Three’s a trend.
For the third time in 2021, the United States men’s national soccer team has beaten archrivals Mexico, winning Friday night by the matchup’s orthodox 2–0 scoreline to send itself to the top of the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying standings at the halfway mark.
It was as thorough a victory as the U.S. has ever inflicted on its southern neighbors. While the two wins this past summer saw the Americans absorbing attacks from a superior Mexico side and counterpunching opportunistically, on Friday the Americans seized the game from the outset and never relinquished control. There was no sign of the hesitancy that has plagued it at times during qualifying. It was the best game the Americans have played yet under coach Gregg Berhalter.
But for 74 minutes, it was not the most complete game. The U.S. stayed in control, something it could rarely say in the two matchups this summer, but the team struggled until the final 20 minutes to convert its dominance into danger. Dangerous passes and quality shots were lacking. It looked for a time like Mexico was going to pull a page out of the Americans’ playbook, absorbing the pressure for long enough to snatch the win.
The U.S. started fast, constantly aggressive, pushing forward at speed whenever possible. It was also sloppy. Much of soccer is about stringing together combinations of plays in order to create danger, and for every five good plays the Americans made there would be one absolute stinker that shut the move down: a pass made into a lane that had already closed, a ball left for another player who wasn’t there. Some mistakes were so egregious that it looked like they were playing with the NBA’s new and unfamiliar ball. Most of Mexico’s chances—U.S. goalkeeper Zack Steffen made two difficult early saves to keep the game scoreless—came from pouncing on American mistakes and miscommunications.
Team captain and midfield shield Tyler Adams looked uncharacteristically nervy for the first 20 minutes. Weston McKennie struggled to complete passes forward to the American front line. But the third American midfielder, the flypaper-footed 18-year-old Yunus Musah, stepped into the gap left by their underperformance. Whenever the U.S. came under pressure, they could get the ball to the teenager and trust that it would come out OK. His control at times was Globetrotter-esque, just absolutely dizzying in the ways he would move the ball in order to keep possession of it. Many of the first half’s best moments started with Musah, and he bought the U.S. valuable time while Adams grew into the game and stabilized the team.
In the second half, Mexico coach Tata Martino abandoned his team’s high press to sit deeper and try to attack the space behind the Americans. Instead the U.S. smothered his team, parking itself in Mexico’s half of the field and refusing to budge. Mexico couldn’t get the ball past Adams and McKennie; it took nearly 15 minutes into the second half for El Tri to earn a sustained spell of possession. The Americans had more than eight times the number of touches in the attacking third of the field than Mexico did from minutes 45 to 65.
And yet still no goal. McKennie and Ricardo Pepi both missed good chances during this period. All of Twitter pointed out that Mexico could still get one on the counter. Nobody seemed to tell Mexico though. In the absence of any attacking ideas, its players spent the half hitting either the opponent or the turf. Forward Raúl Jiménez should have earned a yellow card for a cheap shot on Adams. Right back Chaka Rodríguez should have earned a red card for clawing at Brenden Aaronson’s face. Its offense in the second half was almost entirely reliant on plays started by referee Ivan Barton. Martino seemed content with an away draw.
He wouldn’t get it. The goal finally came through a familiar hero for the U.S. in World Cup qualifying, though not from this cycle—at least not yet. Christian Pulisic—still recovering from an injury suffered with the U.S. in September and so only fit for a substitute’s role—entered the pitch in the 69th minute and soon cut across two inert Mexican defenders to head home Timothy Weah’s cross. Pulisic hadn’t scored a nonpenalty goal for the USMNT in more than two years. He saved it for the best possible time.
The finish was Pulisic’s first contribution to the game after coming on five minutes before. It was maybe Weah’s 10th. The 21-year-old was easily the most dangerous American attacker on the night. He spun Mexico’s left back Jesús Gallardo like a Space Camp cadet, completing all four of his attempted dribbles and creating three shots with his passing. (He also made good defensive interventions very early and very late.) Weah’s incredibly intelligent about selecting the most dangerous option for himself at any given moment. For the goal, he didn’t have to dribble by Gallardo, and so he cut back outside of him to create the space for the cross. His partnership with Musah on the right side looks like a real weapon for Berhalter. Weah can be the spark at the end of Musah’s wire, using his teammate’s comfort on the ball to hunt for space as the defense collapses toward the teenager.
Weah played the cross that led to the second goal, too, though it had a lot less dangerous intent behind it. Substitute forward Jesús Ferreira tapped it back to McKennie, who pounced first after his return pass was blocked, shot, and made up for his earlier inaccuracy by finding the bottom corner of the net.
Three competitive wins for one side in one year make this the most one-sided the rivalry has been since 1937. When the two teams meet again in March, Mexico will be reliant on the powerful protective magic of their home Estadio Azteca, and perhaps a new manager, to reverse the skid. The team doesn’t have much else it can count on in this game. Star attacker Hirving “Chucky” Lozano has never scored against the United States. Neither has Jiménez or his backup Rogelio Funes Mori. Forward Jesús “Tecatito” Corona has just one goal versus the USMNT. Time is not on Mexico’s side either. The average age of its lineup Friday was 29 years old. The average age of the U.S. players was just over 23.5. The U.S. is even winning the war of witty repartee.
The U.S., meanwhile, now knows it has the tools to beat Mexico in multiple ways. If it has to sit back and counter at elevation in Mexico City, then so be it, but its young players will always remember the day they proved they could do more, the day they went beyond Dos a Cero and moved to 3–0.