The uniforms proved it was the U.S. versus Mexico. So did the excitable crowd of 40,194 at Nissan Stadium.
But for the first hour, Tuesday’s friendly between the two neighbors lacked the bite that has made their rivalry one of the fiercest in international soccer. Then American defender Matt Miazga stepped forward to show Mexico it wasn’t quite measuring up, setting off a series of events that ended in a 1-0 U.S. win.
Tyler Adams got the game’s only goal in the 71st minute, four minutes after Mexico’s Angel Zaldivar was sent off for rough play. And though the assist on the score went to defender Antonee Robinson, Adams argued that Miazga deserved one too for squaring off with Mexican midfielder Diego Lainez.
“We talked a little smack,” Miazga said with a smile and a shrug. “It’s part of the game.”
After bumping with 5-foot-5 Lainez, , the smallest player on the field, Miazga, the tallest at 6-4, turned toward the Mexican and mocked him by holding his hand at chest level. Zaldivar quickly took the bait, sliding hard into midfielder Wil Trapp on a studs-up tackle moments later, drawing a red card and helping the U.S. to a goal.
“It’s mental warfare,” Miazga said. “We got in their heads, they got a red card right after it. And then you saw what happened.”
With a new World Cup cycle just starting, the U.S. and Mexico held open auditions Tuesday. Eight of the 11 players in the U.S. lineup were 23 or younger and just three players entered the game with more than nine appearances for the national team. As a result, few had first-hand experience with the intensity of the cross-border rivalry.
But they learned quickly.
“We knew that at some point the game might boil over,” said Dave Sarachan, the interim U.S. coach. “They got a good taste of it tonight.”
So did a rebuilding Mexico, which started three players younger than 21 and had four make their international debuts.
“We don’t really care right now about the final score,” said Guillermo Cantu, sporting director of the Mexican soccer federation. “We’d like to see the development of some of these players.”
And until he lost his cool, Lainez, who was wearing his age, 18, on his back, was perhaps the most impressive, bedeviling U.S. defenders with his ball control. The Club American midfielder, who made his international debut last week, nearly stole a goal late in a tedious first half when he deked Trapp to the ground along the end line, dribbled around him toward the near post then slipped the ball in front for Roberto Alvarado.
But U.S. keeper Zack Steffen made a diving one-handed save on Alvarado’s sliding shot to keep the game scoreless.
The game continued plodding listlessly through the early stages of the second half before Miazga provided the spark that turned things around.
“It was a 50-50 game. And it kind of brought more energy out of us toward the end of the game,” he said of his theatrics. “You could see that they couldn’t handle it. They got a red card right after and we took control and scored the goal.”
That went to Adams, one of two teenagers to start for the U.S. The New York Red Bulls midfielder ran onto Robinson’s low cross from the left wing and redirected it in from the center of the penalty area for the first goal of his international career.
“He gets the guys going,” Adams said of Miazga, who plays in France with Nantes. “Your teammates see that and you want to back your guy up.”
Sarachan said the moment could prove to be a turning point for this young team.
“One thing I told the group just now is we talk a lot about the tactics and the soccer,” he said. “But the thing that we try to keep talking about is what’s the identity of this team? When fans watch this team, what do they come away with?