MEXICO CITY — The United States is creeping, not surging, toward next summer’s World Cup. One step, and in this case one point, at a time. It is a slog and a struggle, it is not always pretty, but there is only one job that matters and that job is getting done.
“It is going to be very challenging right until the end,” head coach Bruce Arena said, after his team secured a hard-fought 1-1 draw against Mexico on Sunday night, “But I feel good about where we are. We have made up some lost ground.”
This result at the imposing Estadio Azteca didn’t provide the emotional boost of what would have been an historic triumph here for the first time in a competitive game and didn’t offer a surge up the standings in CONCACAF regional qualifying.
Yet while it might not emphatically look like it on paper, under Arena the U.S. has resurrected itself from a hideous start to the campaign and is now a strong favorite to claim one of the region’s three automatic spots in soccer’s greatest event.
International soccer is an odd and tricky business. Sometimes a point gained is actually worth far more. Such was the case here. Mexico, in its current form, can confidently be expected to win its remaining home games, just as it won the two that preceded this. The Americans, having made seven changes from Thursday’s victory over Trinidad and Tobago didn’t get three points, but the other teams still to visit might not get any.
Much as the U.S. would love to have qualification close to being wrapped up by now, such an outcome was never going to happen once it lost the first two matches, results and performances that got former chief Jurgen Klinsmann fired.
The current U.S. lineup is not packed with world-beaters, but there are some positive signs. Christian Pulisic is the most obvious one, an 18-year-old with the potential to become a transcendent talent for the sport in this country.
Michael Bradley is not a perfect midfielder, yet he knows how to get dirty in the trenches on nights like this and will never be accused of lacking effort.
Occasionally, Bradley can produce a moment of inspiration, like the spectacular goal that put the U.S. ahead in the sixth minute and briefly spawned hope of a famous victory.
Geoff Cameron, Tim Ream and Omar Gonzalez are far from being household names, yet they showed the type of defensive resilience that is needed if the team is to make progress, both in the immediate term and potentially at the World Cup.
“We showed a lot of grit and a lot of fight,” forward Jozy Altidore said. “We’ve got to be happy with a point, it is always a special game and a special place to play.”
At this moment in time, Mexico is somewhat better than the U.S. It has silkier, more gifted players, moves the ball rapidly and has molded itself into an organized, efficient and dangerous unit. The speed of the break that ended with Carlos Vela’s 23rd minute equalizer was a testament to its dynamic threat.
Getting any kind of positive result here is no simple task. Few teams have unlocked the secrets of the Azteca, and this was only the third time in history that the U.S. has come away with a draw.
While gaining points in the early days of his watch was a must — and Arena has now collected eight from his four games — even more vital was regaining the kind of desire and inner fire that had been lost by the end of the Klinsmann reign.
American soccer does a better job of producing technical players than it used to, but for the foreseeable future at least its most effective route to being competitive globally will be through good old-fashioned effort and determination.
Arena does not lack for tactical nous, but his best attributes lay in an ability to conjure persistence and willpower from his group. Without those factors, this was a game that could have speedily headed south once Mexico equalized. Instead, the visitors had chances of their own in the second half and could have come out on top.
“We were close tonight,” Arena said. “I am proud of the result. I am a little greedy, I wanted all three points.”
Arena took over in a tricky spot and now feels in control of the situation. Panama might leapfrog the U.S. and nudge back into third position when it takes on Honduras at home on Tuesday. That scenario though, need not and will not induce panic in the coach or his charges.
There are four more chances to collect points, all potentially winnable games, with both fixtures against Mexico out of the way.
Bradley’s goal aside, this was not one for the highlight reel but Arena measures his team’s efforts through other factors and without question his players have stepped up ever since he stepped in.
The battle is not over, but headway has been made and a platform has been built.
Follow Martin Rogers on Twitter @mrogersUSAT.