The last men's World Cup qualifier between the United States and Mexico for eight years, and perhaps ever, was supposed to be a spectacle. A back-and-forth battle in a cauldron of noise that would leave one team on the cusp of Qatar and the other sweating.
Instead, it ended 0-0 — and left both sides celebrating a result 2,000 miles away.
It left Mexican fans booing, and U.S. players smiling, and U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter satisfied with a "valuable point on the road." But for all involved, it was sufficient. Down in Panama City, while Berhalter detailed halftime adjustments, Honduras held on for a 1-1 draw vs. fourth-place Panama.
That gave the U.S. a cushion and some simple directives with two games remaining:
A win vs. Panama on Sunday would all but clinch the USMNT a spot at the World Cup. (More on this scenario below.)
A Sunday result better than Costa Rica's result vs. El Salvador would officially secure the U.S. a spot.
A draw with Panama would ensure at least a berth in a very winnable intercontinental playoff, likely vs. New Zealand.
Costa Rica's 1-0 victory over Canada on Thursday made the path to automatic qualification slightly less automatic. The CONCACAF table, after the third-to-last round of qualifiers, remains somewhat tight:
But with the top three heading to Qatar, a U.S. win vs. Panama on Sunday would leave Costa Rica needing to beat El Salvador on Sunday, then beat the U.S. next Wednesday, and make up seven goals along the way.
Berhalter and his U.S. staff knew these scenarios. As they emerged from their Estadio Azteca locker room for Thursday's second half, they knew that Panama had slipped up. They managed the next 45 minutes expertly, matching Mexico physically and breaking forward selectively.
They nearly turned one point into three. Christian Pulisic flubbed a point-blank chance before halftime. Jordan Pefok, a second-half substitute, shanked a ball that Gio Reyna had sent him on a silver platter.
Mexico threatened. Hirving "Chucky" Lozano fizzed shots wide. Raul Jimenez and Alexis Vega tumbled in the penalty area and listened for whistles that never came. As the second half wore on, the U.S. receded. As two-way traffic increasingly flowed toward the U.S. end, Berhalter threw on two extra central defenders.
But they protected the precious point. And Berhalter's gamble paid off.
He'd toyed with the idea of fielding a B-team, and essentially acknowledging that Sunday's showdown with Panama was more important. He chose a first-choice starting 11 instead, and his boldness threatened to backfire early. DeAndre Yedlin and Tim Weah both picked up yellow cards, and suspensions that will rule them out against Panama. With Sergiño Dest injured and Reggie Cannon contracting COVID-19, the USMNT has already scrambled to call in Shaq Moore, who could be an emergency starter at right back on Sunday.
The result, though, was worth almost any price, and those first-choice starters earned it. Yunus Musah and Antonee Robinson were combative. Tyler Adams, on a yellow card and out of form, was nonetheless brilliant. He detected Mexican attacks before they even materialized, and helped keep a fearsome front three at bay. "He was outstanding," Berhalter said.
Ricardo Pepi and Pulisic were less outstanding. Pulisic labored all night and admitted that the game "took a lot out of us." And that, precisely, had been the fear. The challenge, now, will be recovering. Legs will be heavy.
But Panama will also be dragging. The USMNT will be favored. A place in Qatar, after a seven-month qualifying grind that stimulated panic and optimism and everything in between, has finally come into focus.