At the end of an eventful week full of surprise and upheaval, the U.S. national team sought strength on familiar ground.
Games against Mexico never lack stakes or storylines, but Friday’s World Cup qualifier arguably was more fraught with intrigue than usual. Emotions were running high, Mexico was motivated and both sides wanted to avoid starting CONCACAF’s Hexagonal with a thud. In the Americans’ corner: Columbus. The U.S. had never been beaten at Mapfre Stadium, and it shut out El Tri in four straight qualifiers there dating back to 2001. Perhaps the spectacle and setting would get the best of Mexico once again.
Then U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann ceded that familiar ground. He sent his team out in a three-defender, five-midfielder (or four, according to the manager), two-forward formation the national team hadn’t played in nearly two years. And that brief experience came in a January friendly. Mexico’s quick, skillful attackers pulled the uncomfortable U.S. apart and by the time Klinsmann adjusted in the 28th minute, the dominant visitors held a 1-0 lead. The Columbus spell had been broken. The hosts drew level on a 49th-minute goal from Bobby Wood, but Mexico’s nerve held for the first time in central Ohio and in the 89th minute, they won it with a header from Rafa Márquez.
It not only was the Americans’ first loss in Columbus. It was the first home World Cup qualifying defeat since 2001—the run lasted 30 games—and the first home qualifying setback to Mexico since 1972. The armor has been pierced, and now the U.S. must gather itself for a Tuesday qualifier scheduled in far more hostile territory. The Yanks (0-1-0) will face Costa Rica (1-0-0) in the capital of San Jose, where they are 0-8-1 all-time.
“The message is very simple,” Klinsmann said Friday night. “We’ve got to go down there and get a result, which we will do.”
Where does the coach find the confidence? Ironically, defeat on familiar ground leaves the U.S. on familiar ground. On multiple occasions during Klinsmann’s five-year tenure, the Americans have suffered a setback that raised questions and concern. Those setbacks have led to several “must-win” games. And when the U.S. must win, it frequently does. It almost seems as if this team taps into its identity only when under increased pressure or scrutiny. Whatever pragmatism, motivation or communication occurs during desperate times, it typically makes a difference.
Go back to the start of the last Hexagonal, when the U.S. kicked off with a confused, listless performance in a 2-1 loss in Honduras. There were problems with Klinsmann’s set-up that day too—an ill-conceived 4-3-3—and there was considerable consternation inside the locker room. Then came the SnowClásico defeat of Costa Rica in Denver, and the U.S. was back on the World Cup track.
This past March, there was the stunning loss in Guatemala, which left the U.S. needing to win the return match in Columbus four days later. Defeat might mean an early end to the World Cup campaign, and months of frustration that started with a fourth-place finish at the 2015 Gold Cup and the ensuing loss to Mexico in the Confederations Cup playoff appeared to be boiling over. Then the U.S. took the Mapfre Stadium field and easily dispatched Guatemala, 4-0. A couple months later, after losing to Colombia in the Copa América Centenario opener, the Americans were set upon by furious fans and a skeptical press. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati put Klinsmann on notice. Naturally, a three-game win streak followed, leading to a spot in the semifinals.
“Since I’ve been on this team one of its strengths has always been to respond on big days and to be able to close the door, know who we are, know what needs to be better, understand what was still good and get ready for whatever comes next,” captain Michael Bradley said during the Copa.
USA vs. Mexico Soccer
November 11, 2016 – Mexico 2, USA 1
USA and Mexico players watch Rafa Marquez's 89th-minute header find the net in a famous World Cup qualifying win in Columbus for El Tri.
October 10, 2015 – Mexico 3, USA 2 (AET)
Jermaine Jones falls to his knees in disappointment as Mexico celebrates after Paul Aguilar's sensational volley in extra time captured the CONCACAF Cup for El Tri and sends the U.S. rival to the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.
April 15, 2015 — USA 2, Mexico 0
Stanford University's Jordan Morris marked his first senior national team start with his first international goal, sparking the USA in another 2-0 triumph over Mexico, this one at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
September 10, 2013 — USA 2, Mexico 0
Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan scored second-half goals to beat El Tri by the same score for the fourth consecutive qualifier in Columbus, Ohio.
March 26, 2013 — USA 0, Mexico 0
Clint Dempsey captained the U.S. to a 0-0 draw at Estadio Azteca, the second time ever the Americans registered a point in World Cup qualifying in Mexico (the other a 1997 tie). Defenders Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler were the stars as Mexico couldn't cash in on several opportunities. The U.S. escaped to remain in second place in CONCACAF qualifying.
August 15, 2012 — USA 1, Mexico 0
It took 25 attempts, but after this friendly, the United States could finally say that it had won at Mexico City's Azteca Stadium. Despite being outplayed for most of the match, the U.S. won thanks to an 80th-minute goal from Michael Orozco Fiscal — the first international goal of his career.
August 10, 2011 — USA 1, Mexico 1
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. debut got off to a rough start, as the Americans trailed Mexico, 1-0 after an uninspired first half in Philadelphia. The U.S. showed more verve after halftime, though, and an impressive display from Brek Shea and a 73rd-minute goal from Robbie Rogers led to a 1-1 draw.
June 25, 2011 — Mexico 4, USA 2
In the Gold Cup final, Mexico captured its second straight title in the battle for CONCACAF bragging rights and secured a berth in the 2013 Confederations Cup. Pablo Barrera scored twice; Giovani Dos Santos and Andres Guardado also had goals. The U.S. was up 2-0 early on Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan goals, but poor defending (partially due to the loss of Steve Cherundolo by injury) doomed the Americans.
August 12, 2009 — Mexico 2, USA 1
The U.S. took its first-ever lead at Azteca Stadium, but went on to lose 2-1 in what was a critical World Cup qualifier for Mexico. The win changed the tide for the then-struggling Mexican squad, as it went on to go 3-0-1 in its next four matches to earn a trip to South Africa. The U.S. still went on to finish first in CONCACAF qualification.
July 26, 2009 — Mexico 5, USA 0
Mexico put an emphatic end to the Americans' 9-0-2 home streak against "El Tri." The Mexicans took the Gold Cup from the two-time defending champion, with five different players scoring goals in the second half at Giants Stadium.
February 11, 2009 — USA 2, Mexico 0
Two goals from Michael Bradley gave the U.S. another home victory over Mexico. It marked the eleventh consecutive time that the Americans had gone unbeaten against Mexico when playing on U.S. soil.
June 24, 2007 — USA 2, Mexico 1
Down 1-0, second-half goals from Landon Donovan and Benny Feilhaber gave the U.S. the victory in the 2007 Gold Cup finals. The win earned the Americans a spot in the 2009 Confederations Cup, where they achieved their famous upset over Spain.
September 3, 2005 — USA 2, Mexico 0
A 2-0 victory over "El Tri" clinched a spot in the 2006 World Cup, with goals coming from Steve Ralston and DaMarcus Beasley.
May 8, 2003 — USA 0, Mexico 0
In their first meeting since the 2002 World Cup, an all-MLS squad of Americans played Mexico to a 0-0 draw in front of more than 69,000 people in Houston.
June 17, 2002 — USA 2, Mexico 0
Arguably the biggest win in U.S. soccer team history came against its archrivals at the 2002 World Cup. Brian McBride and Landon Donovan gave the Americans a 2-0 victory in South Korea to send their team to the quarterfinals. It is the furthest stage the team has reached in the World Cup since 1930.
July 1, 2001 — Mexico 1, USA 0
Needing a win to stay in contention for the 2002 World Cup, the Mexicans won 1-0 at Azteca Stadium, making their record 21-0-1 when hosting the Americans.
February 28, 2001 — USA 2, Mexico 0
For the first time ever, the Americans won their third consecutive game against Mexico. The victory came in the World Cup qualifying finals and was held in Columbus, Ohio.
August 1, 1999 — Mexico 1, USA 0
Cuauhtemoc Blanco's goal in extra time eliminated the U.S. in the semifinals of the 1999 Mexico City Confederations Cup. The win capped off a long tradition of Mexican dominance over the American side, a streak that shortly thereafter ended, as the Americans won the next three matches against their rivals.
July 17, 1995 — USA 0, Mexico 0
The USA outlasted Mexico in a penalty shootout to reach the semifinals of the 1995 Copa America. After a 0-0 draw, goalkeeper Brad Friedel was the hero in PKs, making two saves. The U.S. made all four of its attempts and advanced.
Costa Rica isn’t a better team than the U.S. on paper and their last meeting, which kicked off the Americans’ Copa América run, was an easy 4-0 win for Klinsmann and Co. It was during that game that the manager switched to the 4-4-2 that proved so effective during the second half against Mexico on Friday, and the players must hope that’s how they’ll take the field in San Jose. The new Estadio Nacional, which became Costa Rica’s home ground in 2011, was the site of its 3-1 win over the U.S. in 2013 but still isn't as fearsome as the old Estadio Saprissa. The odds remain against an U.S. win, but perhaps the lessons learned Friday and the fear of starting the Hex with two defeats will make a difference.
Should the U.S. lose Tuesday, it would become only the fourth team since the Hexagonal was introduced ahead of the 1998 World Cup to start 0-2-0. Canada and Trinidad & Tobago (twice) did the honors previously, and none finished among the top three. T&T came in fourth in ’05 and wound up qualifying for the ’06 World Cup through a playoff. Starting the Hex with a loss and a draw, however, isn’t a death sentence. Costa Rica did it last time around and still finished second (and then went all the way to the quarterfinals in Brazil). It also happened to Honduras in 2009, and Los Catrachos still qualified.
The Hex is forgiving. There's margin for error. The U.S. has never advanced to the World Cup with less than a three point cushion and regardless of next week’s result, it will have two of its three toughest matches out of the way (the trip to Azteca is scheduled for June). Five wins typically does the trick, and those five wins are out there.
That being said, the must-win mentality is the right one next week. Klinsmann and the U.S. appeared to take Columbus for granted on Friday. Trying tactics so new, switching off on that fateful corner kick at the end—those are not the actions of a desperate, vigilant team. The Americans know their strengths and on Tuesday, they can take advantage of a formation in which they’re comfortable, the blossoming partnership between Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood and Christian Pulisic’s menace on the flank. Toss in the qualities Bradley described over the summer, and the formula for success is there. If Mexico can tame Columbus, the U.S. must believe it can do the same in San Jose.
Moments after Friday’s loss, Jermaine Jones already was tapping into that vein. Whether or not their backs are against the wall mathematically, it’s probably best to feel that way.
“We have to go there and get three points to keep the doors open,” he said. “I think it will be a tough one if Costa Rica goes out and wins, too, and they have six points and then you don’t know what Mexico is [going to do]. So definitely we have to go to Costa Rica and have that in our head that we have to go away there with three points.”