MEXICO CITY – The U.S. national soccer team has been coming to Mexico for World Cup qualifiers since the 1940s, mustering a few draws and a tall stack of defeats.
So to come away with a point Sunday, a 1-1 tie in a madhouse known as Estadio Azteca, the Americans will not feel the least bit deflated. Well, aside from the lack of oxygen at the sky-high venue.
In another spectacle between the regional powers, U.S. captain Michael Bradley silenced the blockbuster crowd of 81,000 in the sixth minute with a stunning chip from 40 yards.
Carlos Vela scored the equalizer midway through the first half as Mexico (4-0-2, 14 points) maintained its place atop the six-nation group.
The Americans (2-2-2) pulled even with second-place Costa Rica on points (eight) but remained behind on goal differential. Three teams will receive automatic berths in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. A fourth side will enter a playoff against an Asian foe.
The Americans will resume their qualifying schedule in early September against Costa Rica at home and Honduras on the road.
“I feel good about where we are,” Coach Bruce Arena said. “We’ve made up some lost ground.”
Mexico has lost to the United States just once in 23 meetings in the capital city and is 5-0-3 against the Americans in qualifiers at famed Azteca. But the visitors continue to show better results here, earning a victory (in a 2012 friendly) and two qualifying draws in the past three visits.
The Americans are 2-0-2 in qualifiers since Arena began his second tour as coach and, with a favorable schedule ahead, seem on track for an eighth consecutive World Cup berth.
“It’s a hard place to come, but it puts us back where we want to be,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “To take a point, it’s not the worst result in the world.”
With a quick turnaround after winning Thursday in Colorado, plus altitude factors, Arena had promised lineup changes. No one could have predicted seven of them. Afterward, he said that, as of Saturday, he was considering nine changes.
The biggest surprise: Guzan started in place of Tim Howard in net. Arena said that, at Howard’s age (38), he needs more time to recover.
Arena foreshadowed the insertion of midfielder Kellyn Acosta and forward Bobby Wood into the lineup by using both as substitutes in the 2-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago on Thursday.
Acosta joined Bradley in defensive midfield. Omar Gonzalez, Tim Ream and DaMarcus Beasley joined the five-man back line, with Beasley, 35, becoming the first U.S. player to appear in five World Cup qualifying cycles.
Pulisic moved from playmaker to a hybrid role, and newcomer Paul Arriola filled the right flank. Wood was the lone forward, leaving Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore in reserve.
With an unbeaten mark, Mexico threatened to clinch a World Cup berth by the next set of matches in September. However, the absence of several regulars dented Juan Carlos Osorio’s plans and further fueled the U.S. upset hopes.
Mexico’s Carlos Salcedo was fortunate to avoid a red card in the early moments. Nonetheless, the Americans enjoyed a dream start.
In the sixth minute, Bradley stepped into the Mexican passing channel at midfield. In stride, he intercepted a poor back touch by Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and surged into space.
Alertly, he looked up and saw goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa straying off his line. From 40 yards, Bradley chipped the ball. Ochoa was stranded. The shot sailed over the keeper and dipped under the crossbar for Bradley’s 17th international goal.
He raced to the corner, raising his arms to some 600 delirious U.S. supporters standing in the top level high above the targeted net.
“I took the first touch and saw that he was a good ways out,” Bradley said. “Here, if you catch a ball right with the thin air, the ball is going to really fly.”
The Americans pressed for more, creating danger with overlapping runs, diagonal balls and service into the box.
However, immediately after a serious U.S. threat went unfulfilled, Mexico countered. Hernandez bolted out of the back, nutmegging Acosta in the center circle before spraying the ball wide to Vela.
With the center backs slow to retreat, Beasley was left to fend for himself. Vela cut inside, Beasley in tow, before thumping a low, 22-yard shot across his body and into the near corner in the 23rd minute. Azteca erupted back to life.
The half ended with Mexico on its front foot but the Americans in position to escape with at least one point.
Mexico turned up the pressure in the second half but didn’t test Guzan until Hector Herrera’s free kick crashed off the frame in the 71st minute.
Three minutes later, Bradley stung a 30-yard bid off the right post.
The Americans then withstood pressure to claim a draw that, in many ways, felt like a victory.
“We were certainly positioned to get three points,” Arena said. “We were close. I’m proud of the result. I’m a little greedy. I would’ve liked three points.”