USA defeats Mexico in qualifying match

Goals from Pulisic and McKennie propel United States over their CONCACAF opponents


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After missing the 2018 World Cup, the USA looks ahead to 2022.

Charles Horn, Staff Writer

It was a moment to savor for U.S. soccer, as goals from Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie helped the men’s team beat Mexico 2-0 in a vital World Cup qualifier. It was their third straight win in 2021, and it came over their biggest continental rival.

Had the match gone Mexico’s way, the U.S. would have found themselves in a tricky position regarding qualification after a near-disastrous run of matches in October.

The lingering trauma of the U.S.’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup resurfaced after their lackluster performance in a win over Jamaica, followed by a humiliating loss against Panama.

Panama — who qualified for the 2018 World Cup at the expense of the United States — stifled the American attack, registering a historic win on home soil. Concern nearly became crisis when Costa Rica scored in the first minute, but an excellent goal by Sergino Dest and a Costa Rican own-goal proved enough for the U.S. to exit with three points.

Qualification to the World Cup is split by continent, with each receiving a different portion of the 32 slots based on the relative strength of that continent’s teams. Concacaf, North American soccer’s governing body, receives three slots. With about half of the decisive final stage of qualifying now complete, it appears to be a four-horse race for three slots — the U.S., Mexico, Canada and Panama are all fighting to avoid being the odd one out.

The U.S. entered the match three points behind Mexico, intensifying the pressure on manager Gregg Berhalter, who took charge following the embarrassment of 2018. A stellar recruiter of dual-nationals — such as Valencia’s Yunus Musah who started against Mexico — Berhalter has faced criticism for the U.S.’s inability to break down weaker, defensive-oriented teams.

This international roster selection signified a change. Out-of-form veterans such as John Brooks were left off the roster, while new faces such as Joe Scally were called up. This further reflects the U.S.’s increasing reliance on European-based players, with just three of the 11 starters against Mexico playing in the MLS.

From the opening whistle, the U.S. pressed high with an intensity not seen in previous World Cup qualifying matches. The inclusion of Musah was surprising but paid off throughout the match, as the 18-year-old pushed forward and won possession in dangerous areas. The right side, even without usual starter Sergino Dest, was excellent. Timothy Weah got the start to replace him.

The son of Liberian President George Weah — perhaps the greatest ever African player — played a supporting role in Lille’s unlikely triumph in the French league last season. Blending poise and pace, Weah showed the talent he was praised for when he first signed for Paris Saint Germain in 2014.

After a scoreless first half, the U.S. emerged from the break energized and dynamic, dominating possession and slowly ratcheting up the pressure on Memo Ochoa’s net.

In the 69th minute, Christian Pulisic — who has struggled with injury throughout this season at Chelsea — was substituted on. It was Pulisic who, in June, scored the winning penalty kick in extra time against Mexico to give the U.S. the Concacaf Nations League trophy.

Minutes later, Timothy Weah surged down the right wing, whipping in what seemed like his 50th cross of the night, which found a cutting Pulisic. His header was unstoppable.

Rather than sit back and preserve the lead, the U.S. maintained their intensity, which was rewarded when a fortunate bounce played Weston McKennie though. The 23-year-old Juventus player fired the ball into the far corner, giving the U.S. a 2-0 lead.

McKennie had been unceremoniously suspended in September after bringing an unauthorized guest into the team hotel, thus breaking COVID-19 protocols and drawing widespread condemnation from former U.S. players. However, McKennie’s talent is indispensable — his return elevates the American midfield to new heights.

The U.S.’s victory puts them in the driver’s seat for qualification to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar (scheduled for December to avoid scorching temperatures.)

However, the threats of Panama and a Canadian team that features Wake Forest alum Alistair Johnston remain ever-present. As such, the foot must stay on the gas until qualification is secured.