USA 0, Mexico 0: USMNT holds draw despite Pefok’s absence

There was a lot of talk in the build-up to Thursday night that the match between the United States Men’s National Team and Mexico was the final World Cup qualifier between the two. If so, then on the pitch it ended up diminishing with the intensity of the mark that marked the rivalry – and it gave a point each which should help both in their quest to reach the World Cup. 2022.

The United States and Mexico drew 0-0 at the Estadio Azteca on Thursday night, with the United States having several chances thwarted by Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa and missing a golden chance through substitute striker Jordan Pefok . The result ended the United States’ three-game winning streak against Mexico, but serves both teams well after Panama’s draw against Honduras earlier in the night. It is also the third consecutive World Cup qualifier at the Azteca in which the United States have taken a point from Mexico. With the nations co-hosting the 2026 World Cup with Canada, and with the expanded World Cup field making future qualifying clashes between the United States and Mexico unlikely, this could have been the last dance for both teams on this stage.

The United States was shorthanded for this dance, with Sergiño Dest, Weston McKennie, Brenden Aaronson and Matt Turner all ruled out through injury. Four other key American players – Tyler Adams, Tim Weah, Zack Steffen and DeAndre Yedlin – carried yellow cards in the game, which put them at risk of missing Sunday’s home game against Panama if they received another cardboard. That didn’t bother Gregg Berhalter: all four started on Thursday evening. The problem is that two of them – Yedlin and Weah – saw yellow, so they will miss the next game.

The Azteca appeared to be at half capacity, and the United came out aggressively sensing the opportunity, with Christian Pulisic firing into a 30-second cross that forced Ochoa into action and off his line.

The United States had another potential chance in the third minute, after Kellyn Acosta fouled in a dangerous area. His free-kick – taken from a similar spot to the one that led to the Gold Cup-winning goal – slipped safely through the Mexican penalty area, however, allowing El Tri an easy escape.

Mexico’s most threatening early chances in the running of the game came on both flanks, but they got their first dangerous set-piece in the 10th minute when Miles Robinson saw the yellow for a foul on Raúl Jiménez.

Tecatito Corona’s free kick went through the American penalty area, but it was taken out of play without ever giving Steffen a problem in goal.

Tecatito served in a more dangerous through ball three minutes later, with his cross pulling Cesar Montes off for a header, but the defender headed it straight for Steffen’s first save of the game.

On the other side, USA looked to strike quickly, with Antonee Robinson’s cross deflected into Yunus Musah’s path. The low shot from the Valencia midfielder, however, was turned around the post by a diving Ochoa.

The first real moment of physical brutality came in the 21st minute, when Edson Álvarez shot Pulisic from behind through the neck, resulting in a yellow card for the Ajax midfielder. This gave Acosta another free kick, and he went for the goal, only to land his powerful forehand on Ochoa.

Yedlin replied with a hard tackle a few minutes later, and it came at a cost. The yellow card shown to him results in a one-game suspension, and with Dest already unavailable and Reggie Cannon contracting COVID-19, the United States will need a new right-back fix on Sunday against Panama. Reports from Spain indicated that Tenerife’s Shaq Moore would join the United, and Berhalter confirmed this in his post-match comments.

Ochoa found the moment of the game in the 35th minute. Weah crossed from the right and picked out a wide-open Pulisic in the center of the box, but the goalkeeper held on to deny the USA star in the opener with a close-range save.

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Things got worse for the United States a few minutes later when Weah was cautioned. That put him in the same boat as Yedlin: suspended for Sunday.

The second half began with another denial from Ochoa de Pulisic, with the Chelsea star breaking free on the left side and trying to pick the wide net, only to have the Mexican keeper smash him around the post.

Mexico’s possession in the American third was largely unsuccessful, but Hector Herrera nearly kicked off Jorge Sánchez in the 57th minute with a perfectly weighted pass. Sánchez couldn’t quite get there with his outstretched leg, however, perhaps a bit put off by Steffen who came off his line to cut the angle.

A minute later, Hirving Lozano had his first real dangerous moment of the night, trying to spot the top right corner with a cheeky attempt from the edge of the area, sending him just over the bar instead.

With Mexico gaining a foothold in the game, Berhalter went to his bench for the first time on the hour mark, knocking out Weah and Ricardo Pepi and bringing in Gio Reyna and Pefok. For both substitutes, it was their first qualifying action since the opening window in September, with Reyna picking up the injury in the first USA qualifier and missing five months.

Mexico had unprecedented penalty cries in the 70th minute, when Jiménez went 1v1 with Walker Zimmerman and fell in the box. No appeal was given, however, and the game was not submitted for VAR review, with play continuing and the score still 0-0.

The United States missed their best chance of the game a few minutes later. Acosta served an excellent ball to Reyna on the right side of the box, and he crossed into the center of the box with his first touch, where Pefok completely missed his first chance.

As the game cried for a winner, Mexico took a chance in the 79th minute, Lozano shooting just over the bar. Perhaps sensing the game was starting to slip, Berhalter brought in two defensive replacements, with Erik Palmer-Brown and Aaron Long in place of Yedlin and Adams. Minutes later, Pulisic came on for Jordan Morris, with Berhalter sticking to his pre-match promise that he would use all five substitutes.

Mexico thought they had another penalty in the 90th minute, with Alexis Vega taking Morris inside the American penalty area and going down, only to see a yellow for diving.

With this result, combined with other results from the region on Thursday, no Concacaf team has yet clinched a World Cup berth. For the United States, it could happen on Sunday. It will take a win against Panama and a draw or loss for Costa Rica against El Salvador (or a draw and loss for Costa Rica) to finish the job. Considering the USA’s differential goal advantage over Costa Rica (+7), a win for both would still give the USA comfortable breathing room heading into the final in San Jose.

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