United States goalkeeper Brad Guzan celebrates at the end of the World Cup… (Christian Palma / Associated…)
MEXICO CITY — Officially the game ended in a tie. But try telling that to the U.S. and Mexico, which fought to a scoreless draw in a World Cup qualifying match that left both teams heading in different directions.
For the U.S., Tuesday's result felt like a win — especially since it came at a sold-out Estadio Azteca, a place where the Americans have never won a World Cup qualifier. Plus it leaves the U.S. in third place three games into the six-nation, 10-game qualifying tournament for Brazil 2014.
For Mexico, meanwhile, the tie was as humiliating as a loss. El Tri has played two World Cup qualifiers in Azteca in the last two months and not only is it still looking for its first win, it's still looking for its first goal — this despite the fact it outshot the U.S., 17-1.
So for the second time in as many months, Mexico's fans booed their team off the field after it fell to fifth in a qualifying tournament in which only three teams are guaranteed berths in Brazil.
"It's a tie," said U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann, who was in a celebratory mood nonetheless. "We came here, we wanted to win this game. But obviously we're very pleased with this result.
"Mexico gave us everything they had. Put us under a lot of pressure. It was an unbelievable team effort. But this group is ready for those challenges."
And it truly was a team effort, especially on the back line where Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler — playing in a World Cup qualifier for the first time — led a staunch defensive effort that bent several times but never broke.
The U.S. strategy was fairly simple: Make things difficult for Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, Mexico's high-scoring striker. And the Americans accomplished that in part by pushing Mexico's wingers wide and by double-teaming Hernandez in the middle, pounding him, once even knocking him down in the box — a foul that the assistant referee appeared to signal against U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley.
But after frantically waving his flag and calling for a penalty kick, the assistant referee was ignored by Guatemalan official Walter Lopez, who ordered play to continue. It was a scenario that repeated itself in the 81st minute after Javier Aquino was knocked hard to the ground deep in the box.
Despite frantic protests from the Mexicans, Lopez did not call that penalty either.
Which isn't to say Mexico — or Chicharito — didn't have their chances. Hernandez narrowly missed on a header in the 21st minute and came even closer on a diving shot at the near post eight minutes later.
And then late in the second half, a 10-yard volley from Jesus Zavala was deflected wide by one of a trio of U.S. defenders, the first shot of a wild barrage by Mexico over the final 20 minutes that tested — but never beat — U.S. keeper Brad Guzan.
The U.S., meanwhile, had just one shot all night and had just one decent scoring opportunity — in the 15th minute when Geoff Cameron missed inches wide at the far post. Not that it would have counted anyway since Lopez whistled him for a foul.
So while the U.S. goes home with a tie that feels like a win, Mexico is left to lick its wounds — and possibly begin searching for a new coach.
Although Mexico has yet to lose in World Cup qualifying, winning all six of its matches in the third round last year and tying three times this year in the fourth, Coach Jose Manuel de la Torre's job is rumored to be in jeopardy.