Even though I paced around the living room for the last five minutes out of reflex, and the clock didn’t move because that’s what it does at the worst moments, the pulse never really rose.
Most observers will leave the final judgment of whether or not this was worth it until they see how the U.S. looks on Sunday in Orlando, and whether players like Pulisic, Adams and Musah can recover from 90 minutes in the altitude sludge so quickly. The U.S. didn’t get all the other results it needed. Costa Rica was able to beat Canada, the latter finding every possible way to not score in the second half even with 10 men. But Panama drawing at home with Honduras is a good result for the U.S.
What it means is that even a win on Sunday would not automatically see the U.S. through to Qatar. However, should the U.S. win, and Costa Rica win on Sunday, it would leave the Costa Ricans needing to not only beat the U.S. in the last game of the window but to do so while making up a huge goal difference (the U.S. is currently seven goals better off than Costa Rica). So a win Sunday, worst case, is everything but the dotted i’s and crossed t’s.
A draw never feels like a positive, but to hold Mexico at arm’s length on the road missing three certain starters is a statement of where the U.S. is, or at least can be. The problem for the U.S. has been backing up the good results with more good results. Wins have been followed by dispiriting performances. The draws against Canada and Jamaica as well as the losses to Canada and Panama followed what were seen as steps forward. The U.S. can’t really afford that now.
No, I didn’t get my win in Azteca. And maybe the chance won’t come again, at least until I’m long dead. You have to look for it, but there’s an understated sense of satisfaction from casually getting a draw at what was once seen as an impenetrable fortress. Like when BIlly the Kid in the first Young Guns says to Dick Brewer, “I could have killed ya.” The U.S. let Mexico off the hook, at home, when they could have administered a knockout blow. It’s on the U.S., not Mexico, that they didn’t. Man in the mirror indeed.
Flipping to basketball for just a second, the NCAA needs to ban Gonzaga from the tournament. We do this every year. They’re not going to win, they’re going to waste everyone’s time, and Mark Few will coach with both hands wrapped around his neck. Even CBS can’t put much passion in their “Is this the year?” video packages. We all know it’s not. Give their spot to a school that actually wants to use it. Let it run up 30 wins in whatever podunk conference its in and then everyone can go home. We’ll all be happier this way. At some point, you don’t get any more spins. Gonzaga…banned.