USMNT inches closer to World Cup with Mexico draw, but miss chance to take giant leap towards Qatar

Heading into Thursday’s clash at the Azteca, a game that had massive implications on both side’s World Cup hopes, the US men’s national team had never beaten Mexico in a road World Cup qualifier.

The Azteca, for years, has been a house of horrors for the US and a place where Mexico could bank on three points.

But, entering Thursday’s match, the USMNT had Mexico’s number. The group had beaten their local rivals three times over the course of a year, twice with trophies on the line and once in a World Cup qualifier. The pendulum, many said, had begun to swing as the US was on quite the streak against El Tri.

So something had to give right?

Well, no, as the two split points to keep their respective World Cuping teams hopes fully intact. A somewhat muted qualifying clash, perhaps the last of its kind with the 2026 World Cup on the horizon, ended in a 0-0 draw that left all involved with a collective feeling of meh.

It was a third straight qualifying draw at Azteca for the Americans, who are unbeaten in their past four trips here.

A loss on Thursday wouldn’t have been a death blow for either side, but it certainly would have sent either running for the panic button. And, with the results around CONCACAF, a win for either wouldn’t have seen them clinch, but it would have had them feeling much better about where they stood.

Instead, the historic rivals split points to keep hold of the second and third spots in the table, ensuring the last two games of this World Cup qualifying cycle will mean when it comes to sealing a spot in Qatar.

“I think we put ourselves in a position to play on Sunday and win to go to the World Cup,” said Christian Pulisic. “If you told us that before, I think we wouldn’t be angry about that. But of course, disappointed because we had a chance. I would love to have won the game, but this is a situation that we’re happy with .”

Despite talk this week about feeling a weakened lineup, Gregg Berhalter went with his A-team, opting to focus on the here and now instead of what will be a crucial clash with Panama. He wasn’t willing to punt this game at the Azteca, despite what history said, as he fielded what was essentially the first-choice XI.

Mexico created significant chances but was entirely too wasteful in its home stadium. Several key moments were squandered as shots went sailing into the half-full Azteca stands, with the stadium having a different atmosphere than years past due to crowd restrictions.

The US, meanwhile, had two clear-cut chances of their own, both of which required minor miracles to not hit the back of the net. The first came from Pulisic, who broke free in the first half but fired his shot straight into the body of goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, the very same opponent he famously mocked with his “Man in the Mirror” shirt.

But the second will hurt much, much more. Jordan Pefok, brought in to replace Ricardo Pepi amid a fantastic run of form in Switzerland, was teed up by Gio Reyna, left with a shot that was basically unmissable.

Except it was, as Pefok shanked his 72nd-minute chance wide to the right from just yards away. It was a chance, THE chance, and the US wasted it.

From that point forward, the US resigned to their fate while Mexico pushed forward with Hirving Lozano leading the charge.

Gregg Berhalter brought on defenders and bunkered down a bit, hoping for the possibility of a miracle counter that never came. One Reyna run was dazzling but it was, ultimately, the only postive moment for the USMNT between Pefok’s miss and the final whistle. The majority of the last 20 minutes saw the US send the ball as far away from their own goal as possible as it waited out its point.

“Of course, the guys are tired,” Pulisic said. “I think both teams put in a really big effort to make sure that we didn’t concede. We’re proud of everybody.”

So the team will head home to face Panama with one point, not three. Heading into that match, it’ll have a four-point lead over Panama and a three-point lead over Costa Rica. Honduras’ draw with Panama helped them out, while Canada’s loss to Costa Rica didn’t as five teams remain very much alive for the three World Cup spots and the one playoff position.

Those are the two teams that are next up for the US: Panama and Costa Rica. A 12-game schedule will boil down to the final two.

“We’ll get a group on the field that competes on Sunday,” Berhalter said. “Looking forward to having a home crowd and we’re getting close. We knew, obviously, this window was going to put us in position to either qualify or not qualify but it’s a valuable point on the road and we’re looking forward to getting back home and having a good performance.”

If the US take down Panama, this draw with Mexico will be remembered as a hard-fought point in a tough place against a tough rival. The same feeling will apply for Mexico as it heads to already-eliminated Honduras.

But if either lose their next match, if the path towards the World Cup gets any more perilous, they’ll look back at Thursday as an opportunity, one that could have lasting implications on the road missed to Qatar.

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