Charlie Davies celebrates is goal against El Tri at Estadio Azteca. Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)

By Michael Lewis

MEXICO CITY — Out of all of the losses and all of the disappointments for the U.S. national team in this city, this has to be the biggest one of them all.

The United States came close, so tantalizing close to pulling off a surprise and making some history in the cauldron called Estadio Azteca on Wednesday afternoon.

Only eight minutes away from escaping Azteca with a rare tie and a precious point and putting Mexico’s World Cup hopes into further disarray, the Americans allowed a shot at history to slip away on Aug. 12, 2009.

Second-half substitute Miguel Sabah connected from 10 yards out in the 82nd minute to snap a 1-1 tie and boost the Mexicans to a 2-1 victory.

The struggling Mexicans (3-3-0, nine points) were faced with a do-for-die situation to keep their qualifying quest alive and desperately needed to win. The Americans (3-2-1, 10), who have never won here in 24 attempts (0-23-1), could afford to lose, especially with a Sept. 5 qualifying date with El Salvador in Sandy, Utah.

“It’s a tough loss to have,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. “So many guys worked so hard and we give up a late goal. The feeling inside is one of great disappointment. The idea that now you still can walk away with a point and everybody gives everything they had.”

As disappointing as the result was, the U.S. lasted much longer than virtually all of their other results here. They traditionally fade in the first half in the rarefied air and smog. This time, they almost made the full 90 minutes.

Still, it was the second consecutive match that the U.S. A team squandered a lead. The Americans enjoyed a 2-0 advantage against Brazil in the FIFA Confederations Cup final in South Africa in June and wound up losing, 3-2.

“You don’t want that to become a trend,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “When you get leads, you want to make sure you will see them out, particularly in this game; 1-1 would have been a very good result for us.”

But it wasn’t meant to be.

Efrain Juarez beat Landon Donovan on the right side in the penalty area and managed to send the ball toward the goal. Jay DeMerit tackled it away. But the ball popped up to Sabah, who fired away from 10 yards past Howard.

“It’s frustrating,” U.S. captain and left fullback Carlos Bocanegra said. “Me and Landon got confused in the end. Maybe we should have stayed inside and pushed it wide like we’ve been doing all day. It was a split second decision. Sometimes it costs you.”

Donovan made few excuses.

“The guy ran by me,” he said. “I didn’t do a good job of keeping him in front of me. Jay and I got there at the same time. He tackled the ball and it popped up. He took a good touch and then a good finish.”

The U.S. did make some history early on, by taking a lead in the Mexican capital for the first time in four decades of play here in the 10th minute.

Donovan threaded a perfect through ball from the center of midfield to an onrushing Charlie Davies on the left side. Davies beat Juarez and penetrated the penalty area before he fired home a right-footed shot to the far right post past goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa in the 10th minute.

Asked how it felt to have a lead at Azteca, Davies replied, “Amazing. This is what you live for, especially as a striker, scoring big time goals.”

The Americans’ lead, however, did not last very long as the Mexicans took advantage of a Donovan turnover at midfield in the 19th minute. The ball eventually found Israel Castro, who powered a 25-yard shot that hit the crossbar and bounded into the net.

“That was an absolute dream goal,” Donovan said. “That guy can take a thousand shots like that and he’s not going to score that goal.”

Howard agreed.

“The guy just hits a bomb,” he said.