The true sign of when a team has another team's number is when it can play poorly, yet still pull out the win. That happened Wednesday night when the United States Men's National Team beat Mexico 2-0 in a friendly match before 62,462 fans at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
The victory marks the eighth consecutive match in which the U.S. has shut out their arch-rivals on American soil, a streak of 754 minutes, dating back to a 56th minute goal by Jose Manuel Abundis on March 13, 1999. Mexico has won all three games played on Mexican soil in that time, a Confederations Cup semi-final in 1999, and World Cup qualifiers in 2001 and 2005. But throw in that tiny victory in second round of the 2002 FIFA World Cup in South Korea and the United States can stake its claim as the dominant team in CONCACAF.
Mexico had been all but handed the opportunity to end the streak with this game. Many national teams will use friendlies outside of a World Cup qualifying cycle to see new players. Mexico had a full squad, with 14 of the 18 men returning from last summer's World Cup team, while interim U.S. coach Bob Bradley chose to field an MLS-base side, with only four of the U.S.'s European-based players, and several players on the field with less than 10 appearances for the national team. Also, the Mexican league has been underway for several weeks, while training began for Major League Soccer clubs last week, so the Mexicans were more fit than the Americans.
The difference in match fitness showed from the opening whistle, as the U.S. struggled to string passes together while Mexico moved the ball with their usual composure. When the U.S. did cross midfield, poor decision-making, movement off the ball, and overall tentative play allowed Mexico to effectively clear the ball. Yet despite the obvious difference in attacking prowess, Mexico did not get many good looks at goal in the first half due to the exceptional play of central defenders Carlos Bocanegra and Jimmy Conrad, who was far and away the man of the match. Mexico's best chance came two minutes before halftime when Jared Borgetti, Mexico's all-time leading striker, sent a header from a corner kick just wide of the far post.
But games between bitter rivals, in any sport, are rarely about which team plays better, and eight minutes after the restart, the Americans struck. A rare foray into the attacking third of the field led to a corner kick, and Landon Donovan's free kick found Conrad wide open 10 yards out, and the 2005 MLS Defender of the Year headed it past goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead.
The goal stunned the Mexicans, but they quickly regrouped and began a 20-minute spell of possession in which they came dangerously close to scoring several times, thanks mostly to second half substitutes Andres Guardado and Omar Bravo. The added pressure led to defensive mistakes by the Americans, with only poor finishing and very good play from goalkeeper Tim Howard preventing Mexico from getting the equalizer.
Mexico kept up the pressure until the 77th minute, when they ran out of ideas and grew frustrated. They did everything in their power to win, only to be denied yet again by the team they had outplayed. Then, as the game entered stoppage time, a sloppy ball at midfield deflected off the referee to Ricardo Clark, who sent in Donovan alone on goal. Donovan rounded Sanchez and coolly slotted it home to ice the victory.
The U.S.'s string of results against Mexico began on June 11, 2000 when Mexico sent a club team, Pumas, instead of a full squad to the Nike U.S. Cup, a four-team tournament that was frequently played in the 1990s. The U.S. cruised to a 3-0 victory in Giants Stadium. Pumas were coached that day by Hugo Sanchez, who was on the losing end of tonight's match. That game in 2000 was supposed to be a minor glitch in what had been decades of domination by our neighbors to the south. Seven years later, it appears to have been the turning point.