Mexico can thank its lucky stars ... and stripes

Posted by Andrea Canales

Mexico’s near-elimination in World Cup qualifying has no doubt left millions of supporters feeling as if they have been saved from destruction, but the manner of the team's salvation has to feel like a gut-punch of its own. El Tri lost 2-1 versus a quality Costa Rican side, but was saved by the 3-2 result Team USA earned late against Panama.

Mexico remains alive in fourth place, scheduled for a playoff versus New Zealand, but the squad has arrived there not by its own merit. Twice over, Mexico's World Cup hopes were dead in the rainy National Stadium in San Jose, Costa Rica. The first time, Mexico clawed back by scoring an equalizer, but the second time, only the American goals in injury time versus Panama decided El Tri's destiny.

From the start, Mexico seemed a bit surprised as the match began and Costa Rica displayed no signs of being content with having secured qualification. El Tri struggled to contain the Tico attacks and to generate their own. The weather conditions made it even more difficult.

However, Victor Manuel Vucetich's players started to generate a few chances. A golden one arrived for Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez in the 18th minute when Oribe Peralta slipped him the ball in the box. Hernandez, jinxed or otherwise, completely devoid of confidence at this point, missed the ball on his kick attempt.

Almost as if in cosmic punishment for the miss by Hernandez, it seemed, Panama took the lead versus the U.S. off a goal by Gabriel Torres.

Then Costa Rica’s Bryan Ruiz twisted the knife against El Tri in the 25th minute, scoring a rocket past Guillermo "Memo" Ochoa to put the Ticos ahead. The scores of both matches at that time combined would, if they remained, eliminate Mexico from World Cup contention.

Mexico refused to die and was able to react relatively quickly. In the 28th minute, as Hernandez lost the ball in the goal area, it popped out to Peralta, who fired a hard shot to equalize the match.

The scores of both matches held into the second half. Mexico had half-chances, but couldn’t find the final pass to really threaten Costa Rica. Then in the 63rd minute, veteran Tico striker Alvaro Saborio nailed a header into the goal to again sentence Mexico to lose out on the World Cup.

Salvation was a mere few seconds away, however, as American Miguel Orozco scored against Panama to level that match. Once again, but this time not on their own merit, Mexico was saved again.

Try as it might, Mexico ultimately remained helpless to decide its own fate. It could not manage another goal, and in fact, throughout the remainder of the game, Costa Rica looked closer to amplifying its advantage. The efforts of Ochoa and even the goalpost at one point prevented that, but it was very close.

The destiny of El Tri was in the balance based on the result of the U.S.-Panama match, and that one still had goals left.

Panama struck in the 83rd minute, with Luis Tejada scoring the goal that again seemed to kill Mexico’s World Cup chances. The cheer that went up in Costa Rica’s stadium made it clear that the Ticos approved of their neighbors’ chance to make their first World Cup tournament in history.

The Americans refused to back down, though. Graham Zusi knocked in the tying goal in the final minute of regulation and Aron Johannsson added another for good measure to secure the U.S. victory.

As much as Mexico and its fans must be relieved and grateful at the final result, it has to be a bitter pill to swallow for a proud country with a World Cup tradition to depend so much on a rival to earn passage to the World Cup playoff.

After the match, Rafael Marquez could only shake his head when asked by ESPN’s John Sutcliffe if any message to the U.S. team was forthcoming. Marquez, who was red-carded out of a contentious 2002 World Cup elimination game against the U.S., wasn’t about to thank that same squad, even 11 years later.

For some, the turn of events has to be a feeling similar to almost drowning, then realizing that one’s worst enemy is manning the rescuing lifeboat.

Refusing to acknowledge Mexico’s saviors doesn’t change the fact of how and by whom El Tri was saved, however. The squad has to shake off any shame associated with that, though. There are still two games to be played versus New Zealand. Mexico will have to win that playoff without any help from anyone else.

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