MEXICO CITY -- On a night when everything about Mexico's recent history was celebrated, the U.S. men's national team crashed the party and made history of its own instead.
Riding some tough, organized defending, stellar goalkeeping from Tim Howard, as well Michael Orozco Fiscal's second-half goal, the U.S. claimed an historic 1-0 victory over its longtime rival, its first in 25 attempts.
The result will no doubt spark debate about whether the much vaunted gap between the two sides is real or imagined. Given that this was just one game, a friendly, it's difficult to draw any broad conclusions. Mexico's talent pipeline remains undisturbed, and the trophies it has garnered in the past year remain in its possession. This was also a game in which the U.S. fell short in its bid to carry the game to El Tri, and had its back line as well as Howard to thank for keeping the Americans in the game.
That said, the U.S. has plenty of reasons to feel good about itself. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann brought a decidedly understrength roster to the Azteca, and despite seeing El Tri have its usual advantage in possession, the group acquitted itself well with a disciplined performance. The turning point was in the 78th minute when Brek Shea came on and helped set up the goal a minute later with a trademark run to the end line. His cross was back-heeled by Terrence Boyd, and then deflected into the path of Orozco-Fiscal who poked the ball home.
As the match began, all eyes were on Klinsmann's makeshift back line of Edgar Castillo, Geoff Cameron, Maurice Edu and Fabian Johnson. Edu was making his first start as a center back since an October 2010 friendly against Poland, while Johnson made his first-ever start as a right back for the Americans. The latter move enabled Johnson to go up against Mexico danger man Andres Guardado.
Mexico began the match playing its trademark possession game, and continually probed Castillo's side through Pablo Barrera. But the Tijuana defender held his own, with Landon Donovan providing close defensive support.
In fact, it could be argued that it was the U.S. that had the first chance. Jose Torres' free kick was cleared to Beckerman, who headed the ball back into the box. Herculez Gomez was first to pounce and went down under pressure from a Mexico defender, but referee Walter Quesada was unmoved and waived play on.
Mexico was soon back on the attack. The U.S. was looking solid for the most part, but the Americans were almost undone in the 19th minute. Andres Guardado pounced on a poor clearance by Edu, but his shot whistled high and wide of Howard's goal.
Mexico went close again in the 28th minute, when Manuel Viniegra stripped Jermaine Jones in midfield and fed an unmarked Jorge Torres, but the left back's shot from distance flew just wide.
The U.S. attack showed some flashes, but there seemed to be a reluctance to play the final killer pass, especially when the ball found Danny Williams on the right flank. But those moments on offense were rare, and Mexico continued to enjoy most of the possession. Severo Meza began to creep forward in support of Barrera, and while this resulted in more crosses into the box, the U.S. defense held firm.
In a bid to generate more offense, Klinsmann brought on Terrence Boyd for the disappointing Torres and DaMarcus Beasley for Landon Donovan, and switched to a 4-4-2. Mexico countered with Edgar Lugo for Viniegra.
The U.S. was limited to half-chances while Mexico came closer and closer to scoring. Lugo and Barrera both had chances in the second half, with the latter's shot punched out by Howard.
The onslaught continued with Johnson coming to the rescue with a clutch tackle in the 66th minute on Hernandez. The Manchester United forward flashed a header wide of goal 10 minutes later.
That made Orozco-Fiscal's tally all the more incredible, as his goal-poaching instincts took over completely against the run of play with just 11 minutes remaining. The home crowd didn't take it well, pelting the small contingent of U.S. fans in the southwest corner with debris.
On the field, Mexico piled on the pressure, and Hernandez twice thought he had scored with a deflected effort and then a header in the 89th minute. But Howard pulled off two fantastic saves, and after sweating four minutes of stoppage time, the U.S. was left to celebrate an historic victory.
Is there room for improvement? No doubt, and Klinsmann admitted as much afterward. The team can do much better in keeping the ball and having a more sustained attack. But some questions were certainly answered on defense, and Klinsmann appears to have more options than was thought previously. That is certainly something to celebrate.
Player ratings: (0-10; 10=best)
G Tim Howard, 8 -- Didn't help his side with some scattershot distribution. Nothing wrong with his shot-stopping though, especially in saving Hernandez's late deflected effort as well as his header.
D Edgar Castillo, 7 -- His best game in a U.S. shirt, by far. Had the upper hand in his duels with Barrera, and got forward at times as well.
D Geoff Cameron, 6.5 -- Sharp in his one-on-one defending, especially when matched up with Hernandez. There were moments, however, when he was troubled by the off-the-ball movement of Mexican attackers. He seemed to tire a bit as the game progressed, leading to more fouls, but a game to build on.
D Maurice Edu, 6.5 -- Had some suspect clearances that fell straight to Mexican attackers, but settled down and was steady in his tackling and his marking.
D Fabian Johnson, 6 -- Made some good runs forward that went unrewarded, and defended his side well, but his lack of a right foot caused him problems when in possession. His second-half tackle on Hernandez may have well saved the game.
M Landon Donovan, 5 -- Put in a good shift defensively, but was starved of the ball to a degree. When he did get it he made some clever passes, but seemed reluctant to take opponents on or shoot.
M Jermaine Jones, 5.5 -- Pretty tidy on the ball, save for one sequence when he was robbed by Viniegra, and had some good tackles as well.
M Kyle Beckerman, 5.5 -- Showed both good and bad. Looked a step slow and tired noticeably with some sellout tackles that sparked counterattacks. That said, his positioning was usually solid (although his distribution was sketchy at times) and he helped spring Shea on the wing in the buildup to the goal.
M Danny Williams, 4 -- Defended well, but this was another game at right midfield in which his lack of attacking instincts were evident.
M Jose Torres, 4 -- He was stationed farther up field than in the past, and didn't look at all comfortable, especially with his back to goal. He was deservedly pulled at halftime.
F Herculez Gomez, 6 -- On a night when he had little service, worked hard to get on the hand of some half-chances.
M DaMarcus Beasley, 5 -- Brought some good energy defensively, but had little impact in the attack.
F Terrence Boyd, 6.5 -- Put himself about well, and kept the play alive in the buildup to Orozco-Fiscal's goal.
M Graham Zusi, 5 -- A late cameo for the Kansas City midfielder.
D Michael Orozco-Fiscal, 8 -- Goals don't come any sweeter. The San Luis defender was brought on to shore up the U.S. defense, but claimed the game-winning goal instead.
M Break Shea, 8 -- An absolute menace on the left flank when he came on late, setting up the goal and getting several other crossing opportunities.
M Joe Corona, NR -- Late cameo for the Tijuana attacker.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.