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USA vs. Mexico 2016: Final score 2-1, El Tri victorious off late Rafa Marquez dagger

Bad marking on a late corner cost the USMNT in World Cup qualifying.

Mexico v United States - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Mexico emerged victorious in a wild and chaotic World Cup qualifier in CONCACAF, coming out 2-1 winners against the United States thanks to a late headed goal from Rafa Marquez. It was the USMNT’s first home loss in the Hex in 15 years, and this is one that is going to hurt for a long, long time.

The first half was utterly disastrous for the USMNT, who got bullied by Mexico early. Their attempt at breaking in a new formation with the 3-5-2 fell to pieces very early on in the match, with the back three under near-constant siege from Mexico’s attack. Scoring chances were coming quickly for El Tri, and the warning sirens started to scream when Tecatito cracked the ball off the post after blazing through the U.S. defense with far too much ease.

Those warning sirens turned to sheer panic just a few minutes later when Michael Bradley bizarrely gave up on a challenge on Tecatito, allowing the ball to snake free and get to Miguel Layún in space, who rifled home an absolutely tremendous shot with a slight deflection that Tim Howard was helpless to stop.

The pressure would continue to mount on the USMNT, but an injury to Mexico midfielder Andres Guardado would give them some momentary breathing room. They used the opportunity to switch their shape to a 4-4-2, which the team on the field was much more comfortable in. That allowed them to finally start to slow Mexico down, though they still struggled to get much of anything going in attack for themselves. They got to halftime without giving up a second goal, despite a groin injury to Tim Howard that forced the goalkeeper out of the match late in the half.

The second half saw the U.S. come out absolutely flying. Their desperate pace seemed to catch Mexico off-guard, and with them trying to settle in a defensive substitute with Hugo Ayala replacing Diego Reyes at the half, there were chances for the USMNT to exploit — and exploit them they did. Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood combined to absolutely shred Mexico’s defense, with Altidore holding up the ball brilliantly and laying it off for Wood, who ran onto it and hammered it home.

There was a key moment ten minutes after the U.S. got their equalizer that nearly saw Mexico pull ahead, with Hector Herrera appearing to draw contact from Omar Gonzalez. At first glance it looked like if Herrera had just gone down naturally from the contact that was made, referee Walter Lopez would almost certainly have given Mexico a penalty. Instead, though, Herrera made a show of going down including a big reversal of his momentum, and Lopez showed him a yellow for simulation. It was a big break for the USMNT, and one that they’d do their best to take advantage of.

From there it was off to the races for both teams, with the match morphing into an end-to-end brawl with counters leading to hard tackles leading to shots leading to more counters leading back into the whole cycle. It was chaotic and incredible to watch, with huge plays at both ends of the pitch, including a potentially game-saving tackle from Fabian Johnson to keep Javier Hernández from scoring what looked like a certain goal.

In the end, though, it was Mexico who found that last bit of brilliance, with Rafa Marquez — who else? — popping up at the near post on a corner kick in the 89th minute and flicking it up and over to a wide-open far post and into the side netting. While normally teams would have someone standing on that far post, the USMNT had elected to load up at the near post more heavily, and that would up being the dagger that cost them the match.

Losing at home in a World Cup qualifier is always rough, and the USMNT will be feeling the pressure now after this 2-1 loss. It’s a massive win for Mexico to not just defeat their rivals, but to start the Hex with three big road points, which could wind up as a big, big advantage for El Tri further on during this final qualifying round, while the U.S. now have to go to Costa Rica, a place they typically struggle in, desperately needing a road win of their own so as to not fall further behind. It was a fantastic match to watch, but now the USMNT have a big hole to dig out of.

United States: Tim Howard (Brad Guzan 40’); John Brooks, Omar González, Matt Besler (Michael Orozco 81’); Fabian Johnson, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Timmy Chandler (DeAndre Yedlin 74’); Christian Pulisic; Bobby Wood, Jozy Altidore

Goals: Wood (49’)

Mexico: Alfredo Talavera; Diego Reyes (Hugo Ayala 46’), Rafa Márquez, Hector Moreno, Miguel Layún; Andres Guardado (Carlos Salcedo 28’), Hector Herrera; Carlos Vela (Hirving Lozano 73’), Giovani dos Santos, Jesús Corona; Javier Hernández

Goals: Layún (20’), Marquez (89’)

Three things we learned

Playing a 3-5-2 for the first time in a huge game was a bad idea.

When the USMNT lineup was first announced, many wondered if it would be a 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2, because the personnel could have gone either way. Some concluded that it would be a 4-4-2, because the U.S. have played that a lot lately, and why would Jurgen Klinsmann pull out a 3-5-2 in a huge game like this when these players, particularly the defenders, haven’t played that formation or tactical setup before? Sure, there’s a lot of reason to think that the U.S. would do well with a 3-5-2 based on the players they have, but this couldn’t be the time to test that, could it?

Well — he did pull out a brand new formation in a huge match. And it went about as poorly as you would expect.

In the opening half hour of the match before Klinsmann finally woke up and switched to the 4-4-2 available to him, Mexico were absolutely schooling the U.S. defense, using their wide forwards to completely upset the balance of the back line. Just look at Miguel Layún’s goal, or the strike off the post from Jesús Corona a few minutes before that, or the strike off the crossbar from Carlos Vela a few minutes after the goal. The consistent theme was wide pressure creating a U.S. mistake creating a wide-open chance at a goal. The USMNT were lucky only one of those turned into a goal, and Klinsmann took way, way, way too long to change formations.

Tecatito is obscenely good.

Speaking of Mexico’s wide play giving the U.S. fits, how good was Jesús Corona? Tecatito has been steadily emerging as a major force for Mexico, enjoying a solid season for Porto in Portugal, and putting in stellar performances every time the national team calls him home. Still just 23, Tecatito has a lot of room to grow, and if he keeps putting in performances like the one he did against the USMNT in this match, it’s easy to see why so many Mexico fans are excited for his future.

But what exactly did he do that was so great? Tecatito didn’t have a goal or assist, but his presence both on and off the ball was massively influential in every dangerous Mexico attack. His runs were incredibly disruptive to John Brooks when the U.S. were still in the 3-5-2, and even after switching back to a four-man back line he gave Timmy Chandler fits. His explosiveness and knack for finding spaces in dangerous areas demanded constant attention, and more often than not he got the better of whatever defenders tried to stop him.

Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore are becoming a great strike partnership.

After years of the USMNT struggling to get a consistently effective pairing up top, they seem to have stumbled into a brilliant one in recent matches. Ever since Jozy Altidore got healthy and in-form and started playing with Bobby Wood, they’ve formed an incredibly effective pairing up top that, while not flashy or sexy in any way, has been excellent at working together and just getting the job done.

Altidore’s maturation into being a stronger striker who holds up the ball well and looks to lay it off when the opportunity is there meshes extremely well with Wood’s space-hunting, hard-running style, and that was on full display in this match. In the first half when the U.S. struggled to get effective possession, they took turns dropping back to link up with Christian Pulisic and feeding the ball to their partner, leaning on each other to create the bare handful of chances the U.S. had early in the game. In the much more open second half, Altidore was a constant target for long balls, and his excellent understanding with Wood meant that he always knew where to knock those balls on to in order to give Wood a good chance at making something out of it — just like he did on the USMNT’s equalizer.

If this is the first-choice attacking pairing for the USMNT, that’s not a bad thing at all. Now they just need to sort out the defense and midfield.