All acquitted themselves fairly, although it was the stalwarts who starred for the Americans. Michael Bradley, who delivered a stunning sixth-minute goal that was later canceled out by Carlos Vela’s lovely strike, was complemented by an outstanding defensive effort from Geoff Cameron, a fortress in the center of the back line.
“We’ll take our point,” Bradley said. “Points are hard to come by here. On a different night, we can come away with 3.”
Neither team lacked for chances after halftime. A free kick by Héctor Herrera beat United States goalkeeper Brad Guzan but smacked the crossbar in the 71st minute, and Bradley, feeling audacious, cracked the post with a strike from 30 yards in the 74th. The Mexico substitute Javier Aquino later misplayed a ball that had drifted to him, unmarked, at the back post.
By taking a point here, the United States remained in third place, with 8 points, in the six-team regional competition, pending the results of Tuesday’s other two matches. With most of its difficult matches — two games against Mexico and a trip to second-place Costa Rica — out of the way, the United States will be well positioned when qualifying resumes in September.
The crowd at Azteca whistled and jeered when the Americans walked the field an hour and a half before kickoff, and again 45 minutes later, louder still, when they returned to warm up. Horns blared, and Azteca felt like a pulsing, pounding beehive.
In that environment, at the city’s 7,300-foot elevation, the United States recognized the importance of rationing energy — of overworking in warm-ups to acclimate the lungs, and then staying calm to absorb the Mexican push that it knew would come.
That early push instead came from the United States, whose keys to victory, as delineated Saturday by Arena, included the boilerplate — good plan, fit players — as well as “a little bit of luck.”
In the sixth minute, Bradley intercepted a pass near midfield and, sensing goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa off his line, unleashed a chip shot from about 35 yards that dipped under the crossbar for only the sixth goal ever scored by the United States at Azteca.
The home fans lapsed into momentary shock, but the Mexican players did not. They persisted, probing an unfamiliar starting lineup playing an unfamiliar formation, and waited for the opportunity to strike. They finally did after a superb chance for Wood in the goal mouth went awry.
On the counterattack, Mexico caught the United States with too many players upfield. Vela collected a pass along the right flank, matched up with DaMarcus Beasley, who received little help from his teammates, who were still scrambling back into position. Vela cut inside with several short touches and ripped a left-footed shot past Guzan and inside the right post, tying the score at 1-1 in the 23rd minute.
In dominating the so-called hexagonal round — with 13 out of a possible 15 points before Sunday, and only one goal conceded — Mexico has showcased a depth so enviable that the absences Sunday of regular contributors like defenders Rafa Márquez and Miguel Layún and midfielder Andrés Guardado hardly registered.
To account for the altitude, a travel day and the swift turnaround, Arena promised to shuffle his lineup. But he did not just shuffle it. He stripped it.
Opting for fresh legs, Arena rested, among others, forwards Dempsey and Altidore (although he came on as a substitute) and goalkeeper Tim Howard. The only starting holdovers from Thursday: defenders DeAndre Yedlin and Cameron, Bradley and, of course, Christian Pulisic, who had factored into the Americans’ last eight goals, scoring four, assisting on three and drawing the foul that led to another.
For all of Pulisic’s precociousness, his experience playing for Borussia Dortmund at its mammoth stadium in Germany or in the high-stakes Champions League, he had rarely encountered a venue as intimidating as Azteca during World Cup qualifying.
“If something fazes him,” Howard said Saturday, “I’d be shocked.”
Pulisic’s remark Thursday that the Americans would win here sent ripples through the Mexican news media. It might even have reached the Mexican players as well. Not as if it altered their efforts to suppress him; Mexico hacked and slashed at Pulisic, who struggled to get involved.
The Americans still have never won a World Cup qualifier at Azteca, where they are 0-5-3 in those matches and 1-8-3 over all. But on Sunday night, a draw was good, and welcome, enough.
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