FOX Soccer Exclusive
USA miracle saves Mexico from disaster
As the minutes ticked away in San José, Mexico watched its World Cup hopes slip agonizingly out of its grasp. Costa Rica had the lead. Panama had the lead. And Mexico simply stared at the stark reality of missing out on its first World Cup since 1990.
Only a miracle would rescue Mexico from disaster. Against all odds, the United States men's national team provided it.
Graham Zusi and Aron Jóhannsson scored in second-half stoppage time to lift the Americans to a stunning 3-2 victory in Panama. The result in Costa Rica -- a 2-1 defeat for El Tri caused by Álvaro Saborío's winner after 65 minutes -- did not matter.
Mexico survived a compelling and tense night to finish fourth in CONCACAF and seal a two-legged World Cup playoff with New Zealand next month. A triumph over the All Whites will give Mexico the ultimate reprieve, a World Cup berth at the end of a qualifying campaign that nearly crashed and burned on a soggy night in Central America.
Victor Manuel Vucetich and his players traveled to Costa Rica in search of the point required to avoid any lingering drama. They responded well to Bryan Ruíz's opener and equalized through Oribe Peralta three minutes later, but second-half substitute Saborío punctuated Costa Rica's superior work after the break to condemn El Tri to a defeat that nearly cost them everything.
The pressure of the occasion prompted a cracking start with both sides filled with energy and bite in the opening stages. Costa Rica enjoyed the better of the early opportunities with Giancarlo Gonzalez heading over from a free kick and Ruíz slicing wide from a Bryan Oviedo diagonal, but Mexico eventually settled into the match and started to pose problems for the home defense.
Most of the profit for Mexico came through tidy sequences through the middle of the park. The high tempo left gaps in the Ticos' midfield three. Carlos Peña, in particular, found ways to exploit those spaces by stepping into the right areas and threading passes through the line.
Javier Hernández should have punished Costa Rica to complete a comprehensive move. Mexico strung together several touches through midfield before Peña played Peralta through on the right side of the penalty area. Peralta wisely chose to square for the open Hernández, but Chicharito somehow botched his effort toward the open net and drew Peralta into an offside position in the process.
It took Costa Rica only a few minutes to punish Hernández's wasteful miss and send the home crowd into rapture. A scruffy passage of play ended with a peculiar deflection behind the Mexican line. Ruíz claimed possession inside the area, held for a moment to allow the Mexican defense to shift too much to compensate and then thumped home close range to open the scoring after 25 minutes.
Mexico responded well to the setback and restored parity three minutes later. Another neat move through midfield ended with Peña slotting Hernández behind the Costa Rican line. Ticos goalkeeper Keylor Navas did well to charge off his line and push the ball away from Hernández as he attempted to round him, but he could do nothing about Peralta driving the rebound off the underside of the crossbar for the equalizer.
Peralta's timely riposte prompted a decent Mexico spell for the remainder of the first half, though the home side did have its moment in an open affair. The halftime interval provided El Tri with a chance to confirm the other results and reinforce the need to keep matters tight in the second half to procure the necessary point.
The urgency of securing a result did not tighten the affair up much early in the second half, though. Both teams enjoyed plenty of operating room through the middle of the park with the shape stretched on both ends. The state of play created openings for quick counters on turnovers, an issue that created Costa Rica's second goal.
Jesús Zavala conceded possession in middle third with Mexico a bit eager to push forward. The ball swung from left to right to create a crossing opportunity on the right flank. Saborío drifted away from Rafael Márquez inside the goal area and nodded home from close range to restore the Costa Rican lead after 65 minutes.
Vucetich responded by adding Giovani dos Santos to recent arrival Raul Jiménez (inserted for the out-of-sorts Hernández minutes earlier) and telling his players to push forward in search of the equalizer. Costa Rica instead started to ratchet up the pressure even further, hitting the post and then pinning a seemingly fatigued El Tri back into its own half for long periods.
News of Luis Tejada's likely winner filtered through to wild roars in San José. Mexico knew it needed a goal, but it simply could not muster the energy to produce the chance or two required to snatch it. Their inability to find it mattered little when the Americans pounced twice to break Panamanian hearts and rescue their bitter rivals.