Chicharito’s face told the whole story as it emerged from his folded hands. Mexico’s biggest star was on the bench, watching his team struggle to make any movement toward a tying goal that would keep its World Cup hopes alive. With just six minutes left to play in San Jose, Costa Rica, and with Mexico trailing 2–1 and needing a win or draw to have hope, it was obvious that if Mexico was going to make the World Cup, it was going to be in spite of itself, and to stay alive, it was going to need help from somewhere else.
Unfortunately, it needed that help from a team that had no need to provide it. The United States, Mexico’s biggest rival, was losing to Panama, the team that would surpass Mexico for the final qualification spot with a win and a Mexican loss, at that exact moment. And the U.S., whose fans would love nothing more than to see Mexico go home a loser, was absent its best players, purposefully, since it had qualified for Brazil a month before. The standings had already shown the Americans to be a more quality side than Mexico, but watching their bitter rivals go down in flames as they waltzed to the World Cup would have been a clear sign that the U.S. had firmly supplanted El Tri as the region’s top team.
The United States had seemingly saved Mexico once already, in the 64th minute of the simultaneous matches, when Alvaro Saborio punched home a goal to give Costa Rica a 2–1 lead. It would have put Mexico on the outside looking in, except that America’s Michael Orozco Fiscal — a Mexican-American, to boot — scored in Panama City at the exact same time. But Panama scored again in the 83rd minute, bringing the Panamanian crowd to their feet to chant “Si Se Puede!” and again leaving Mexico with little hope.
Then, Graham Zusi broke free in the box and headed a Brad Davis cross into the back of the net, tying Panama at 2–2 with just a minute to play and saving Mexico’s World Cup lives:
Through no effort of their own, the Mexicans were alive again, and their place in a World Cup playoff with New Zealand was sealed less than 60 second later when Aron Johannsson put the U.S. ahead 3–2. Panama was dead. Mexico was, at least for another month, off the ventilator, and World Cup qualifying had produced a moment of inescapable irony: Mexican fans were rejoicing after a loss. And American fans who, judging by Twitter, wanted little more than to eliminate Mexico from World Cup contention were weeping after a win.
But while the American fans wanted Mexico out, this may turn out even sweeter, a sign that the U.S. has passed Mexico in the regional hierarchy that comes along with a lovely reminder: were it not for us, you’d be toast. U.S. Soccer’s Twitter account was quick to remind Mexico of that fact, as were American fans who turned #YoureWelcomeMexico and #DeNadaMexico into trending topics on Twitter (Mexican fans, for their part, responded with #GraciasUSA).
The veneer of Mexican dominance over American soccer had cracked before — in Columbus in 2001, when the Dos A Cero trend of beating Mexico by the same score in big matches began, and again in the 2002 World Cup, when the U.S. eliminated El Tri — but as recently as a year ago, Mexico seemed to be embarking on its own golden era. They were Olympic champions, had world stars like Chicharito, and had moved on from concerning themselves with putting the Americans in their place to competing with the world’s biggest teams. The Americans had become regular World Cup qualifiers, but they still had neither the athletes nor the nerve to really challenge Mexico when it mattered.
But over the last 14 months, that golden era has shifted north. The U.S. has won its first ever match at Azteca, the mile-high mecca of Mexican soccer, stolen a point in a thrilling scoreless draw during qualifying, and demolished the Mexicans by that all-too-familiar score to clinch their own place in Brazil. Even that seemed to be an insult, what with Clint Dempsey maybe or maybe not purposefully shanking a last-minute penalty kick to preserve the iconic scoreline. Mexico, meanwhile, has been reeling, now on its third manager since qualifying began and searching for answers where there seem to be none.
And now, this. Mexico, left to its own devices, would surely be home for good, having captured only 11 points in 10 qualifying matches by playing listless soccer from beginning to end. The Americans, meanwhile, grew out of their own tumult — a 2–1 loss to Honduras to open qualifying and questions about internal fighting and the leadership of new head man Jurgen Klinsmann — to reel in a record-tying 22 qualifying points, none bigger for it than the four it took off of Mexico. And in the end, El Tri is only alive because the Americans came through when they couldn’t themselves.
It is a phenomenon that has shattered any remnants of mystique that remained about Mexican dominance of the United States, a year-long turn of events captured in one thrilling six-minute period that will add an incredible subplot to the region’s only real soccer rivalry for years, if not decades, to come. The United States under Klinsmann has established itself as the new head of its region and, perhaps, has the potential to put together a team that can do in Brazil what Mexico was supposed to: turn in the nation’s best ever performance on the world stage. A year ago, this would have been unthinkable. Today, it is reality, and for Mexico, there may be no better — or more bitter — reminder of the seismic power shift that has taken place than the fact that were it not for its biggest rival, El Tri would be watching the 2014 World Cup from home.