Michael Bradley scored on a 35-yard shot to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead. (Dan Hamilton /USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
MEXICO CITY — It is way too early to claim that the comeback from World Cup qualifying hell is complete, but the U.S. resurrection under coach Bruce Arena in the CONCACAF hexagonal has been has been quite impressive.
Dead last in the final round of World Cup qualifying at the beginning of the year, things are certainly looking up for the United States these days.
That’s what a four-game unbeaten run — 2-0-2 — will do for a team.
The latest result, 1-1 draw at the cauldron also known as Estadio Azteca, was a prime example of Arena’s strategy he and some American grit to record that precious away point.
“We were certainly positioned to get three points,” Arena said. “It’s not easy in the hex to win on the road. We were close tonight. I’m proud of the result. I’m a little greedy. I would have liked to have had three points.”
Which could be asking just a little too much.
Remember, this stadium has been a chamber of horrors in U.S. qualifying over the years.
The Americans recorded a result here for only the third time in 12 qualifying tries (1-8-3) in the altitude and rarefied air Mexican capital since 1949. They also registered draws in 1997 and 2013.
“Any time you can get a point here it’s great,” said captain Michael Bradley, who scored the lone U.S. goal and only sixth at Azteca. “Now we can move ourselves forward.”
As opposed to going backwards in 2016.
The U.S. (2-2-2, 8 points) are in third place while Mexico (4-0-2, 14), which left late Sunday night for Russia and the FIFA Confederations Cup, solidified its lead atop the group.
When Arena was called in to clean up the mess left by Jurgen Klinsmann — a 0-2-0 mark and a minus five goal differential in November — the Americans’ prospects of reaching Russia last year looked rather bleak.
With Arena in charge, Klinsmann’s constant lineup tinkering became a thing of the past. Players now knew what their roles were.
It helped with team morale on and off the field.
“Look, we were pretty honest with ourselves and understood that we had let a lot of little things drop,” Bradley said.
“Bruce came in and has done a really good job of little by little making sure we get back to who we are. Now we just have to keep going.”
Sunday night’s confrontation was far from the prettiest of games the United States has ever played, but then again they don’t hand out beauty points in World Cup qualifying.
Arena set the pace by inserting seven new players into the Starting XI because the team only had three days of rest (including one day of travel) since the Trinidad win. The only four players to retain their spots were center back Geoff Cameron, right back DeAndre Yedlin and midfielders Christian Pulisic, whose influence waned as the game worn on due to the rarefied air, and Bradley.
It worked like a charm.
“To repeat the lineup we had on Thursday, we would have struggled big time in the altitude,” Arena said.
There were many American heroes.
* Guzan, who experienced a busy night in the penalty area, not necessarily making saves but latching onto to crosses and loose balls that could have been dangerous had he not, was solid in the net.
Guzan’s presence in goal surprised many national team observers, but Arena explained his strategy to replace Tim Howard. Howard was solid in the 2-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago Thursday night.
“Tim at his age needs more time to recover,” Arena said. “In the offseason he had difficult surgery, which affects his kicking. Tonight our goalkeeper had to kick the ball a lot.”
* Cameron led a five-man backline that blocked or cleared whatever El Tri threw, kicked and headed at the U.S. along with former Red Bull Tim Ream and Omar Gonzalez in the center, DeAndre Yedlin on the right and Damarcus Beasley, playing in his fifth World Cup qualifying cycle, on the left.
“They were terrific,” Arena said.
* And then was Bradley, who played arguably the best qualifying match of his career. Beyond being a ball-winner, Bradley turned an opportunistic interception of a Javier (Chicharito) into the USA’s lone goal of the match with a line-drive chip shot from 35 yards over the head of goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.
Bradley became just the fifth American to score at Azteca, joining Michael Orozco (2012), Charlie Davies (2009), Eddie Lewis (2005), Ricky Davis (1980) and Willy Roy (1972).
“I took the first touch and saw that he was a good ways out,” Bradley said. “Here, if you catch a ball right with the thin air, the ball is going to really fly.”
Only 15 seconds after Bobby Wood had his close-range shot blocked, Mexico countered as Carlos Vela equalized from just outside the box past Guzan into the lower right corner in the 23rd minute.
“It’s a shame to give away the goal that we did,” said Bradley, who rocketed a long-range blast off the right post in the 74th minute, three minutes after Mexico’s Hector Herrera did it at the other end of the field.
The U.S. doesn’t have another qualifier until Sept. 1 against Costa Rica. Red Bull Arena is the top candidate to host that match. Then there are matches at Honduras Sept. 5, in Orlando, Fla. against Panama Oct. 6 and finally at Trinidad & Tobago Oct. 10.
Arena wouldn’t be surprised if the qualifying horse race isn’t decided until Game No. 10.
“I think the competition for the first three spots in CONCACAF is going to go down to the end,” Arena said. “I feel really good wherever we are.”
Right now, it’s third place, which is a much better vantage point that dead last.
USA – Michael Bradley 6th minute
MEX – Carlos Vela (Javier Hernandez) 23
USA: 12-Brad Guzan; 2-DeAndre Yedlin, 3-Omar Gonzalez, 20-Geoff Cameron, 14-Tim Ream, 7-DaMarcus Beasley; 11-Paul Arriola (15-Darlington Nagbe, 63), 16-Kellyn Acosta, 4-Michael Bradley (capt.), 10-Christian Pulisic (19-Graham Zusi, 90+2); 9-BobbyWood (17-Jozy Altidore, 79)
Subs not used: 1-Tim Howard, 22-Nick Rimando, 5-Matt Besler, 6-John Brooks, 8-Clint Dempsey, 13-Dax McCarty, 18-Jordan Morris, 21-Matt Hedges, 23-Fabian Johnson
Head coach: Bruce Arena
MEX : 13-Guillermo Ochoa; 3-Carlos Salcedo, 5-Diego Reyes, 15-Héctor Moreno (capt.), 4-Oswaldo Alanís (23-Jesùs Gallardo, 31); 6-Jonathan Dos Santos (18-Orbelín Pineda, 77), 16-Héctor Herrera, 8-Marco Fabián (7-Javier Aquino, 53); 11-Carlos Vela, 14-Javier Hernández, 22-Hirving Lozano
Subs not used: 1-Rodolfo Cota, 12-Alfredo Talavera, 2-Luis Reyes, 9-Raúl Jiménez, 10-Giovani dos Santos, 17-J ü rgen Damm, 19-Oribe Peralta, 20-Jesús Dueñas, 21-Jesús Molina,
Head coach: Juan Carlos Osorio
Stats Summary: USA / MEX
Shots: 7 / 10
Shots on Goal: 2 / 1
Saves: 0 / 0
Corner Kicks: 7 / 9
Fouls: 21 / 13
Offside: 2 / 2
USA – DeAndre Yedlin (caution) 44th minute
USA – Paul Arriola (caution) 56
Referee: Joel Aguilar Chicas (SLV)
Assistant Referee 1: Juan Francisco Zumba Galan (SLV)
Assistant Referee 2: William Torres Mejia (SLV)
Fourth Official: Jose Kellys Marquez (CRC)
Man of the Match: Michael Bradley