MEXICO CITY, March 27 -- In the end, it wasn't the altitude that beat the U.S. men's national soccer team Sunday. It wasn't the intense heat, the grubby air or the estimated 110,000 spectators at famed Azteca Stadium.
When the final whistle sounded, marking Mexico's 2-1 victory over its fiercest rival in an emotional 2006 World Cup qualifier, the Americans had to attribute yet another downfall here to a ghastly three-minute stretch in the first half and, in general, a superior Mexican team.
Mexican striker Antonio Naelson, right, kicks a goal past U.S. goalie Kasey Keller during the first half.
(Hector Guerrero - Reuters)
"The better team won -- Mexico was the better team today," Coach Bruce Arena said. "Any way you look at it, altitude is a big factor, [but] I believe our players shut down the last 15 minutes of the first half, and I thought that was the game. Altitude or no altitude, Mexico has a very good team."
Jared Borgetti's header gave Mexico a 1-0 lead in the 30th minute and Brazilian-born Antonio Naelson took advantage of a breakdown three minutes later, essentially ending the Americans' hopes of winning here for the first time in 23 attempts. Eddie Lewis halved the deficit 13 minutes into a vastly improved second half, but there were few chances for the United States to equalize.
The loss slowed the Americans' march to the World Cup in Germany next year, but with eight matches remaining on their 10-game schedule and the most difficult road trip out of the way, they remain in good shape with a 1-1 record in the very manageable North and Central America and Caribbean region. (Three of the six teams will advance, and a fourth will go to a playoff.)
Ninety minutes after Sunday's match, the U.S. team headed for the airport to fly directly to Birmingham for Wednesday's encounter with Guatemala (1-0-1) -- which, because it's a home game, is much more imperative to win than the one in Mexico. Star midfielder DaMarcus Beasley will miss that match, however, after receiving his second yellow card of qualifying Sunday.
"It's a two-game trip -- we've known that all along," Lewis said. "There's obviously the history regarding the Mexico City game and we wanted to make it a historic win besides just getting the three points, but in the end, if we get the three [points] on Wednesday . . . to have six points is a good position, I think."
While the United States' infamous streak here extended, two unbeaten runs came to an end: a record 16 games overall (11-0-5) without a loss since early 2004 and 31 games (24-0-7) against regional opponents over the last four years.
Things started well enough for the Americans, who put up strong resistance and counterattacked in a careful manner. But in the 30th minute, Francisco Fonseca created space on the right side and found Salvador Carmona, who whipped a cross toward the back post. Jaime Lozano headed it back into the six-yard box for Borgetti to nod past goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who had no chance after having fallen into the net.
Mexico quickly pressured again, this time drawing several U.S. players to one side. The ball eventually fell to the unmarked Naelson, who calmly snapped a 10-yard shot to the far corner, setting off another eruption of sound in the nearly full colossal stadium.
Afterward, Arena was blunt about his team's defensive work on the second goal, saying: "Our back line, in all honestly, did a very poor job on that play. . . . You never want to give up the first goal, but the second goal was obviously the big play of the game; it was enough to give Mexico three points."
"Quite a bit of confusion" is how U.S. midfielder Pablo Mastroeni described Mexico's second goal. "A bit of miscommunication, misunderstanding on our part."
In the U.S. locker room at halftime, it was "a little bit of shock," Mastroeni said. "Very seldom do we find ourselves in a 2-0 deficit at halftime. It was a bit uncomfortable, but at the same time, there was a sense of hope."
Mexico played the second half without Coach Ricardo Lavolpe, who had been ejected just before intermission for complaining about the officiating.
After starting the match with Eddie Johnson as the lone forward, Arena moved Landon Donovan up front after halftime. The move paid off as the United States found an attacking rhythm and finally began to threaten.
"Going into half, the way we were playing, my main concern was, 'Let's make sure we don't get blown out here and play smart and just try to get a goal somehow,' " Donovan said. "We played really well in the second half -- I don't think many teams come here and do that against Mexico when they're down a couple goals. We got the first one and I think we just died a little. A little more energy and we would've had a realistic chance of getting a point out of it."
Six minutes after having a clear shot stopped by goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez, Lewis finished a sharp build-up by Donovan and Johnson, striking a 16-yard shot just inside the far post. Keller kept it close by making two superb saves between the 75th and 79th minutes, but the U.S. attack had nothing left.
"It is a great experience to play Mexico in this stadium in front of this crowd with this altitude," said Olney's Oguchi Onyewu, 22, a Belgium-based central defender making only his third national team appearance. "But we have to look past this and look forward to the game on Wednesday."