MEXICO CITY — Before Wednesday night, US goalkeeper Tim Howard had played at the Estadio Azteca only once: a 2-1 loss in World Cup qualifying in 2009, when he conceded two goals after the US had taken an early lead.
But despite that scant experience, he knew the whole history. He knew that the US had never won in Mexico, holding a 0-23-1 record coming into Wednesday's friendly. And he knew that the cacophony and intimidation of Azteca was very real.
So while the clock was winding down and the US were scrambling to hold on to an unlikely 1-0 lead, he knew he had to remain calm.
“That fear everyone was feeling and no one wants to talk about: embrace it,” Howard said. “That’s what happens in big games when your belly gets light. It’s fear. You can shrivel up or you can accept it. It was a great performance.”
The greatest performance was all Howard’s. In the dying minutes, the Everton stalwart stood on his head, as they say, making two phenomenal saves on Javier “Chicharito” Hernández. The first came in the 85th minute, when Chicharito's shot deflected of Maurice Edu and forced Howard to change direction and get a palm on the dangerous ball before diving on the rebound.
Four minutes later, the US No. 1 came up big again, getting his gloves on a point-blank Chicharito header that was destined for the lower-right corner of the netting.
“I 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 just thought, ‘Oh no, here we go again.’ But we deserved a little bit of luck and we got that.”
Luck was part of it, but manager Jurgen Klinsmann and other players talked also about the role belief played — the belief to win, the belief to compete, the belief to embrace that fear, if you will.
So, now that the US have their first win at Azteca, will the fear be gone when they come back down for a World Cup qualifier next year?
“Probably, but it will subside a little bit,” Howard said. “They’ve been on a high, and rightfully so, but the more times you can come here and get familiar — and now we got a win under our belt — it’s going to help us.
“Look, we had the monkey on our back: You come here and you can’t win. So there was always a little bit of a down when you get here. But now we’ve gotten the win. We should feel good about that and hopefully we’ll have confidence going into it next time.”