USMNT World Cup Qualifying Scenarios Post Draw in Mexico
The last men’s World Cup qualifier between the United States and Mexico in eight years, perhaps ever, was set to be a spectacle. A back-and-forth battle in a cauldron of noise that would leave one team on the cusp of Qatar and the other sweating.
Instead, it ended 0-0 – and both sides celebrated a result 2,000 miles away.
It had Mexican fans booing, US players smiling and US head coach Gregg Berhalter pleased with a “valuable point along the way”. But it was enough for everyone involved. Down in Panama City, while Berhalter detailed the half-time adjustments, Honduras held on to a 1-1 draw with fourth-placed Panama.
That gave USA a cushion and some simple instructions with two games left:
A win against Panama on Sunday would almost secure the USMNT a World Cup spot. (More on this scenario below.)
A better result on Sunday than Costa Rica’s result against El Salvador would officially secure a place for the USA.
A tie with Panama would at least secure a spot in a very winnable intercontinental playoff, likely against New Zealand.
Costa Rica’s 1-0 win over Canada on Thursday made the road to automatic qualification a little less automatic. The CONCACAF table remains a bit tense after the third to last qualifying round:
But with the top three traveling to Qatar, if the USA beat Panama on Sunday, Costa Rica would need to beat El Salvador on Sunday and the USA next Wednesday, making up seven goals in the process.
Berhalter and his US staff knew these scenarios. Emerging from their dressing room at the Estadio Azteca in the second half on Thursday, they knew Panama had made a mistake. They mastered the next 45 minutes, physically adapting Mexico and selectively breaking forward.
They almost made three from one point. Christian Pulisic missed a close-range chance before half-time. Jordan Pefok, who came on as a second-half substitute, showed off a ball that Gio Reyna sent him on a silver platter.
They were arguably the better team that night, just as they had been in Cincinnati in November. Expected Tore models certainly thought so.
Mexico threatened. Hirving “Chucky” Lozano hissed shots wide. Raul Jimenez and Alexis Vega tumbled in the penalty area and listened to whistles that never came. During the second half, the US withdrew. As oncoming traffic increasingly flowed towards the US end, Berhalter deployed two additional centre-backs.
But they protected the precious point. And Berhalter’s risk paid off.
He had toyed with the idea of fielding a B-team, essentially acknowledging that Sunday’s showdown against Panama was more important. He opted for a first pick of 11 instead, and his audacity threatened to backfire early. DeAndre Yedlin and Tim Weah have both received yellow cards and suspensions that will rule them out against Panama. With Sergiño Dest injured and Reggie Cannon ill with COVID-19, USMNT has already made efforts to call Shaq Moore, who could be a bailout starter right away on Sunday.
The result was worth almost any price, however, and these top-choice appetizers deserved it. Yunus Musah and Antonee Robinson were combative. Tyler Adams, yellow carded and out of form, was brilliant nonetheless. He spotted Mexican attacks before they even materialized and helped hold a fearsome front three at bay. “He was outstanding,” said Berhalter.
Ricardo Pepi and Pulisic were less outstanding. Pulisic worked all night and admitted the game “taught us a lot”. And that was the fear. The challenge will now recover. The legs will be heavy.
But Panama will also move. The USMNT is preferred. A place in Qatar has finally come into focus after a seven-month qualifying loop that has fueled panic and optimism and everything in between.