COLUMBUS, Ohio – Every story must end eventually, and even sacred traditions are not immune to disruption. But by any measure, fickle fate slammed the book shut on the US national team's MAPFRE Stadium fairytale with startling savagery on Friday night.
The “Dos a Cero” mythology? Killed dead by a deflected strike from Miguel Layun just 20 minutes in that marked Mexico's first-ever goal at the rattling, rollicking venue. El Tri's propensity to wilt when the temperatures dipped into frosty territory? No sign of that on this cold, clear night.
The overwhelming dominance of US fandom in Columbus Crew SC's house? Even that tradition took a knock, with upwards of 2,000 Mexico fans scattered among the home faithful – enough for that controversial goal-kick chant of theirs to resonate noticeably once their team built some momentum.
And the coup de grace, the most stinging irony imaginable: The sight of the ageless, imperious Rafa Marquez, the all-time pantomime villain of this rivalry and goat of more than one previous US win, flicking home the game-winning goal in the dying moments to bank a 2-1 El Tri triumph.
Marquez, of all people – he of the spectacularly unsuccessful Stateside stint with the New York Red Bulls – landing the knockout blow and vanquishing the ghosts of Columbus trips past, at the august age of 37 and on a set piece to boot. It was a rich turnabout from previous occasions marked by petulance, frustration and bookings.
“This win is for everyone,” the veteran captain said afterwards, dedicating the victory to the legions of Mexican fans who have suffered through four 2-0 losses in four straight World Cup cycles in this stadium. “It was the best opportunity to change the story and tonight was what we were thinking about the last couple of days.”
Mexico dominated the game's first half, exploiting the USMNT's curious decision to roll out a new formation Jurgen Klinsmann dubbed a 3-4-3 but which played like a 3-5-2. Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio fielded an offensive-minded lineup, and his front line duly attacked the space around right wingback Timmy Chandler with overloads, smart movement and quick combinations. Layun's goal was a just reward, and prompted a tangible release of the burden of history. Whatever happened from there on out, there would be no “Dos a Cero” this time.
Whether it was some degree of tactical confusion, a hint of complacency in their traditional fortress or both, the United States were slow to find their feet early – and failed to keep their heads late, allowing Marquez a free header at the near post on an 89th-minute corner kick.
“In the first half, we weren't up for the fight,” admitted Jozy Altidore. “We were trying something a little bit different. And then we just came out a little bit timid. But I thought the second half was phenomenal in terms of the effort, the soccer we played. It was good. But one minute at this level, you switch off and you get punished.”
Set pieces have always been a key weapon in the US arsenal against Mexico, providing half of the eight goals scored in their four 2-0 wins in Columbus. On Friday, it became yet another table turned.
“Obviously set pieces are something that we always try to use to our advantage,” said USMNT captain Michael Bradley, “and to lose on one like that tonight is frustrating.”
Marquez played a big role in winning the midfield battle, too. In a somewhat surprising gamble by Osorio, the Atlas man started the game at center back as El Tri pushed a high line and pressed their rivals energetically and to good effect. Even when forced to defend 1v1 against US attackers, Marquez made several key interventions to snuff out attacks.
When the influential Andres Guardado limped off injured just 28 minutes in, Marquez stepped forward into a deep midfield role and set the tempo with his measured passing and savvy decision-making.
“The goal was a prize for Rafa,” Osorio said, comparing Marquez to greats like Peter Schmeichel and Steve McManaman in terms of his quality and his significance to his nation. “Rafa has a love for the game like no one else … He wants to play all the games. Today the game rewarded him and I'm very happy for him.”
The home side made 18-year-old Christian Pulisic a prime protagonist in his first-ever US-Mexico match, building their new formation around him in a central playmaking role. The gambit might pay off in the long run, but it didn't take this time around. Mexico's reliance on a 37-year-old would usually look unflattering by comparison. On this chilly evening, however, it took an old hand to break an old hex.