The United States of America are going to the 2014 World Cup. In the end, it was never in doubt. And in the end, how they booked their ticket to Brazil was perfect, poetic. The Americans clinched at home, in a storied, claustrophobic stadium in front of a raucous, unapologetically and overwhelmingly American crowd, against Mexico, their storied, most hated rivals. When the final whistle blew, even the result, dripping with mystique, was perfect. Dos a cero. Two-nil. A walkabout, really. Less than an hour later, Honduras drew Panama, and the USMNT was through. Fans cheered, sang, cried. Players chugged Bud, sprayed champagne, hugged, danced, grabbed more Bud. There was excitement, pride, triumph following U.S. Soccer's most recent CONCACAF conquest in which the team earned the right to play against the world's best for the seventh straight time. But it was also perfect because beneath it all, there was the palpable sense of relief.
And that's what’s so special about the USA-Mexico rivalry. Even though Jürgen Klinsmann has yet to lose to Mexico, even though the USMNT is in the ascendency as El Tri seem to be fading from international relevance, this is such a difficult, heated tie that you never know who’s going to win. Even though Mexican sides play terribly when they venture north, even though the small stadium the Columbus Crew call home has a paralyzing effect on El Tri, you couldn't shake the creeping feeling that Mexico had a shot. Their poor form aside, the two sides match up well even on the USMNT’s best day. When the Americans are missing players like Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Geoff Cameron, and Matt Besler, Mexico actually boasts the better, more talented, more dangerous players. To make things worse, El Tri just choked at home to Honduras on Friday. Their manager had been sacked in the dead of the night. They needed the three points. They were desperate.
Desperation, though, is a fickle thing. It’s a product of denial. It’s a product of fear, hope, anger, pride. This soup burns white-hot inside of all of us, for seconds or minutes in chaotic spurts that for a time can render a man or group of men superhuman, that can give them the ability to run through walls. But desperation is also a product of repeated failure. Mexico had yet to win in four straight World Cup qualifiers.
Early on, it looked bright for the Mexicans. Giovani Dos Santos, Andrés Guardado, Javier Hernández, and Jesús Zavala spent much of the first half slashing through an overextended United States midfield and crashing against the United States’ makeshift wall of DaMarcus Beasley, Omar Gonzalez, Clarence Goodson and Fabian Johnson. But the wall held. In Michael Bradley’s absence, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman nipped at heels, broke up play, shoved and slid in and kicked out. Tim Howard made saves when he was called upon. After a hectic opening few minutes, he was gradually called upon less and less.
The thing about desperation in soccer is that when your opponent parries your frantic attacks and responds in kind with a shot following a surprise counter, with a near-miss from a corner kick, denial, fear, hope, anger, and pride exhaust themselves pretty quickly. Those things burn and then die, leaving an empty husk, and from their ashes rise something else. Acceptance. Resignation. Submission.
Throughout the first half, you could feel the tide turn in the Americans' favor as the Mexicans were foiled again and again. Dos Santos, perhaps Mexico's best player on the day, fashioned a chance from the top of the box with the outside of a boot just before half, but Howard dove and held onto the shot. When Howard got up, there was the feeling that the worst was over, that the Mexicans had burned themselves out. When the whistle blew for the first half and the game was still in the balance, it was obvious that though Mexico may have had the better individuals, the USMNT had the better team. The Americans had weathered their opponents' best, only shot. To win now, USA needed a single breakthrough.
It took them all of four minutes after the restart.
Eddie Johnson has made himself indispensable to the team filling in for Altidore, first at this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup playing with U.S. Soccer's B-team, and again last night starting in place of the suspended starting striker. He had a chance in the first half off a corner, headed the service down, but missed. In the 49th minute, however, Landon Donovan swung a corner kick out, away from Mexican goalkeeper Jose de Jesus Corona onto the head of an awaiting Johnson. Johnson outjumped the keeper, and a second later, the United States were up, 1-0.
The goal itself was nothing short of pathetic. The USMNT, with players like Johnson, Gonzalez, Goodson had a huge size and aerial advantage over the diminutive Mexicans. But that advantage was supposed to be nullified by the keeper, who can use his hands, who can commit felonies in his own box in order to catch or clear the ball. Corona went up to punch the ball away. But when he saw he wasn't going to get there, the next course of action should've been to level any opposing player lurking. Corona could've put both fists through Johnson's temple, and there wouldn't have been a call. But his approach was soft, half-assed, weak. By the time Johnson got his head on the ball, Corona wasn't even in the play.
The match was over. Mexico, burnt out, stopped creating chances. The academic goal to put the USMNT out of Mexico's reach finally came a half-hour later, two minutes after creative midfielder Mix Diskerud subbed on for Johnson in the 75th. Following a throw-in, Diskerud, near the top right corner of the box, received a pass surrounded by five Mexican defenders. But one clever touch, Diskerud turned the corner toward the endline, outpaced the lagging defenders, and crossed a perfect pass across the face of goal to a waiting Donovan at the back post. Dos a cero.
Mix Diskerud can flat out play. That alone doesn’t make him unique. After all, no one would pick him in a squad over Donovan, Dempsey, Graham Zusi, Michael Bradley, or even Jermaine Jones. But Diskerud, half-Norwegian, is a different breed than the USMNT's stars. There's something industrious in the way that they play, something we've decided is endearingly American, in that they work hard and scrap rather than turn the sport, as some of the best do, into a form of art. Diskerud does. Even though the USMNT's enjoying a period in which its top players like Donovan, Dempsey, and Altidore are in form, creating and scoring almost at will at times, you see them working so hard, so tirelessly for so long, that it feels like a surprise when they do finally break through. But Diskerud is different. He's silky, clean, and creates in a way that doesn't feel forced. He's smooth on the ball when he gets his chance, and he provides U.S. Soccer with a different element in the attack.
At the final whistle, the Americans stayed on to the pitch to wait on the Honduras result, and then to celebrate. The Mexicans retreated back to the locker room, back home. The USMNT can relax along with the Costa Ricans, as both teams are going to Brazil. Honduras, in third place in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, host Costa Rica next month then travel to Jamaica to finish their slate of games. One more win will guarantee them fourth place and a playoff with New Zealand. But what of Mexico?
El Tri are at an impasse. Though even on points with Panama, they've now dropped to fifth in the group, and are flanked only by the winless Jamaica. Even though they twice lost to Panama in the Gold Cup, common knowledge is that they can beat Panama next month ahead of a final match away to a Costa Rica side that has nothing left to play for. And seemingly everyone, Klinsmann included, believes that Mexico will at least back into a fourth-place finish and playoff against an inferior New Zealand side. They're certainly good enough. And they're desperate.
Photo Credit: Associated Press