MEXICO CITY -- It was a high-stakes match for a struggling Mexican national team. In fact, the CONCACAF side was playing for somewhere in the ballpark of $1 billion.
And El Tri lived up to the pressure.
In the first match of a two-leg playoff between two nations located on opposite sides of the globe, Mexico struck early and often, as it coasted to a convincing 5-1 victory over New Zealand at the intimidating Estadio Azteca on Wednesday afternoon.
With tensions high and many questioning if Mexico even deserved a spot in the World Cup after finishing the CONCACAF qualifying Hexagonal with a 2-5-3 record, Paul Aguilar gave the home crowd something to cheer about with the game's first goal in the 17th minute before El Tri fired off four more goals.
PHOTOS: Mexico vs. New Zealand
Raul Jimenez, Oribe Peralta and Rafa Marquez also found the net for El Tri and New Zealand's Christian James scored for the visitors just minutes before the final whistle.
The two sides are set to meet again in the second leg next Wednesday in Wellington.
"I'm happy for the boys, who played sensationally and gave everything," Mexico coach Miguel Herrera said. "I think the team was well-rounded in all aspects."
Mexico was given a lifeline by the United States on the final day of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying to even get to this point. El Tri had fallen to Costa Rica on the road but the U.S. scored late in its match against Panama to eliminate La Marea Roja and allow El Tri through to the playoff.
If Mexico cannot hold off New Zealand, it is reported that the nation would lose around $1 billion in sponsorship deals.
El Tri entered the playoff looking to end a disastrous 2013 on a high note to reach the World Cup. In order to do so, the federation went through three coaches over the last six weeks before deciding on Herrera, the manager of Club America, to guide the national team to Brazil next summer.
Herrera did not join the team quietly. After leading Mexico to a win over Finland in a friendly last month, the coach made headlines when he decided to choose an all domestic-based squad for the two-leg playoff against the All Whites, leaving big names Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez, Giovani dos Santos and Hector Moreno in Europe for the games.
Herrera, who has not ruled out bringing back the European-based players should Mexico hold on and qualify for the World Cup, added seven Club America players to his roster. And the decision paid off early on against 79th-ranked New Zealand.
Two of Mexico's four scorers (Aguilar and Jimenez) play for Club America, which plays its club matches at Estadio Azteca and is the reigning Liga MX champion.
"(The European-based players) over there are also important," Herrera said. "The idea of playing with people from here was down to the travel. We needed to play with an aggressive and dynamic team with a lot of determination because we needed to win the games."
It was said before the match that New Zealand would need to rely on its defense to hold off Herrera's attacking style of play, but the All Whites' back line had no answer from the start. Goalkeeper Glen Moss did all he could but Mexico's 21 shots were too much to handle.
Mexico had its first chance to get on the board in the 17th minute when Jimenez nearly put a cross past the goal-line before Moss managed to slide across to make the save. Moments later, Moss got his fingertips on a long Maza Rodriguez shot to deflect it off the crossbar.
It took El Tri 10 shots before it finally found the first goal thanks to Aguilar being at the right place at the right time to pick up the rebound off a headed clearance by Andrew Durante.
El Tri kept the pressure on and nearly found its second after Peralta beat the defense to tap in an Aguilar pass, but the forward was called offside. Moss then had to make a couple more spectacular saves before Mexico would find its second to build a nice cushion heading into halftime.
New Zealand's defenders struggled in all aspects of the game, but their poor marking off a Mexico corner kick in the 39th minute left Jimenez wide open inches from the goal. And if they thought they had made any adjustments to stop the attack at halftime, they were wrong.
"We pride ourselves on defense and let ourselves down there tonight," New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert said.
Right out the gate, Peralta made it 3-0, scoring off a cross from Miguel Layun, who received a 45-yard ball from Marquez before delivering a beautiful ball into the box past the lost New Zealand back line. It was Peralta's seventh goal in his last seven international games.
By this point, New Zealand still hadn't had a real opportunity as Mexico dominated possession, but the hosts weren't done.
With 20 minutes left to play, Peralta scored off a header for Mexico's fourth unanswered goal. Just minutes later, Marquez decided to get into the scoring action with a header of his own to leave New Zealand with a huge hill to climb to reach its second straight World Cup.
The one bright spot for the All Whites came in the 84th minute as James scored on a rebound, but there was no celebrating from the visitors. After watching Mexico hold the ball for 73 percent of the time, it may take a miracle for New Zealand to eliminate the dominating El Tri side, which is one game away from its seventh consecutive World Cup.
"We're going to go after the game over there, we're going to take it as if it was 0-0," Herrera said.