MEXICO CITY – Michael Bradley watched Héctor Moreno’s pass to Javier Hernández in the center circle and thought back to the videos he had seen of the star pushing the ball back. So even before Chicharito tapped the ball toward Héctor Herrera, Bradley stepped up.
The U.S. captain knocked the ball toward Mexico’s goal, sprinted to catch up and lofted a right-footed chip from about 40 yards over goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa’s outstretched 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 Sunday night’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.
U.S. coach Bruce Arena changed seven of 11 starters and employed a five-man defense to overcome the 7,820-foot altitude and short recovery time. His team U.S. did not quite soar all night, but Bradley’s goal set the tone. Carlos Vela tied it in the 23rd minute on a counterattack with a 23-yard shot that beat goalkeeper Brad Guzan to the near post , but the U.S. players 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 and the U.S. (eight each), Panama (six), Honduras (four) and Trinidad and Tobago (three). 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.
Quite a turnaround since 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 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.”
Herrera nearly put El Tri ahead in the 71st with a 30-yard free kick that rebounded off the crossbar. Three minutes later, Bradley sent a 30-yard shot off a post.
Mexico had only a modest 10-7 advantage in shots at a venue where it usually dominates. Speaking shortly after downpour began in stoppage time, Arena said a key was exploiting his roster’s depth and revealed he divulged to players of when training camp opened on May 29 that he planned different lineups and formations for the upcoming qualifiers.
“To repeat the lineup we played on Thursday, we would have struggled big-time in the altitude,” Arena said. “We told the team on day one we were going to make seven-to-11 changes for this game. We went with seven. I was close to nine yesterday.”
While he employed a standard 4-4-2 formation in the 2-0 home win over Trinidad, Arena decided as far back as January to start five defenders at Mexico.
“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 that. 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, Beasley, who had not started for the U.S. since October 2015, became the first U.S. athlete to appear in qualifiers of five World Cup cycles.
“Mexico does an unbelievable 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.”
Klinsmann tried a similar tactic during in November’s loss to El Tri but quickly abandoned it.
“Last time we did this in Columbus, it was a maybe,” Gonzalez said. “We didn’t know until a couple days before the game and then it was just thrown out there. Now we had two weeks to really prepare.”
Arena said 38-year-old Tim Howard remains the Americans’ No. 1 goalkeeper, but for this match he preferred Guzan, partly because Howard is coming off surgery to repair the adductor muscle in his right leg, an injury sustained against Mexico last fall that still affects his kicking.
“Tim at his age needs a little bit more time to recover,” Arena said. “We knew tonight our goalkeeper would have to kick the ball a lot and obviously Brad’s really strong in that part of his game, and we just wanted to be smart about Tim.”
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. Several hundred fans from the American Outlaws were clad in red, white and blue, and chanted “U-S-A!”
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.
At the end, the Americans were gassed — even 18-year-old star Christian Pulisic.
“We’ll take our point,” Bradley said. “Points are hard to come by here.”