MEXICO CITY -- On the night the U.S. made history, goalkeeper Tim Howard walked slowly up the tunnel of the Estadio Azteca, one of the most famous stadiums in sports and a house of horrors for U.S. Soccer from the time it was built more than 40 years ago.
As he moved forward, Howard passed by all the signs that have been posted on the tunnel walls, one per country, showing the all-time records of Mexico against its international opponents.
Howard was headed toward the U.S. bus, but he decided to stop at the sign bearing the Stars and Stripes flag, "Estados Unidos," and a string of misery in the form of U.S. results here over the decades. U.S. kit man Jesse Bignami pulled out his cell phone and snapped a picture of Howard in a triumphant pose next to an artifact that was no longer accurate.
"Time to change the sign," Howard said, wearing a proud smile. "Time to change the sign."
Until Wednesday, the U.S. had never beaten Mexico in Mexico in 24 games over 75 years going back to 1937. Until Wednesday, the U.S. tally read 23 losses, one tie and zero victories. Until Wednesday, the thought of this U.S. team finally winning in Mexico seemed close to impossible, not least because so many regulars were missing from the quickly assembled squad: Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Jozy Altidore.
And let's be honest: For most of Wednesday's game, it seemed likely that the U.S. would go home on the losing end again. Mexico dominated possession, spent most of its time in the U.S. end and forced the U.S. back line into a near-constant protect-and-defend mode. But the U.S. held firm, absorbing the pressure, with center back Geoff Cameron in particular having a standout game shutting down Mexican star Javier (Chicharito) Hernández.
In just his sixth U.S. appearance, Cameron played like taking on Mexico in the Azteca was no big deal.
"I tried not to think about it much, because the more you think about it the more worried and nervous you get," said Cameron, who just joined Stoke City of the English Premier League from Houston. "I was sweating profusely coming into the game, but I just tried to focus on myself and do the things I know how to do well."
As the second half progressed and the score remained 0-0, Howard thought maybe, just maybe, the U.S. could hold on for a tie.
"I was saying to myself at 75 minutes: If someone wants to stop the game, we'll take it," he said.
But everything changed in the 80th minute. After a U.S. throw-in, Kyle Beckerman passed to Brek Shea on the left wing. After a breakout year in 2011, Shea had fallen back to earth hard in 2012, so much so that he was a surprise pick to even be on this U.S. squad. When he's on his game, though, Shea runs right at defenders like a Texas-bred running back, and that's exactly what he did, nutmegging Mexico's Severo Meza, barreling into the box and firing a pass to fellow substitute Terrence Boyd.
Boyd, a supremely confident German-American, surprised the Mexicans with an audacious back heel in the box that found Michael Orozco Fiscal free in space. It's fair to say that Orozco Fiscal had dropped off the U.S. radar even more than Shea had, and it's likely he was selected for this team mainly because he plays in Mexico. Orozco Fiscal had come upfield for the throw-in, and even though he's a defender, he stuck around in the Mexican penalty area.
"Shea took him one-v-one," said Orozco Fiscal, "and I was like, 'I'm gonna stay here and see what happens.'"
His first-time shot beat Mexican goalie Guillermo Ochoa, sparking a raucous U.S. celebration at the corner flag.
The Mexicans staged a mad scramble to come back. Yet Howard ended those hopes with two remarkable saves on Hernández, including a point-blank header.
"I just tried to get a full hand on it, and it ended up hitting the top of my thumb, which gave it spin," Howard said. "I thought, 'Here we go again.' But we deserved a little bit of luck."
The ball stayed out of the U.S. net.
For years we wondered: What would the scene be like in the Azteca when the U.S. finally won a game here? When the whistle blew, we finally knew. The restless murmurs in the gigantic thunderdome dissipated into an eerie quiet. Some areas of the stadium turned angry, hurling projectiles onto a small U.S. fan section until police had to evacuate the American supporters. But outside the stadium the majority of Mexican fans merely set about going home. The general anger would likely have been higher had it been a World Cup qualifier instead of an exhibition game.
Years from now, though, people won't remember that Mexico had more possession in this game, or that it was "just a friendly." They'll remember one thing: on Aug. 15, 2012, the U.S. beat Mexico on Mexican soil for the first time in 25 tries. There's value in that for coach Jurgen Klinsmann as he tries to build a team that can compete at World Cup 2014, not just when it comes to playing good soccer but also when it comes to having the mentality to win difficult games.
"It's important to us to understand that we can compete with big teams at their stadiums," Klinsmann said. "With Azteca it's like when you play at Wembley in England or the Stade de France or in Berlin. Those are very special locations, and I want the players to appreciate that. I want the players to understand and take it all in, because you never know if you'll get another occasion like that. We told the players: You have nothing to lose here. Give it all you have."
In March, Klinsmann's U.S. men pulled off a 1-0 victory against Italy in Genoa, a historic result in a tough environment. And on Wednesday they did it again in the Azteca. Next year, results willing, the U.S. will return to the Estadio Azteca for a World Cup qualifier, and things will be different as a result of this memorable night -- on the field, in the players' minds and, not least, on a specific piece of printed posterboard in the stadium tunnel.
It's time to change the sign.