And then, midway through the second half of a 1-0 U.S. victory, the international friendly before 40,194 spectators crackled to life.
Matt Miazga, a 6-foot-4 center back, stared down — literally and figuratively — Mexico’s 5-5 sensation, Diego Lainez, after a foul on the midfielder. Miazga mocked his foe’s height by extending his right hand at chest level. He then squatted and held his hand at his forehead, acts that triggered a scuffle.
A moment later, Angel Zaldivar was red-carded for a brutal challenge on U.S. captain Wil Trapp, sparking another kerfuffle.
Ah, the American-Mexican rivalry was alive and kicking again.
“We talked a little smack,” Miazga, 23, said of the first incident. “It’s part of the game. It’s mental warfare. We got in their heads. They got a red card right after it. It took a toll, and we won the game.”
With Mexico down a man and perhaps out of sorts, Tyler Adams scored his first international goal in the 71st minute. Mexico has had the edge in the series for several years, but with this triumph, the United States extended its unbeaten streak in friendlies against the team known as El Tri to 12 matches (8-0-4) since a 1999 defeat. (Mexico is 8-6-2 in matches that matter.)
Adams, a 19-year-old midfielder for MLS’s New York Red Bulls, scored on a 13-yard one-timer after substitute Antonee Robinson, 21, crossed from the left side.
“The ball just trickled to me,” he said. “It was one of the weirdest things. Watching it, it was like in slow-mo.”
The turning point, though, was Miazga’s moment with Lainez, one that surely will sear into the memories of fans on both sides.
“Typical Miazga,” Adams said, laughing. “I love that from him. He gets the guys going. Your teammates see that, and you want to keep going.”
Because Mexico was the opponent, U.S. interim coach Dave Sarachan said, “We knew at some point things might boil over. I do think our guys showed great composure.”
And with the victory, the young Americans ended a nine-day get-together on a positive note after a 2-0 loss to Brazil on Friday night in East Rutherford, N.J.
Sarachan made six changes to the lineup. The moves, he said, were not reaction to performance but for the purpose of providing playing time to others. These are friendlies, after all.
Three of the four defenders were new: Cameron Carter-Vickers, 20, replaced John Brooks, who rejoined Bundesliga club Wolfsburg over the weekend; Shaq Moore, 21, manned the right and Eric Lichaj the left.
Tim Weah, the 18-year-old attacker from Paris Saint-Germain, filled the left wing, and Kellyn Acosta claimed the right side instead of Paul Arriola, who returned to D.C. United. Sarachan retained his central midfield of Adams, Trapp and Weston McKennie. Gyasi Zardes, enjoying a renaissance season with the Columbus Crew, was the lone forward.
In his 40th appearance, Zardes was the only U.S. starter with more than 20 international matches. The average age of the U.S. lineup was 22.5; eight players were 23 or younger. Mexico started eight players 24 or under.
Facing an opponent more on their level than Brazil, the Americans were comfortable with the ball and better connected but didn’t find their way until the second half.
Mexico generated the first serious opportunity, forcing former University of Maryland goalkeeper Zack Steffen, 23, to make a superb leaping save on Edson Alvarez’s header in the 16th minute.
The sensation of the first half was Lainez, an 18-year-old winger from Mexico’s Club America who debuted last week. He was quick, unpredictable and exciting. In the 36th minute, he toyed with Trapp, faking him to the ground as the turned the corner and set up Alvarez for a close-range stab that Steffen corralled.
The pace and intensity accelerated about 10 minutes into the second half. Expertise was lacking but the confrontations set the stage for a fierce finish — and a reminder of what a U.S.-Mexico match is supposed to be.
“For all of these players who we think have a real future and aren’t the finished product yet,” Sarachan said, “these moments are going to add up for them in a positive way.”
U.S. notes: McKennie, 20, left late in the first half with a sprained left knee. . . . The Americans will reconvene in Tampa for an Oct. 11 friendly against Colombia, then face Peru five days later in East Hartford, Conn. The final set of friendlies this year are Nov. 15 against England in London and Nov. 20 against Italy at a neutral venue in Europe (to be announced).
U.S. lineup: Steffen; Moore (Yedlin 85th), Miazga, Carter-Vickers, Lichaj (Robinson 56th); Trapp; Acosta (Roldan 85th), McKennie (Green 40th), Adams, Weah (Delgado 90+); Zardes (Wood 80th).
Subs not used: Horvath, Parker, Novakovich.
Not in uniform: Bono, Long.