A goalkeeper in electric form and the surprising cohesion of a makeshift backline helped keep the U.S. in the game against Mexico.
Mexico dominated all of the statistics in Azteca on Wednesday night except the only one anyone cares about: the final score. The U.S. won, 1-0, for the first time in 25 attempts on Mexican soil. For that, it had the defense to thank.
"I thought the pace of the game was still under our control," Landon Donovan said. "Even though they had a lot of the ball I think we still felt comfortable."
Mexico, missing Giovani Dos Santos, mostly funneled play down the flanks, attempting 34 crosses.
"They were getting opportunities but nothing was really clean. You could sense that," Tim Howard said. "We bottled them up in really good wide areas."
Not that the ball wasn't getting through to Howard. The goalkeeper made several emphatic saves, particularly on Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez, to record the second ever U.S. clean sheet in Azteca.
"Tim Howard made some unbelievable saves," Jurgen Klinsmann said. "I said that many, many times over the last years: He belongs to the top three goalkeepers of the world. He showed that tonight. He kept us in that game."
One save, in particular, was impressive. A Hernandez half-volley clipped off Maurice Edu, spinning toward the opposite end of the goal and away from were Howard had dove. The Everton netminder pointed out after the match that the soft field gave way far too easily and that he was creating divots on his goal line.
"I literally was on the ground thinking, 'I'm going to have to watch this thing roll in here,'" Howard said. Instead, a paw snatched at the ball and did enough to prevent it from trickling over the line.
Howard was the U.S. captain with Carlos Bocanegra missing the match. In fact, most of the first-choice defense was absent. To protect Howard, Klinsmann selected a makeshift backline. Three of the four combined for 17 total caps. The other – Maurice Edu – hasn't played as a defender since 2010, and not consistently since the 2008 Olympics.
Facing the team that recently won Olympic soccer gold, the U.S. defense was green.
"We planned through, over the last couple weeks, what we wanted to achieve in Azteca, besides hopefully a good result," Klinsmann explained. "We said if there's a moment where we can give new players a new kind of a chance then it is a night like this, because it's extremely difficult and you have to prove right away if you're capable of doing it or not.
"We knew we'd get a lot of answers, no matter what the result is."
A clean sheet isn't a bad answer to give the boss. Edgar Castillo submitted his most assured international performance to date. Geoff Cameron suggested he won't have a problem transitioning to the quality of play in the English Premier League with new club Stoke City. Fabian Johnson shifted over to the right without too much fuss. And Edu looked like a passable defender.
"The way Mo and Cam played in the center, and also Edgar," Klinsmann said, "that means a lot to us."
The United States had drawn one match in Mexico, losing the other 23. Even to repeat that 0-0 draw would have been a success.
"I was saying that to myself," Howard said. "I said at 75 minutes, if someone stopped the game we'll take it."
Instead, five minutes later, substitute defender Michael Orozco Fiscal scored what would stand up as the winner.
Brek Shea motored into the box and passed into congestion. Terrence Boyd spun and hit a backheel which flashed in front of Orozco Fiscal, who had enough presence of mind to stick out a foot and direct it on goal.
"It's a play that you're right in front of the goal," Orozco Fiscal said. "It's a blink of an eye that you make a difference, and today that was the difference."
Well, that and a resolute defensive performance.
Brent Latham contribued reporting from Mexico City
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