Though we’re more than a year away from watching 32 teams duke it out for the world championship in Brazil, the world got a taste of the Jules Rimet trophy with dozens of matches played out in all corners of the globe in the course of just five days. The sport’s biggest stars donned their national team jerseys and fought it out in games that become all the more serious as the qualification process reaches maturity.
Few places packed in as many storylines and drama as the Estadio Azteca did on Tuesday night. Mexico walked into a potential trap game against a rising United States team, hungry to nip at its sputtering rival after a win in the frostbite of Denver. Mexico, on the other hand, had a lot to prove at Azteca after two gut-wrenching draws.
Through their emerging domestic leagues, geographic proximity and growing cultural ties, the two rivals have become closer to one another than ever before. Liga MX stars DaMarcus Beasley and Herculez Gomez started for the United States, both no strangers to visiting the fabled Mexico City colossus as visitors thanks to their club teams.
Omar Gonzalez, so brutally questioned after the Honduras match in San Pedro Sula, was arguably the best player on the pitch in the 0-0 draw on Tuesday. Omar Bravo, on the other side of the field, was somewhat recently seen meandering MLS pitches as a member of Sporting Kansas City. When Clint Dempsey struck Carlos Salcido’s jaw with his elbow, the former Fulham players chatted about it and exchanged apologies and pleasantries.
It’s also becoming increasingly obvious that both teams are getting closer when it comes to gauging their overall ability. While it may seem somewhat strange to see the United States treat an away draw in an early-season match as a monumental result, it becomes warranted when you glance the all-time statistics at a stadium that was less a building and more a living, breathing monster for so many years.
That monster is looking all the less scary for opposing teams after Mexico has dropped four of six potential points there since February. An unyielding tactician, Jose Manuel 'Chepo' de la Torre has become a poster boy for strategic stubbornness, a man whose knowledge isn’t questioned, just his pride and his predictability. When tens of thousands of amateur managers are accurately predicting your next move on Twitter, there’s a good chance your opposite number on the other touchline knows what you’re going to do, too.
In a nutshell, that was the formula that doomed Mexico and exalted the United States. Klinsmann knew that his team’s grit and elbow grease could grind out the result with a few lucky bounces. Chepo wanted to prove to the world and to his players that his system can carry Mexico to greatness. Both philosophies meshed perfectly into one of those few, visually satisfying 0-0 draws that keep you thinking that it could have just as easily gone another way.
Just a week after being inadvertently put on the hot seat thanks to apparent unrest within his team, Jurgen Klinsmann has stood up from said seat and vacated it to de la Torre. Sven-Goran Eriksson was fired for very similar results four years ago.
How much slack is left on Chepo’s rope at this point? The Estadio Azteca was bursting with drama, passion and jitters on Tuesday night. The atmosphere was definitely one befitting a competition that brandishes the words “World Cup” at least as an introduction of sorts. The World Cup is here. And for the first time, many are wondering if Mexico will be in it.