Pulisic sparks US over Mexico 2-0 in World Cup qualifying

U.S. forward Christian Pulisic (10) celebrates with teammate Tyler Adams (4) after scoring a goal during the second half of a FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match against Mexico, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)
Caption
U.S. forward Christian Pulisic (10) celebrates with teammate Tyler Adams (4) after scoring a goal during the second half of a FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match against Mexico, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)

Credit: Jeff Dean

Credit: Jeff Dean

CINCINNATI – Christian Pulisic had a message for Mexico, and he delivered it with his first touch on the ball after entering the match for the U.S. men’s national team.

The Chelsea forward scored the go-ahead goal in the 74th minute of an important 2-0 win over Mexico in a World Cup qualifier Friday at TQL Stadium, then celebrated by lifting his jersey to reveal an undershirt with “MAN IN THE MIRROR” written in black marker.

Pulisic, who was playing his first international game since a Sept. 8 ankle injury, downplayed the intent behind the shirt in his postgame press conference, as the U.S. only just crossed the midway point of the Octagonal. However, he did indirectly confirm the assumptions it was in response to Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa’s comments earlier this week describing Mexico as “that mirror in which [the United States] want to see themselves and reflect.”

“I think you guys know the message,” Pulisic said when asked about the shirt. “I don’t need to like speak on it too much. It’s not a big thing I’m trying to cause controversy. It was just an idea that came in my head, and I actually wrote it in a mirror. No, I’m kidding. Somebody did it for me.”

Team USA got an insurance goal from Weston McKennie nine minutes after Pulisic’s goal, and goalkeeper Zack Steffen preserved the shutout for a fitting “Dos a Cero” scoreline in a cold, rainy conditions. The win moved the U.S. ahead of Mexico to the lead in the CONCACAF Octagonal standings from which the top three advance to the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

“I’m just really happy that we could come out on top again tonight,” Pulisic said. “We knew it’s always gonna be a good game against Mexico and to get three points just helps us get a lot closer to qualify for the World Cup.”

Here are three key points from the match:

1. Earning Mexico’s respect

The U.S. already had beaten Mexico twice in extra time of tournament matches earlier this year, 3-2 in the Nation’s League final in June and 1-0 in the Gold Cup final in August. However, Friday wasn’t the first time Ochoa’s comments were spoken about by the U.S. team.

Coach Gregg Berhalter noted Thursday how the team has “a long way to go to get the respect of Mexico” despite the two dramatic victories in the summer, and noted the Americans were “going to have to do it (Friday)” with their play on the field.

And that they did. After a fast-paced transitional game turned into sloppy turnovers and several dangerous opportunities for Mexico, the U.S. came out with some halftime adjustments and patience to keep moving forward with the overall gameplan. Eventually the tweaks paid off, as Tim Weah delivered a perfect cross for Pulisic to head in the first goal past Ochoa five minutes after entering for Brenden Aaronson. McKennie scored after his pass intended for Jesus Ferreira was blocked and bounced back to him for an open look at the goal from the middle of the box.

Weah said he and right back DeAndre Yedlin asked the kit men to make the shirt for Pulisic on Thursday night and was glad to see the message backed up by the team.

U.S. forward Brenden Aaronson, left, vies for the ball with Mexico's Edson Alvarez during the first half of a FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)
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U.S. forward Brenden Aaronson, left, vies for the ball with Mexico's Edson Alvarez during the first half of a FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)

Credit: Jeff Dean

Credit: Jeff Dean

“I think it’s a new era now,” Weah said. “Before the game, Mexico was talking a lot of smack and beating them just shuts them up and we have to continue to win games and continue to beat them. That’s the only way we’re gonna earn their respect and earn the world’s respect, but I think we’re on a great path right now and the future is bright.”

Team USA sits ahead of Mexico in the standings now on goal differential, though both have 14 points on four wins, two draws and one loss. The Americans now turn the page to play Jamaica to wrap up the November window with some big games coming up on the road.

2. Second-half adjustments

The U.S. had 55 percent possession in the first half and two more shots but Mexico had the more threatening opportunities, including two big chances in the box that Steffen saved.

At halftime, Berhalter didn’t make any personnel changes and only made minor adjustments to fix some things he saw that were leaving the defense exposed, especially in transition. Ricardo Pepi was instructed to stay central in the high press to avoid opening space in the middle of the field. The U.S. also changed positioning of the center midfielders and addressed some details on how to play left or right.

“The message to the team was, ‘Keep going, you guys are in a great spot,’” Berhalter said. “‘It took a toll on them what we were doing in the first half, and we’re going to get the reward in the second half.’”

United States' Weston McKennie celebrates his goal with Tyler Adams, left, and Christian Pulisic during the second half of a FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match against Mexico, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, in Cincinnati. The U.S. won 2-0. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Caption
United States' Weston McKennie celebrates his goal with Tyler Adams, left, and Christian Pulisic during the second half of a FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match against Mexico, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, in Cincinnati. The U.S. won 2-0. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Credit: Julio Cortez

Credit: Julio Cortez

Team USA conceded possession in the second half but outshot Mexico 11-3, and Ferreira nearly scored a third goal in the 88th minute.

Pulisic entered in the 69th minute, moments after Aaronson was poked in the eye and nearly trampled in a scuffle, the second of the night. Steffen and McKennie both got yellow cards after the fracas, which was on the opposite side of the field of Steffen’s goal.

Weah, playing wide on the right side, wasted no time providing service needed for Pulisic to do his thing, cutting past a defender on the dribble and crossing to the back post for the assist. Berhalter named Weak the “man of the match,” but for Pulisic, the goal was a big contribution after just returning to his first match with Chelsea, off the bench, in a Premier League match last week.

3. Steffen’s shutout

Steffen started in goal ahead of Matt Turner, who has had a great year with the New England Revolution and was playing well earlier this year for the U.S. Berhalter acknowledged it was a tough decision, but Steffen certainly made a case to stay with four saves, including the two big ones in the first half.

Eleven minutes in, Mexico tried to hit the U.S. on a break after a turnover, and Steffen came up with a low, diving save on a frenzied attack nearly was snuffed out by Walker Zimmerman.

In the 18th minute, Steffen made an even more impressive save to prevent Hirving Lozano from scoring on a breakaway. El Tri strung together five one-touch passes to spring Lozano, starting with Ochoa and ending with a ball to Lozano that split the two center backs and forced Yedlin to try to recover from behind the play on the right side.

“I thought that Zack was excellent tonight,” Berhalter said. “Again, it was a difficult decision to start him over Matt because we think they’re both great goalkeepers, but I think he showed why we did start. He was good with his feet and made a big save in the beginning, was great on crosses today, really led the line from the back and had a good performance.”

It was overall a strong performance for the team, but Weah said the U.S. needs to stay humble and focused on Jamaica. The U.S. will be without center back Miles Robinson, who picked up a second yellow at the end of the match, and McKennie, whose yellow card Friday was his second of the Octagonal and makes him unavailable for one match.

United States' Zack Steffen makes a save against Mexico during the first half of a FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Caption
United States' Zack Steffen makes a save against Mexico during the first half of a FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Credit: Julio Cortez

Credit: Julio Cortez

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