MEXICO CITY – When the final whistle blew late Thursday night, Jordan Pefok fell on the grass and covered his face with his hands.
Pefak, a striker on the U.S. men’s soccer team, was tired of being sure. He and his teammates had just fought a 0-0 draw with Mexico at the Estadio Azteca, a commendable result at a height that could leave even elite athletes breathless.
More than that, however, Pefak seemed to be a crestfall. About 20 minutes ago he missed a sterling chance from the point-blank range, hitting an open goal with such a wide shot that everyone in the stadium, fans on both sides, were amazed.
The mistake that made it even harder to believe was that the Christian cop, in the first half, missed a definite chance of his own from a very similar spot, his close-range shot whipping straight at the Mexican goalkeeper, even before the full net had been opened.
Any one opportunity could have made a difference in America’s important, third-to-last World Cup qualifiers. How much mischief will be done? It will take a few more days to be sure.
But in this way, the night – at the stadium of the Mexican Capital and inside the rest of the world where the competition was held simultaneously on Thursday – provides further reminders of the subtle margins, the hidden damage and the cosmic plot twists that regularly conspire to build the world. Cup qualification cycle is so entertaining and so maddening.
Italy created dozens of chances in the play-offs against Northern Macedonia, but the current European champions will miss the World Cup because they failed to score and their guests found a way out. Sweden, likewise, survives after finding winners in extra time against the Czech Republic and Ecuador. His place clinched Despite losing, Qatar lost 3-1 to Paraguay.
Uruguay Going to the World Cup Even if Canada wins at home, it will have to wait at least a few days. The same is true now for Mexico and the United States; Like the Canadian team, they are close enough to touch the World Cup berth, but also be aware that it could still slip.
“I was disappointed that I missed an opportunity, and I would have loved to have won the game,” said Policeman after his team’s draw in Mexico. “But we are in this situation now and we are happy with it.”
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Destiny certainly has a way out of the evening, and in other ways, the United States was lucky on Thursday.
Throughout the week, players were asked how they would manage their nerves in the Aztec hair-raising environment, where unruly, retaining crowds could provoke claustrophobia in visiting teams. But the stadium they entered on Thursday was strangely quiet.
The building’s capacity was drastically reduced – from 87,000 to 50,000 – as part of an ongoing effort by the Mexican Federation to stop the constant offensive slogans from home team fans. Traveling American fans, clustered as a group in one corner of the upper deck, occasionally made more noise than most of their supporters.
It was the third draw in a row for the Americans in the World Cup qualifiers in Aztec, a quietly staggering statistic that probably painted a picture of a team feeling increasingly comfortable in the home of its main rival.
There was also an unexpected result in one of the other games played for the United States: Panama, which started the day in fourth place, managed to tie only one at home against Honduras, a team that is in last place with very little left to play.
The Americans will face Panama in their next match on Sunday, Orlando, Florida, and Thursday’s score. They ended their World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica on Wednesday, which also had a surprising result, beating first-placed Canada 1-0, leaving Panama in fourth place.
“I’m looking forward to a good performance back home,” said United coach Greg Barhalter.
Barhalter’s biggest challenge for that game may be managing staff at his somewhat worn out travel party. The team was already short-handed due to injury, entering the three-match window and losing four key players: right-back Sergino Dest, midfielder Weston McKinney and Brendan Aronson and goalkeeper Matt Turner.
Then, before the game, the team dropped defender Reggie Cannon, who tested positive for coronavirus, and during that time two more starters, Timothy Weh and Dandrey Yedlin, were shown yellow cards for eliminating them from the competition on Sunday night. Shake Moore, a defender playing in Spain’s second division, was called up quickly to fill the void. He will meet the team in Orlando before Sunday’s game, and will likely be in the starting lineup.
For available players, the Panama game could represent a punitive change. Many of them, especially those in the starting lineup against Mexico, were apparently working hard towards the end of the match.
Later, Barhalter praised his players for expending an ounce of energy and minimizing the potential physical consequences of doing so in the same breath.
“We’ll recover,” he said. “There is plenty of time to recover.”
One reason to help the team’s cause would be the re-emergence of attacking midfielder Geo Raina, who came on as a substitute in the second half. The game marks Rainer’s first appearance on the team since September, when he suffered a leg injury that will keep him away for months.
Raina was the player who gave PEFO the potential support, tactically throwing the ball over his teammate’s feet, before it was ruined. Raina apparently gets excited after the miss, holding his hand in disbelief, staring at Pefak for a few seconds after the ball goes out of bounds.
The gesture may have been unpleasant, but Raina delighted the crowd with a dazzling dribbling run moments later, a steep high-speed ride from behind near the American penalty area to almost the entire path to the Mexican goal during which he had beaten half a dozen. Opposing players, some of them more than once.
Barhalter compared the run to the famous single goal of Argentina’s Diego Maradona at the 1986 World Cup in Aztec.
“I got a glimpse of it when Geo was dribbling,” Barhalter said. “Unfortunately he didn’t have a chance to finish it.”
In World Cup qualifiers, after all, there is often a razor thin line between glory and despair. The Americans will hope that the next day they will land on its right side.