National Writer: Charles Boehm

Euphoria, exhaustion and expectation for USMNT on epic Azteca night

MEXICO CITY – The contentious history of the United States-Mexico rivalry dominated the run-up to this weighty World Cup qualifier, with good reason.

Yet Gregg Berhalter ended the night harking back to a different chapter in the rich annals of Estadio Azteca, after one of his youngest players – the son of a US men’s national team great – lit up the illustrious old venue with a standout display in just 30 minutes on the pitch.

“Mexico was the host of the ‘86 World Cup where Maradona scored his wonderful goal, and I had visions of that while Gio was dribbling,” said Berhalter of Gio Reyna’s jaw-dropping solo run past half a dozen or so El Tri adversaries. “Unfortunately he didn’t finish it off or get an opportunity to finish it off, but again, I thought he made a solid impact and showed what type of playmaking and attacking quality he has.

“It’s exciting when we look at our young players,” said the coach. “You think about the prospect of these guys getting even better, it’s really exciting.”

The huge talent and striking youth of this USMNT have created a fascinating contrast throughout this World Cup qualifying campaign. And so it was again in this tense, often ragged 0-0 draw in which both sides expended volumes of energy and commitment despite their lack of composure in the final third.

The visitors were focused and tenacious defensively and carved out two glorious scoring chances, the first spurned by Christian Pulisic and the second even more stunningly by Jordan Pefok.

Those moments had the Yanks ruing two dropped points that would have smoothed their final steps to a place in Qatar, and enshrined them in program history as the first USMNT side ever to win a qualifier at Azteca, and with some 1,000 US supporters in the stadium's southwest corner as witnesses.

Yet Mexico wrestled back long periods of superiority, forced a desperate late rearguard action by an exhausted US and baited both DeAndre Yedlin and Tim Weah into yellow cards that triggered suspensions. Those further limit Berhalter’s lineup options for Sunday’s home clash with Panama in Orlando (7 pm ET | FS1, UniMás, TUDN), above and beyond Brenden Aaronson’s late-breaking injury and a positive COVID-19 test ruled out Reggie Cannon for the foreseeable future.

“I think everyone’s pretty pleased with the way tonight went. Three points would’ve been [great], but we can’t get too greedy; they’re a great team, tough place to play,” said Reyna postgame. “So yeah, one point; also taking some points off of them is a big result for us. Sunday, we’ll be good to go.”

Berhalter, who confirmed an ESPN report that Shaq Moore has already arrived in Orlando to provide the USMNT a right back option, coined the phrase “positive disappointment” to sum up the evening’s mood.

“The group is jazzed up, they’re psyched. It was a good performance. We wanted to be the first team to beat Mexico at the Azteca and we fell a little bit short but the mood’s not down, it’s the opposite,” said the coach. “We know we’re going home, we know we’re playing in front of a great crowd in Orlando and we’re excited about that. The spirits are up; I can’t say enough about the effort of the guys, to expend that much energy at altitude like that was phenomenal.”

Pulisic maintained similar levels of evenhandedness, knowing that a win over Panama could just about clinch qualification, depending on results elsewhere.

“I thought we had the bigger chances in the game; they did have control for big spurts in the game, but I think it’s a game that could have gone either way. I’d say a draw is pretty fair,” said the attacker.

“We’ve put ourselves in a position to play on Sunday and win and go to the World Cup. So if you told us that before, I think we wouldn’t be too angry about that,” he noted. “Of course I’m disappointed, I missed a chance. I would love to have won the game, but this is the situation we’re in now and we’re happy.”