MEXICO CITY >> Michael Bradley watched Hector Moreno pass the ball to Javier Hernandez in the center circle and thought back to the videos he had seen of the Mexican star pushing the ball back as part of Mexico’s playmaking. So ever before Chicharito tapped the ball toward Hector Herrera, Bradley stepped up.
The U.S. captain knocked the ball toward Mexico’s goal, sprinted to catch up with it and lofted a right-footed chip from about 40 yards over goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa’s outstretched left arm and under the crossbar.
The crowd of 81,000 at Estadio Azteca was stunned. The United States had taken the lead six minutes into today’s World Cup qualifier.
“Here you know that if you catch a ball right, that with the thin air the ball’s going to really fly,” Bradley said.
The U.S. did not quite soar all night, but Bradley’s goal set the tone. Carlos Vela tied it in the 23rd minute with a 23-yard shot that beat goalkeeper Brad Guzan to the near post, but the Americans hung on for a 1-1 tie to gain only their third point at Azteca.
“The bad start in the hex meant that every point now is worth its weight in gold,” Bradley said.
Mexico leads the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region with 14 points, followed by Costa Rica (eight), which ahead of the U.S. on goal difference. Panama (six), Honduras (four) and Trinidad and Tobago (three) trail. The top three advance to next year’s World Cup in Russia, and the fourth-place team faces Asia’s No. 5 nation in a playoff.
Panama hosts Honduras on Tuesday, when Costa Rica hosts Trinidad and Tobago.
Far different from November, when a 2-1 home loss to Mexico and a 4-0 wipeout in Costa Rica caused the U.S. Soccer Federation to fire coach Jurgen Klinsmann and bring back Bruce Arena, the U.S. coach from 1998-2006.
“It’s going to be very challenging right to end, but I feel good about where we are,” Arena said. “We’ve made up some lost ground, so I feel good about that.”
Arena changed seven starters from Thursday night’s 2-0 home win over Trinidad and Tobago and used a five-man defense to overcome the 7,820-foot altitude and short recovery time. Herrera nearly put El Tri ahead in the 71st with a 30-yard free kick that rebounded off the crossbar, but Mexico had only a modest 10-7 advantage in shots at a venue where it usually dominates.
With its second draw in three road qualifiers, the U.S. continued to recover from its awful 0-2 start last fall and prompted chants of “U-S-A!” from the American Outlaws section in the upper deck.
“It’s a shame to give away the goal that we did,” Bradley said. “Any time you can get a point here it’s great. … Now we can move ourselves forward.”
Fans booed and whistled “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as usual when the Americans play in Mexico, and there was an occasional T-shirt disparaging U.S. President Donald Trump.
Mexico was trying to sweep the Americans in a qualifying cycle for the first time 1972. The U.S. was 0-19-1 in Mexico City — getting outscored 81-14 — before a 1-0 exhibition win in 2012. The U.S. held Mexico to 0-0 in qualifiers at Azteca in 1997 and 2013,
On Saturday, he thought about making as many as nine changes. He decided on the five-man backline as early as January and went with Guzan in goal because of his kicking ability. Arena said the short recovery time hampered Howard, who had leg surgery in November.
While a five-man backline backfired when Klinsmann used it against Mexico in November, a 2-1 loss in Columbus, Ohio, Arena had the players practice it every day since training camp opened May 29.
“We tossed it around in our office with our coaches and they were probably not real supportive of the idea since they maybe don’t have enough experience in that formation,” Arena said. “I was pretty confident we could implement it. We have very good center backs, and that’s the key to that system.”
DeAndre Yedlin remained on the right, with Tim Ream and Omar Gonzalez joining Geoff Cameron in the center and 35-year-old DaMarcus Beasley on the left — becoming the first American to appear in qualifiers of five World Cup cycles. He had not started for the U.S. since the October 2015 loss to Mexico in a playoff for a Confederations Cup berth.
“Mexico does an unbeliavable job in their spacing,” Arena said. “They like to open you up and attack the gaps between your back line if you’re playing a back four, and we protected all those spaces.”