Mexico came to Columbus to looking to make both history and a statement Friday. And it did just that, recording a 2-1 victory over the United States in a World Cup qualifier that sent Mexico soaring and the U.S. reeling.
The win was Mexico's first in 15 years in cozy —– and chilly — Mapfre Stadium, a bandbox the U.S. has dubbed a fortress after going unbeaten in 11 games there. But it was a fortress Mexico finally breached behind a first-half goal from Miguel Layun and a header from captain Rafa Marquez in the 89th minute.
Bobby Wood had the only U.S. goal, tying the game with a brilliant score in the 49th minute of a bruising, physical game befitting one of international soccer's most intense matchups.
"For Mexican football and the Mexican public in general, it's extraordinary," Coach Juan Carlos Osorio, speaking in Spanish, said of the victory.
For the U.S. it was a dagger, marking the second time in two World Cup cycles that the Americans have lost the opener in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying. Only this time it came at home, making Tuesday's road game against unbeaten Costa Rica one the U.S. can't afford to lose.
"The message is very simple," U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann said. "We've got to go down there and get a result, which we will do."
They'll have do it without starting goalkeeper Tim Howard, though, after Howard left Friday's game in the 40th minute with a pulled muscle. He will get an MRI Saturday.
The grandstands, packed with a sellout crowd of 24,650, were a sea of red (with some white and blue thrown in) at kickoff, which came under 45-degree skies and a wind chill that made it feel six degrees cooler.
Into that chill Mexico sent arguably the deepest lineup it has ever used in its long, heated rivalry with the U.S.
The starting 11 featured only two players from Mexico's domestic league and one, Galaxy midfielder Giovani dos Santos, from Major League Soccer. The other eight play for first-division teams in Europe.
The U.S., meanwhile, went out in an unusual 3-4-3 formation that didn't work from the start, with Mexico overloading one side to create space and make things difficult for the American midfielders.
Layun took advantage in the 20th minute, coming in from the overloaded left side and getting off a shot from outside the box that deflected past Howard and into the lower right corner.
That ended a 380-minute scoreless streak for Mexico in Columbus. And El Tri nearly had another five minutes later when Carlos Vela's header bounced off the crossbar.
"We came always too late. We never got really on the guys," U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones said.
So when play paused briefly following an injury to Mexico's Andres Guardado in the 28th minute, Michael Bradley went to Klinsmann and appealed for a tactical change to a 4-4-2 alignment.
The U.S. dominated after that with Wood tying the score early in the second half after taking a feed from Jozy Altidore, cutting between two defenders and pushing the ball under Mexican keeper Alfredo Talavera.
Despite their dominance, that's all the Americans would get.
Moments after Wood's goal, Bradley had a chance to put the U.S. in front, but his shot went straight at Talavera, who wrapped up the easy save.
Then in the 77th minute, the Mexican keeper leaped and got his right hand on a bending free kick from Altidore, redirecting it over the crossbar.
That miss proved important 12 minutes later minute when Marquez, stationed near the left edge of the six-yard box, slipped defender John Brooks and headed home a Layun corner kick, well over the reach of backup keeper Brad Guzan.
When the final whistle sounded four minutes later, the Mexican players rushed off the bench to celebrate on a field that, hours earlier, had been hallowed ground for U.S. Soccer. Klinsmann and U.S. team, meanwhile, began regrouping for Tuesday's game, only the second in the 10-game final round of qualifying, but one that has suddenly taken on new importance.
"We have to go there and get three points to keep the doors open," Jones said.