Christian Pulisic and USMNT revive 'Dos a Cero' lore, vanquish Mexico in World Cup qualifier

CINCINNATI, OH - NOVEMBER 12: Christian Pulisic #10 of the United States celebrates his goal during a game between Mexico and USMNT at TQL Stadium on November 12, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Christian Pulisic celebrates the first of two U.S. goals that beat Mexico in a World Cup qualifier on Friday. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

CINCINNATI — The half-fit savior jogged up the sideline at 10:31 p.m. He had, for over an hour here on Friday night, watched a World Cup qualifier from a shivering bench, bundled in a rain-repelling overcoat, helpless. He’d watched from a worn patch of grass just beyond the southwest corner flag as his teammates and their biggest rivals sparred, surging and retreating, trading crunching tackles and promising moments but, for 65 minutes, no goals.

Christian Pulisic watched all of it, and knew he could change it.

Five minutes after joining the fray, with his first touch the ball, he did.

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Pulisic, who'd been limited by injury to just 23 minutes of competitive soccer over the past two months, headed the U.S. ahead of Mexico on a frigid night in Ohio. Eleven minutes later, Weston McKennie doubled the lead. And ghosts reappeared. Dos a Cero emerged from its grave. Some 20,000 American fans sang it, those three Spanish words, flowing from the mouths of gringos, echoing around TQL Stadium the rest of the night.

Those fans had stood without reprieve through drizzle and driving rain, as mid-40s temperatures dipped into the 30s. They’d hoped to revive that famous scoreline, to resuscitate the demons that Mexico had seemingly vanquished five years and one day ago, when it snapped the streak of four consecutive 2-0 U.S. wins in home qualifiers.

For over an hour, the USMNT looked strong but incapable. Focused and passionate, but without cutting edge. Organized and intelligent, but without an extra touch of class. Possession and purpose without a breakthrough.

Then Pulisic arrived, and Cincinnati came alive, and the past became the present. Perhaps the future, too. There may never be another U.S.-Mexico game like this. There may never be another opportunity in Ohio for El Tri to confront these demons.

Dos a Cero, after another magical night, may just live on forever.

The Dos a Cero lore

It all began just up the road in Columbus, over 20 years ago, before a few current USMNTers were even born. The Mexican media dubbed it La Guerra Fría. Soccer's cold war. Literally. The U.S. won 2-0. Mexicans froze. A legend was born.

It solidified itself in USMNT culture that next summer at the World Cup. Dos a Cero again, then again in 2005, and by then it was more than just two numbers. It was a foregone conclusion, a rite of passage for U.S. fans, a date that got circled on calendars and a flight that instantly got booked, because the game would inevitably be in Columbus and the result would inevitably be 2-0. It was again in 2009. And again in 2013.

The names on backs of jerseys changed. Not much else did. Clint Dempsey could have made it Tres a Cero in 2013. Some fans revised the chant as he stepped up to a stoppage-time penalty kick. Others, though, cringed at the thought. One standing behind the goal that day swears that Dempsey “looked me directly in the eye, gave me a wink, and kicked the ball wide. And then looked up at us [fans], and kinda gave us a little sly grin, and kinda gave us a thumbs up, and clapped as he walked away to celebrate. So, I go to my grave saying, Clint did that for the culture."

Such was the importance of Dos a Cero, and such was the sadness when it perished in 2016. (Cause of death: A Rafa Marquez dagger.) But the traditions it spawned? They persisted, and reappeared in Cincinnati this week. On Friday, as the sun set and temperatures ebbed, parking lots, bars and streets filled. Mexican and American and Mexican American fans came from all 50 states, and from south of the border, some having paid thousands of dollars for a ticket, some having gamed a system designed to prevent them from getting one.

They danced and drank and sounded air horns. Some indoctrinated their kids. Others met friends they hadn’t seen in years. Many fraternized with the enemy. Starkly different cultures meshed in a largely white Midwestern county, harmonizing around the one thing they share: Soccer.

This time, the city was different. The venue was brand new. The goosebumps and stomach pits, though, were familiar. U.S. fans felt them, and wondered whether their players would. Only one of the 11 who took the pitch to a coordinated, stadium-wide “U-S-A” chant on Friday had played in this game before. Would they understand its history? Its ethos? Could they cope?

They answered resoundingly, and immediately.

Passion and intensity mixed with poise

They swarmed to the ball high up the pitch in the game’s very first minute. They stood up to Mexican elders in individual duels. Zack Steffen, a controversial choice to start the game in goal, calmly split Mexican opponents with passes. Tyler Adams, after some early mistakes, flew into tackles. Tim Weah and Ricardo Pepi combined, with a dummy and a flick, and with the confidence of men twice their footballing years.

The classiest players on the field were the Mexican stars. The usual suspects. Chucky Lozano was magical. His teammates cut through the U.S. press in the 18th minute, going back to front with six touches and five passes, and played him in on goal. Steffen sprawled for his biggest save of the night.

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But those stars — Raul Jimenez, Tecatito Corona, Hector Herrera, Edson Alvarez — met resistance. They met DeAndre Yedlin’s shoulder and Miles Robinson’s grit. They outplayed Adams and McKennie throughout the first half, but Yunus Musah, all of 18 years old, ran the U.S. show. He wriggled in and out of tight spaces, his feel for the game precocious, his drive relentless. Standing on the sideline, U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter marveled.

“The quality, the bravery, the relentlessness,” he said of Musah postgame. “He just keeps going.”

But part of Berhalter also worried. His kids, clearly, were undaunted. They were outpossessing Mexico. Perhaps outstripping individual expectations. And yet they hadn’t found a goal.

“We have to get one,” Musah told Weah at halftime.

“I'm thinking how well we're playing,” Berhalter said, “and it would've been a shame if we didn't win the game.”

At a Thursday meeting, though, Weah said they’d talked about patience. About balancing intensity and poise. They emerged from their locker room at halftime — a full two minutes before Mexico did — with all of those attributes and more.

They kept their heads when the game got chippy and, in some instances, brutal. Jimenez put Adams on his back after an aerial duel. Luis "Chaka" Rodriguez very nearly gauged Brenden Aaronson’s eye. A scuffle ensued. The match frayed. Fans wondered, understandably, if there’d be a winner.

But Mexico had tired. The U.S. never did. “That's the effect that we have on opponents,” Berhalter said. “When we can press them, and we can be that aggressive around the ball and with the ball, turning them around, making them face their own goal, it becomes really challenging.”

The Americans took control. And then, with around 25 minutes remaining, Berhalter looked to his right. Down the sideline, swinging his limbs, warming his muscles, was a $73 million forward with the final-third lethality that had been lacking.

“When we brought in Christian, it gave the team a boost,” Berhalter said. “And it also put some fear into Mexico. Because they know his quality.”

Dos a Cero lives forever

So on came Pulisic. Five minutes later, with the match seemingly stalling a bit, out wide the ball went to Weah. Weah, the coaches’ man of the match, drove at a defender, giving Pulisic time to sneak between two others in the box.

The ball skimmed off his head and past Memo Ochoa. As TQL Stadium exploded, Pulisic brought two fingers to his ears. As beer flew and 20,000 people leapt with joy, he lifted up his jersey, to reveal an undershirt, and send a message.

As the game resumed, and the USMNT refused to flinch, Mexico wilted. McKennie waltzed through a crumbling defense and finished.

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Robinson got sent off late, few cared. It was Dos a Cero, again. It was Dos a Cero, Part Six. It was Dos a Cero, risen.

At the final whistle, U.S. players beamed and scurried onto the field. Up in the stands, U.S. supporters jumped. A middle-aged man clad in only a shirt and stars-and-striped shorts shed the shirt and waved it in the air.

And then came the chant, again and again, and again and again.

The players gathered at midfield, then took a lap around the field to soak it in. Perhaps they knew the context. Perhaps they didn’t. The World Cup is changing. The qualifying format will change with it. The U.S. and Mexico may never come back to Ohio, at least not for a meaningful game. This was the end of an era, of a ritualistic experience, of a series that has defined U.S. men’s national team fandom for two decades.

And it will always be associated with those three words.

Dos. A. Cero.