MEXICO CITY – Goalkeeper Brad Guzan turned around, looked up at the fans clad in red, white, and blue and clapped his big, white gloves together. Chants of “U-S-A!” drifted down and around the Estadio Azteca. Mexican fans chucked litter and beer into the press area. And just as they started to exit the historic soccer ground, an angry rain started to fall.
The United States men’s national team gained – and made – a huge point in its 1-1 draw with Mexico on Sunday. It grinded out a result against its arch-rival in a stadium where the Americans had only gained two World Cup qualifying points before. The home side mustered just a single shot on goal against a USA lineup full of changes due to short rest that had some fans giving up before the opening whistle.
But the U.S. is now 2-0-2 since head coach Bruce Arena took over for Jurgen Klinsmann, rising from last place in CONCACAF’s final round of World Cup qualifying to third place, the last automatic berth for Russia 2018. The players are raving about the steady and sure leadership of Arena after Klinsmann left them unprepared and uneasy.
The American statement came early, and it did not come from developing star Christian Pulisic. It came from an old veteran, captain Michael Bradley.
Only six minutes into the match, Bradley stepped in front of a midfield pass and knocked it ahead into the open field. He chased down the ball and then deftly chipped it over Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa and into a yawning net. The stunning goal elicited a loud “Ohhhh!” from the crowd, and it was only the fifth USA goal ever in this stadium in World Cup qualifying.
Maybe it wasn’t the biggest goal of Bradley’s venerable football life, but it surely was the most spectacular.
“World class,” Guzan said. “If other players around the world score that goal, it’s talked about for weeks and months and how unbelievable it was. The ability to press them and force the turnover and win the ball in the middle of the pitch, that was great. Then the first touch put him in the position to finish. And the finish was world class.”
A somewhat remarkable scene ensued. Mexican fans sat quietly, while American supporters went berserk. A group of about 600 had come to root for the U.S. in a section cordoned off by fence, barbed wire and a phalanx of police. They said there was no water or beer served in their area, which American Outlaw T.J. Underwood called “inhumane.” No matter. After Bradley’s goal, they owned the place.
“To have the fans come down and show their support, to hear them chanting and singing over all the Mexican fans is a credit to them,” Guzan said.
Mexico would even the score on a gorgeous counterattack, finished off by Carlos Vela with a left-footed laser to tie it at 1-1 in the 23rd minute. But the Americans never lost their poise, even in the second half when the wear and fatigue of two qualifiers in three days at high altitude crept in. The pitch seemed to tilt toward Guzan in the precarious final moments as El Tri pushed for a winning goal, but the U.S. withstood the late pressure.
After the match, Arena revealed that he had told his players on the first day of this latest training camp that the Mexico match would be filled with lineup changes from the qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago in Colorado. There would be seven or more adjustments because “to repeat the lineup, we would have struggled mightily in this altitude.”
Arena also went with a formation that included five in the back, which gave some players wearying flashbacks of the last-minute change made by Klinsmann before the first Mexico match, a 2-1 loss last November in Columbus, Ohio. That confused Klinsmann’s own team more than it crossed up Mexico.
On Sunday, the Americans were ready.
“Bruce had a conversation with everyone at the beginning of the two weeks and gave his plans,” said Guzan, who started in goal over Tim Howard. “I think it speaks volumes about the depth of our team.”
It also says a lot about Arena, whose demeanor is low-key compared to the higher-strung persona of Klinsmann. The more laidback but straightforward approach has worked well with U.S. players, both young and old, at least so far, and that has been key on a team undergoing a transformation. The baton is slowly being passed from the Jozy Altidores and Clint Dempseys to the Bobby Woods and Pulisics. But Bradley sees familiarity now where recently there was edginess.
“Look, we were pretty honest with ourselves and understood that we had let a lot of little things drop,” Bradley told FOX after the game. “And I think Bruce came in and has done a really good job of just little by little, making sure that we get back to who we are.”
Younger players seem to have shifted from figuring out if they belong to figuring out how to fit in the squad.
“Bruce is very open with the players,” said defender Omar Gonzalez, who won three Major League Soccer titles with Arena on the Los Angeles Galaxy. “Very straightforward. I like that approach. It’s worked since November. We’ve turned things around.”
Gonzalez said Arena believes that every player is fit to start, depending on need and ability. “When you have that kind of confidence coming from the top, it definitely helps the young players,” Gonzalez said.
Mexico is still a runaway favorite to finish first in World Cup qualifying, but suddenly it’s worth imagining what the standings would have looked like if Arena had started with the Americans last November. Would the U.S. have picked up a point in Columbus? A point or even three in Costa Rica? And if the answers are yes, is the star spangled object in Mexico’s rearview mirror closer than it appears?
Regardless, the American fans who went without beer and water on Sunday can take real comfort in the progress of their team. A World Cup qualification on life support now looks more stable. Home qualifiers in the fall offer a chance to get some revenge on Costa Rica and maybe a chance to clinch a spot for Russia 2018 in Orlando against Panama.
For now, the U.S. men’s national team and its new coach can rest easy. Because on Sunday, they all got a point across.
More soccer coverage from FC Yahoo:
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• How Mexico’s Trump tone has changed since last meeting with U.S.
• Mexico manager Osorio confident ahead of showdown with USMNT
• Why the U.S. men’s national team belongs to Christian Pulisic now
• USMNT climbs into automatic qualifying spot for World Cup