Mexico

Looking back on the night the United States saved Mexico
October 12, 2014 11:48:38 AM PDT
By Arch Bell

ESPN IMG
Graham Zusi's 92nd minute goal versus Panama last October will forever live in CONCACAF lore.



Ninety-five seconds.

That is all that separated Mexico from not qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. Ninety-five seconds from hundreds of millions of dollars in sponsorship money down the drain. Ninety-five seconds from more than a hundred million people, who have red, green and white running through their veins, dealing with the indignity of their national team failing to qualify for the world's most decorated sporting event.

To understand better what happened on Oct. 15, 2013, the final night of CONCACAF qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup, rewind to the previous Friday, Oct. 11. A Raul Jimenez "golazo" earns Mexico victory against Panama, thus putting El Tri three points ahead of the Panamanians for fourth place in the Hexagonal. Though a direct ticket to Brazil is still attainable for Mexico despite a wretched final-round qualifying campaign, they know that avoiding defeat in Costa Rica means they will face New Zealand in a playoff for a World Cup spot.

Panama, meanwhile, host an already-qualified United States and know they must win and hope Mexico lose in order to move closer to qualifying for the finals for their first time.

Now the fun starts.

Pregame

Victor Manuel Vucetich's Mexico arrive to Costa Rica having not lost on the Ticos' home surface since 1992. But there was a much different vibe this time around, best encapsulated by Costa Rica striker Joel Campbell.

"Mexico are suffering now, and they have come to Costa Rica and will have to suffer. ... Mexico needs to learn to respect other teams," the Arsenal striker said. Costa Rica's intentions are abundantly clear.



Meanwhile, Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. team land in Panama fresh off a sluggish win over Jamaica in Kansas City, but they are already qualified for Brazil. As for their opponents, even though they did not control their destiny, Panama were hopeful.

"There was a triumphant air that night," recalled Panamanian journalist David Sakata of Diario Pro. "But we knew we depended on Costa Rica and for Panama to have a perfect match. It was all there given to us so we could make the playoff."

First half

With Costa Rica-Mexico, Panama-U.S. and Jamaica-Honduras all kicking off at 8:30 ET, fans would be attentive to TV and radios for updates around the region. Just more than 17 minutes in,  Gabriel Torres scores to put Panama ahead 1-0, while seconds later Mexico's Chicharito Hernandez, who endured a miserable qualifying campaign with just two goals, incredibly misses an open net from just three yards out.

Panama's night gets even better when Bryan Ruiz scores in the 24th minute to give Costa Rica a 1-0 lead. The news reaches Panama City, sending those inside the Rommel Fernandez into a frenzy. But the joy doesn't last long. Four minutes later, Oribe Peralta, who arguably single-handedly carried Mexico in those final dark match days with three goals in the final four matches, equalizes. It's 1-1 in San Jose and 1-0 in Panama City at halftime. Mexico are in the playoff; Panama are out.



Second half

Help from afar comes for Panama again, this time in the 63rd minute. Real Salt Lake striker Alvaro Saborio is left completely unmarked and thumps in a header to regain the lead for the Ticos 2-1 and puts Panama back in the playoff. Again, the news reaches the Rommel Fernandez, but those cheers are quickly quieted when Michael Orozco scores for the U.S. just one minute later. Mexico are back in the playoff.

Yet as the matches progress, it is becoming increasingly clear that it is a weak, brittle El Tri team on the field in San Jose. Mexico show nothing in attack in the second half. The men in green look defeated, devoid of confidence. Yet going into the final 10 minutes, Mexico, a team that only won two matches in the Hexagonal, are still New Zealand-bound because Julio Dely Valdes' side are unable to break through the Americans' back line. That is until the 83rd minute. Luis Tejada. Bedlam.

The goal provokes celebrations from fans of both sides. The American Outlaws in attendance celebrate (7:47 in the video). Panamanians celebrate. Costa Ricans celebrate. Mexico, the long-time nemesis of Central America and the archrival of the U.S., are out.



Stoppage time

And then on a night where the unthinkable was unfolding, things took a turn for the surreal. Tejada, the man who looked destined to be the hero, has the ball in the U.S. half. A teammate is on each flank. A simple chip or looping pass to either side would allow Panama to take the ball into the corner and run off more time. Instead, Tejada dribbles right into three U.S. defenders. The U.S. breaks, Edgar Castillo plays it out left to winger Brad Davis, who inexplicably has an acre of space, and the Houston Dynamo man curls into the box one of his patented left-footers. Graham Zusi is there to meet it, and "San Zusi" is born.

The news of Zusi's goal makes its way north to San Jose. Mexico, with less than a minute on the clock in their own match, are saved by their hated rivals. And no one is happier about it than Chicharito.

Scratch that. Maybe TV Azteca announcer Christian Martinoli is more excited than Chicharito.

Martinoli screams out, "We love you forever and ever! God bless America!" before launching an absolute barrage of insults toward his own team. It is arguably the most memorable call of a goal in CONCACAF history.

Back in Panama City, U.S. striker Aron Johannsson heaps more misery onto the stunned faithful just seconds later. In the blink of an eye, Panama have gone from a date with the Kiwis to utter, total despair. A pin drop can be heard inside the Rommel Fernandez.



Full time

Panama 2-3 United States; Costa Rica 2-1 Mexico. Mexico advance to playoff. Panama eliminated.

Devastation and tears in red are everywhere. The majority of U.S. sentiments are summed up by American Outlaws member Kevin from Minnesota in the KICK TV video (9:37). "We were gonna party with this entire stadium tonight. It's the weirdest feeling I've ever had in my life. My team won, and I'm sad."

Just minutes after scoring his cataclysmic goal, Zusi offered up some amusing thoughts in the postmatch mixed zone: "Hopefully I get free vacations to Mexico whenever I want," before adding, "It's a little weird being the rivals that we are for us to kind of save them, save their future. It's a little strange to think about."



Aftermath

"The feeling after the match is one I'd never seen," Sakata somberly recalls. "The 'gringos' were just as sad as the Panamanians. The feeling among the people was horrible. There was a sentiment of disappointment, one of 'the World Cup is not for us.' The first steps in a divorce. Many believed blindly, others were skeptical, but in the end, we all suffered equally."

U.S. Soccer used the occasion to send a friendly message to their neighbors across the border via Twitter.

#YoureWelcomeMexico @miseleccionmx

- U.S. Soccer (@ussoccer) October 16, 2013

For Mexico, there was relief but also embarrassment, especially for veteran defender Rafa Marquez. The man who always seemed to be in the middle of some of the more recent acrimonious moments between the U.S. and Mexico summed up his feelings poignantly: "We've hit bottom."

Meanwhile, Chicharito could not deny that Mexico had back-doored their way into the playoff: "It is not the best way to qualify and we know it, it is the worst way of qualifying. God has given us a new chance to be there," he told Fox Deportes. Peralta was more succinct: "It's all thanks to the United States we are in the playoff."

Days later, upon returning to training with Sporting Kansas City, Zusi was hailed a hero by a local Spanish-language radio station La Gran D.

This happened after training today #saintzusi pic.twitter.com/EUzAcpQn2Q

- Sporting Kansas City (@SportingKC) October 17, 2013

Reflections, as told to ESPN FC:

For Panama, those final moments still prove to be haunting a full year later.

"I remember those last three minutes the most," said Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo to Andrea Canales following a Los Angeles Galaxy training session. "Only football can give you that -- you're winning the game and then in a minute and a half, you're losing, and you've lost the chance to go to the World Cup. Those are experiences that, well, they're so painful, but hopefully, you grow from that and become stronger."

For Mexico, it was a lesson learned, and one they don't expect to have to live through again.

"We've learned, and it is clear to us that we mustn't relax from the first game of qualifying," Mexico midfielder Marco Fabian told Tom Marshall prior to Mexico's friendly versus Panama. "It shouldn't happen again. I think from the first match [of qualifying], we have to have to start to stamp our authority. Mexico has to be better than them."

And for the United States, it was all about fulfilling their duties of winning the game, no matter the circumstances.

"During the game, you could tell when Mexico went down a goal because the whole stadium just erupted out of nowhere," U.S. midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said to Jeff Carlisle. "But with everything, you always play to the final whistle. I didn't care about that, trying to help Mexico. I know some of our fans didn't want them to be in the World Cup. For us it was also a case for players to prove themselves and try to make a name for themselves."

"That was so much fun," U.S. midfielder Mix Diskerud recalled to Carlisle. "We already had gone to the World Cup, but we helped the Mexicans a little bit."

And the goal? The actual goal that will go down in history?

"Beauty, a beauty," Diskerud said. "Brad Davis, he has a good cross, we know that. I haven't seen Graham score too many headers, but it was a nice one."


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