PASADENA, Calif. – The United States did well to absorb heavy pressure for most of Saturday evening's CONCACAF Cup showdown with Mexico, but they couldn't hold on forever.
And they couldn't answer El Tri – twice – in overtime.
Paul Aguilar's spectacular strike in the 118th minute sent the Tricolores to a 3-2 victory in front of a hugely partisan sellout crowd of 93,723 at the Rose Bowl to snag CONCACAF's berth in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia.
Previously, Aguilar set up Oribe Peralta's go-ahead goal in the sixth minute of extra time, but the U.S. pushed forward and scored an equalizer, through substitute Bobby Wood, in the 108th minute.
Peralta struck after a Mexico free kick was headed away. Miguel Layun played the clearance ahead to Raul Jimenez, who – with his back to goal –flicked the ball over his head and into the U.S. box under pressure from DaMarcus Beasley.
Aguilar volleyed it past a diving Brad Guzan, and inside the left post.
It capped a classic clash, possibly the greatest of U.S.-Mexico encounters, as El Tri claimed its first victory in the series in seven games, since their triumph in the 2011 Gold Cup final, the last time these rivals had faced off at the Rose Bowl.
Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez gave Mexico a 10th-minute lead, but Geoff Cameron's header from a Michael Bradley free kick five minutes later evened things, and both teams had chances – El Tri more so than the Yanks – to go ahead before the extra period.
It was just the second time these teams had gone to overtime. Mexico prevailed, 1-0, in the 1999 Confederations Cup semifinal at Estadio Azteca on a Cuauhtemoc Blanco strike, then beat Brazil for the title.
El Tri advances to its sixth Confederations Cup, a sort of run-through for the following year's World Cup, joining the Russians, Germany, Australia and Chile in the eight-nation field. Representatives from UEFA and Oceania will be determined next year; Africa's, in 2017.
Mexico leads the all-time series, 33-18-14, and are 3-1-1 against the Yanks at the Rose Bowl – the lone U.S. victory in a friendly just before the 1994 World Cup – but the U.S. is 13-6-5 in the series since 2000.
Jurgen Klinsmann started the expected U.S. lineup, with Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore ahead of a midfield diamond featuring Bradley at the point and Kyle Beckerman in the holding role, along with Gyasi Zardes and Jermaine Jones in the wide spots. The backline consisted of Fabian Johnson, Cameron, Matt Besler and Beasley in front of goalkeeper Guzan.
Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti's XI had Hernandez, Peralta and Jimenez up front in a 4-3-3, with veterans Rafael Marquez and Andres Guardado – both coming in off recent injuries – in midfield.
Mexico held far more possession and created better, if not more, scoring opportunities in the first 45 minutes, deftly moving the ball around above the U.S. box and penetrating primarily from little chips and crosses.
El Tri struck quickly, a nuanced touch by Hernandez capping a superb sequence that started on the right flank.
Aguilar sent a diagonal ball toward the U.S. box that Peralta dummied before sprinting to the penalty area, where he collected Jimenez's backheel from above the box. Peralta, to the right of the net, slid the ball toward the penalty spot, and Hernandez redirected it just past Johnson and inside the left post.
The Yanks answered quickly from a set piece. Bradley sent a free kick from the left wing, nearly even with the top of Mexico's box, into the area, and Cameron, sprinting a step ahead of Marquez, headed it home from about 7 yards.
Both teams had four chances to go ahead before the break.
The U.S. came close in the 32nd minute, but Bradley, facing three defenders and goalkeeper after taking a feed from Fabian Johnson, fired disappointingly wide to the right from just above the area.
Mexico goalkeeper Moises Muñoz snagged Beasley's ball, meant for Altidore, at the right post. In the 39th, Altidore put a Zardes cross from the right wing wide of the right post in the 40th, and Muñoz dived to deny Bradley's bending free kick from just outside the box to the lower-left corner in the 44th.
Mexico's opportunities seemed more dangerous, but Guzan twice made big saves – leaping to his left to corral a Hector Herrera shot from distance in the 24th minute, and taking a ball off Peralta's foot in the goalmouth in the 34th after Hernandez headed a Herrera chip toward the net.
Guzan had no trouble grabbing a looping Hernandez header at the right post in the 29th, and Peralta sharply nodded wide from Aguilar's cross in the 37th.
Mexico attacked aggressively to start the second half and were unfortunate not to go ahead in the first three minutes. Guzan made a point-blank stop on Jimenez after an attempted Beasley clearance caromed off Johnson in the 47th minute, and Besler blocked a Marquez attempt after Jimenez failed to get a touch on a ball across the U.S. box in the 48th.
Altidore's blistering 18-yard shot forced a Muñoz save in the 51st, and then Mexico was at it again, with repeated forays in and around the U.S. area.
El Tri should have gone ahead in the 59th, when Jimenez took a pass to the right of the U.S. net and played a square ball past Besler to an open Hernandez, who, facing an open net, failed to get an adequate touch on the ball, which skipped out of danger.
Mexico pressed the rest of the half, interspersed with occasional U.S. forays, but realistic scoring chances were rare. The Yanks, with often eight or nine behind the ball, defended expertly in and just above their box, and Guzan faced a simple workload the final half-hour of regulation.
El Tri was on the front foot to start the extra period and went ahead in the sixth minute. On a counter after a U.S. free kick, Herrera sent a ball from about 35 yards to the right side of the Yanks' box, and Aguilar's lunging half-volley redirected it behind two defenders and toward the penalty spot. Peralta finished it well.
It wasn't enough.
The U.S. surged forward and found an equalizer in the 108th minute. Bradley sent a ball from near midfield to DeAndre Yedlin, and Wood, a late addition to the American roster after Alejandro Bedoya came down with the flu, finished his through ball, firing under Muñoz.
Wood scored winning goals in victories in friendlies over the Netherlands and Germany earlier this year, and this appeared to be his most vital strike – until Aguilar's piece of magic put the U.S. away.
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