The strangest of days in the fourth and final phase of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2014 World Cup set up its premier game.
On Friday, one of the giants of the region, consisting of North and Central America and the Caribbean, slogged through a tropical 107 degrees while the other trudged about in an unrelenting snow blizzard.
After taking a 2-0 lead through two sharp finishes by Javier Hernandez, Mexico capitulated in the heavy San Pedro Sula heat in the second half. Where they’d been dynamic and proactive in the first half, they turned sluggish in their moribund second act. In a furious rally, Honduras got back in the game on a Carlo Costly header. Not two minutes later, the very same Carlo Costly earned a soft penalty. Jerry Bengtson converted. Which is to say, Memo Ochoa saved his first attempt but pushed it right back at him for Bengtson to sweep in. That equalized the game at 2-2.
And El Tri was perhaps even lucky not to lose it altogether, in spite of their early superiority.
In Denver, meanwhile, the city chosen for the U.S. to host Costa Rica in because of its altitude and propensity for delivering cold and generally miserable weather well into the spring, the elements did not disappoint. In a memorable game that crossed well into absurdity but was inexplicably never stopped in spite of the dense and endless snow tumbling from the sky, Clint Dempsey scored early when he tapped home the rebound of a Jozy Altidore shot in front of a wide-open goal. And if he was hacked down in the box some time later without being rewarded with the penalty, it was ultimately of no matter, as the U.S. held on in the near-impossible conditions.
On Tuesday the U.S. and Mexico will meet in Mexico City, at altitude but in a predicted 80 or so degrees, combining the conditions they each faced in their first game of this two-pronged World Cup qualifying week.
After two of ten games, Honduras leads the group with four points. The U.S., which lost its opener in Honduras 2-1 in embarrassing fashion, sits in second place. Mexico currently resides outside of the three places in this six-team group that entitle their holders to a direct berth for Brazil. Rather, they’re now placed fourth, which promises a two-game playoff with New Zealand for the final slot.
Mexico’s uncharacteristically slothful start will lend even more importance to Tuesday’s game with the United States. It will be a grudge match and must-win game rolled into one for them, as the Mexicans can ill afford to spill any more points at home in a Hexagonal round promising to be as even as this one.
In 86 years, the U.S. has won just once on Mexican soil, and never in a competitive game. But that lone win came the last time they faced each other there last August. Michael Orozco Fiscal – who is of Mexican heritage no less and plays in the Liga MX – dinked in a late winner, in spite of the Americans getting overrun by their much more technically proficient opponents.
As far as the Mexicans are concerned, this simply will not stand. And they will have this affront to the socceristic superiority they consider to be their birthright fresh in mind at the resumption of this fiercest of rivalries between the region’s juggernauts who share a border that is divisive in more ways than one.
Bad blood has been set a long time ago in this classic of international soccer. And Mexico’s urge to avenge its first home loss and scoop up three crucial points will only heighten the tension. This roaring fire needed no further oil to stoke it.
For the U.S., meanwhile, Friday’s win liberates them of the necessity to take a result from the daunting cauldron that will be the Estadio Azteca, where abundant insults, beer and worse will sail towards their heads. They can play more freely, safe in the knowledge that they are back on track thanks to their win over Costa Rica, when a tie or a loss would have augmented the pressure on them considerably.
Both teams dug deep on Friday, in opposite but equally draining conditions. They now have three days to recover and regroup, before facing off in the biggest game either has played thus far by a long shot.