The USA, which moved back into first place ahead of Costa Rica, officially qualified for the World Cup for the seventh straight time after Panama lost to Honduras an hour after the final whistle of its win.
“This is a huge, huge evening for all of us,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “It’s a huge milestone whenever you make it to a World Cup.”
Costa Rica, which beat the U.S. 3-1 on Friday and played to a shocking draw with Jamaica earlier Tuesday, is in second place. Honduras is currently in third followed by Panama in fourth Mexico in fifth.
The top three CONCACAF teams qualify for next year’s 32-nation competition in Brazil, and the fourth-place finisher will play in a one-game playoff with Oceania winner New Zealand.
“This a team that could and should play better,” said Mexico head coach Luis Fernando Tena, who took over for Jose Manuel de la Torre on Saturday. “It has to take a step forward if we want to make it to the World Cup.”
The U.S. was without arguably the region’s top player, Michael Bradley, who sat out for the second straight game with an ankle injury. Three additional Americans also missed the match because of yellow card accumulation: forward Jozy Altidore, midfielder Geoff Cameron and defender Matt Besler.
Ahead of the game, Klinsmann called in four additional players, including Clarence Goodson, who started in place of Besler in central defense along with Omar Gonzalez. Fabian Johnson shifted from midfield to the back line opposite of left back DaMarcus Beasley. Jermaine Jones, Clint Dempsey, Donovan, Alejandro Bedoya and lone striker Johnson filled out the 4-2-3-1 formation.
Mexico opened the match with a different feel from Friday, when the team had a late second-half collapse at home against Honduras for its second loss in the Hexagonal that ultimately led to the firing of De la Torre. Hours later, he was replaced by Tena, who put star striker Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez back in the starting XI despite the striker coming off a hamstring injury.
After shifting much of their lineup from the Costa Rica loss, the Americans looked a bit unsettled after kickoff. Mexico was on the attack early, forcing goalkeeper Tim Howard to make a diving save on an attempt from Christian Giménez in the 18th minute for the first scoring opportunity from either side in the first half.
But after the nervy moment, Klinsmann’s men calmed down and had some chances of their own, with both Dempsey and Donovan getting into the box for shots that were blocked by Mexican defenders. Johnson nearly had the opener off a corner kick in the 32nd minute, but Mexico keeper Jesus Corona saved the attempt on the goal line.
The teams entered the half scoreless. But that wouldn’t last long.
Playing with a sense of urgency in front of a raucous crowd, the U.S. came out of the locker room much like Mexico did to open the game. However, the Stars and Stripes were able to capitalize off of their surge when Johnson used his head to slip one into El Tri’s goal.
Johnson, who has reinvented himself on the U.S. national team after rejoining MLS last year, sneaked into the middle off a corner kick delivered by Donovan, beat Corona to the ball and headed it in to help the Americans move one step closer to stamping their passports for Brazil.
Later in the half, Johnson was forced to leave the game with a head injury after taking a nasty fall on the pitch while going up for a header midway through the second half. He was replaced by Mix Diskerud, but it turned out the loss of the team’s best offensive player on the night wouldn’t cause any harm.
For insurance, with just over 12 minutes remaining in the match, Diskerud kept a short throw-in alive in the box and put his head up to find Donovan at the far post to poke home the second goal of the match.
With just seconds left to play, Dempsey nearly made it an even worse night for the visitors but he was unable to convert on a penalty kick that flew to the right of the goal. But the mission had already been accomplished.
“We’re continuing the growth of the game here in the sport, we’re improving, getting better and we’ve got to make sure we do well in Brazil to keep it going,” Dempsey said.
The U.S. improved to 24-0-2 in home qualifiers since losing to Honduras in September 2001 at RFK Stadium in Washington, and is now 38-1-7 in qualifiers at home since losing to Costa Rica in 1985.
The nation has also defeated Mexico at Columbus Crew Stadium for the fourth straight World Cup qualifier after topping its biggest rival by a scoreline of 2-0 in 2001, 2005 and 2009. The Americans increased their undefeated run at the MLS stadium overall by winning for the seventh time to go along with two draws.
While the U.S. fans, led by the American Outlaws supporting group, left the party atmosphere at the stadium, El Tri left with their heads down looking for answers. Tena may find himself out after just one game in charge as the team would need two wins in two games for any hope of reaching the World Cup on an automatic bid.
“This isn’t the best moment to make decisions,” Tena said when asked if he’d resign. “I have to analyze a lot of things.”