Mexico's Jesus Zavala, left, collides with U.S. goalkeeper Brad… (Eduardo Verdugo / Associated…)
MEXICO CITY — When the final whistle sounded to end Tuesday's World Cup qualifier between Mexico and the U.S., both teams rushed the field — the Americans to celebrate a hard-won scoreless tie and the Mexicans to confront referee Walter Lopez.
And each side was justified in their actions.
For the U.S., a resilient defense led by the Galaxy's Omar Gonzalez absorbed 17 shots and gave up 15 corner kicks without allowing a goal to win just its second point in 15 World Cup qualifiers in Mexico.
And for the Mexican players, it wasn't so much the missed opportunities or missed shots that left them angry. It was two missed calls by Lopez — one in the first half against Michael Bradley, who knocked Mexico's Javier Hernandez to the ground up in the area, and the other in the second half against Maurice Edu, who ran into Javier Aquino from behind — that had them crying foul.
When the dust finally settled, the U.S. was in third place three games into the fourth and final round of World Cup qualifying while Mexico, which has played to a draw in all three of its recent qualifiers, had fallen to fifth in the six-team pool. Only the top three teams are guaranteed berths in the 2014 World Cup.
But after being booed off the field by the sellout crowd, some of whom were calling for him to be fired, Mexican Coach Jose Manuel de la Torre broke with both his players and the fans by refusing to blame the officiating.
"That's not in our hands and if it's not in our hands, we can't give it importance. Nor can we use it as an excuse," said De la Torre, whose team outshot the U.S. 17-1.
"We are always responsible for what happens."
Over the past 15 months Mexico has played nine times in the third and fourth rounds of World Cup qualifying and has yet to lose — winning all six matches last year and tying three times this year.
Still, Mexico is two points behind group leader Panama with seven qualifiers left. But what must worry El Tri is the fact that they've failed to take full advantage of their first two games at home — where Mexico is 68-1-7 in World Cup qualifying — leaving it with ground to make up in a schedule that will see it play four of its final seven qualifiers on the road.
"It's certainly not what we had wished for. What we wanted to do was win the games at home, and we've had two games," De la Torre said. "We've taken two points from a possible six."
For the U.S., meanwhile, Tuesday's result at Azteca was its second in as many games — the U.S. won a friendly there last August — at a place that has never been hospitable. And it ended a trying 10-day period for the team, which came into camp last week missing nine players due to injury, beset by anonymous charges that Coach Juergen Klinsmann had lost the respect of many players, then had to endure a blizzard to beat Costa Rica in its first home qualifier of the fourth round.
"We had so many challenges," Klinsmann said. "People filled in after the Costa Rica game where they were completely exhausted in the snow blizzard game. This group is ready for those challenges and they deserve a huge compliment."
Especially Gonzalez, central midfield partner Matt Besler and keeper Brad Guzan, who has played the last two matches in place of injured regular Tim Howard and has yet to concede a goal.
"Brad's performance was huge. He stepped it up," Klinsmann said.
And if the schedule is working against Mexico, it appears to be working for Klinsmann and the U.S. Not only will the Americans have more than two months to get healthy before its next qualifier, but four of its next six games will be at home — including a Sept. 10 rematch with Mexico in Columbus, Ohio.