MEXICO CITY – Yes, it was just a friendly. Yes, Mexico had the better of the play. No, it doesn't count in any standings – least of all the World Cup qualifying table.
But the U.S. national team's 1-0 win over Mexico at Azteca on Wednesday night definitely set history. And U.S. players had reason to believe the win just might change some things in a rivalry that is swinging towards Mexico of late, and has always included Mexican domination at home.
"It takes a lot of everything [to win here]," said U.S. veteran Landon Donovan, perhaps the most hated American by Mexican fans. "It takes a lot of hard work on a difficult field against a difficult opponent with difficult conditions. It takes belief; I think Jurgen did a great job this week of making us believe we could win."
Meaningless friendly or not, there is now belief where before there was only decades of futility. As the U.S. fielded questions about the ascendance of Mexico this week, some pointed towards the 5-0 win in the 2009 Gold Cup as a turning point in the rivalry.
The U.S. played with a B team, but many Mexicans believe that Gold Cup win gave Mexico the confidence it needed to overcome the U.S. after a decade of futility of its own. There are certainly some similarities between that game and this one – especially in terms of streaks broken.
"They're probably right to think that because it devastated us," Howard said of the 5-0 game. "As we talked yesterday, when you start talking about who's the best, one and two, it's opinions and there's a gap but it fluctuates a little bit either way.
"But I’m sure that made them feel real good because we were on top of them for a lot of years there and that was a thumping result. So it's a great result for us tonight. They were missing a few players, we were, but at the end of the day they probably still should have beaten us at home, and they didn't and at the end of the day we'll take confidence from that."
Even with the victory Wednesday, U.S. players know the next trip to El Azteca will be just as challenging as ever. But maybe now there's a light at the end of the long tunnel that leads to the pitch at the famed stadium.
"It will still be difficult," Howard said. "We'll still have to walk down that tunnel again, and there will be anxiety, but we'll know we can win next time."
The Americans were hesitant to assign too much meaning to this match in the context of the epic rivalry, but the win at least shifts the dialogue away from the constant U.S. frustration in Mexico City. Time will tell if Wednesday night could really prove a major milestone in American and Mexican soccer.
"It's all perception," Donovan said. "The most important thing you gain from tonight is that the belief is there now that we can do it. We need keep it all in perspective. We didn't win a World Cup final tonight, but there's an appreciation for what we did."
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