The Americans earned the next best thing, a 0-0 draw against Mexico that bolstered their hopes of qualifying for the tournament in Qatar this November.
With two matches left, the United States (6-2-4, 22 points) remained second in an eight-nation Concacaf competition that offers three automatic berths. A victory Sunday in Orlando against Panama could secure passage and, in the process, help ease the pain of missing the 2018 World Cup.
“We’re getting close,” Coach Gregg Berhalter said. “A valuable point on the road. We’re looking forward to getting back home and having a good performance.”
Panama (5-4-3, 18 points) squandered a golden chance to make up ground in the tight race, settling for a 1-1 home draw against winless Honduras. Costa Rica (5-4-3, 19) passed the Panamanians into fourth place with a 1-0 home victory over front-running Canada (7-1-4, 25).
Mexico has the same record as the United States but trails in goal differential, the first tiebreaker. Although they again failed to win here, the Americans have gotten four draws in their past seven visits.
Any questions about Berhalter’s tactical approach were put to rest when the lineup was posted: He was not going to hold back several top players or play defensively.
On Wednesday, Berhalter had acknowledged weighing the option of fielding a secondary lineup and saving players for Sunday’s game, which is more consequential because a U.S. victory over Panama would end the Panamanians’ chances of overtaking the Americans.
“This team has high aspirations for its performance,” Berhalter said. “We wanted to put a team, a group, on the field that we felt could win a game at Azteca.”
Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah flanked striker Ricardo Pepi, and Tyler Adams, Kellyn Acosta and Yunus Musah filled the midfield.
There was risk, though, because, with a yellow card, Adams and Weah would miss the Panama match. Two other starters, defender DeAndre Yedlin and goalkeeper Zack Steffen, were in the same situation. By halftime, Yedlin and Weah had been carded.
The scene at the famous stadium, which staged the 1970 and 1986 World Cup finals, was nothing like past U.S. visits. Only about 40,000 fans were allowed inside the 87,000-seat venue as the Mexican federation tested crowd control measures.
Periodically, the public address announcer tried to hype up the crowd or prompt a harmless chant (“Ehhh, Mexico!”) during Steffen’s goal kicks. That’s the moment during which, for years, Mexican fans have used homophobic language.
FIFA cracked down on the behavior, forcing Mexico to play in front of few fans at two recent home matches. Violators now face five-year bans.
In attendance Thursday were several hundred U.S. supporters, who, amid the subdued atmosphere, were decidedly audible.
The tranquil vibe ushered the probable end of these qualifying rumbles. With the World Cup coming to North America in 2026, neither team will need to qualify. After that, the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams from 32 will likely alter the qualifying process and no longer require heavyweights to square off.
The Americans arrived beaming with confidence, despite the absence of five injured regulars, including Sergiño Dest and Brenden Aaronson. Last year, they won all three meetings: twice with regional trophies at stake, then in a one-sided qualifier in Cincinnati. All three had taken place at U.S. venues, albeit with pro-Mexican crowds for two of them.
Musah had the first scoring opportunity, testing Guillermo Ochoa with a low bid from inside the penalty area. Mexico’s prospects grew in the first half, and if not for a heavy touch deep in the box, Jesús Corona could have broken the deadlock.
The best chance belonged to the United States in the 35th minute, the type of sequences that don’t come along often for the Americans here.
Weah crossed to the gliding Pulisic for a quick-reaction one-timer from seven yards that struck Ochoa in the midsection. The American pounded the turf three times in frustration.
The half ended without a goal but with a wealth of optimism for the visitors. It would take greater efficiency in the final third and fewer giveaways in deep positions.
Early the second half, Ochoa turned aside Pulisic’s rising rocket and Hirving Lozano whipped a hopeful shot just beyond the far top corner of the net. A moment later, Lozano led a threatening counter that ended with Steffen’s routine save.
Berhalter added fresh attacking legs in the 60th minute, inserting winger Gio Reyna for his first U.S. appearance since September and striker Jordan Pefok. Weah and Pepi left.
In the 72nd minute, the newcomers were in prime position to put the Americans ahead. Reyna set up the chance for Pefok, and it seemed so easy. Ochoa was helpless. Alas, Pefok misfired badly.
With a draw within reach and Mexico raising the temperature, Berhalter fortified his defense by calling on Aaron Long and Erik Palmer-Brown for their qualifying debuts. Pulisic yielded to forward Jordan Morris in the 84th.
The Americans withstood heavy pressure in the final moments before the final whistle sounded, taking them one step closer to a World Cup berth.
“The group is jazzed up. They’re psyched,” Berhalter said. “We wanted to be the first [U.S.] team to beat Mexico at Azteca. We fell a little bit short, but the mood is not down. Not at all. It’s the opposite. We know we are going home. We know we’re playing in front of a great crowd in Orlando. The spirits are up.”
Notes: Right back Reggie Cannon, who didn’t train Wednesday because of an inconclusive coronavirus test, received a positive result Thursday and remained isolated from the delegation. Spain-based Shaq Moore had been summoned for the next two qualifiers, Berhalter said.