Scoring chances were plentiful: Christian Pulisic and Yunus Musah in the first half, and Pulisic and Jordan Pefok in the second.
Then there was that late run by Gio Reyna past one, two, three, four … well, keep counting because it seemed like it was never going to end. A 19-year-old American who had not played in a qualifier since September because of injury and had just gotten back into the flow with his Bundesliga club did that? Yes, he did.
Berhalter said it reminded him of Diego Maradona’s famous trot for Argentina against England that culminated with a goal almost 36 years ago on this very same wedge of grass.
“I had visions of that while Gio was dribbling,” Berhalter said. “Unfortunately, he didn’t finish it off, or get an opportunity to finish it off.”
When told of Berhalter’s comparison, Reyna almost giggled as he and Pulisic exchanged goofy glances behind microphones.
“I don’t know about that,” said Reyna, son of former US captain Claudio Reyna. “Yeah, it was a nice run, and it didn’t really pan out to anything.”
The overall US effort did not quite pan out either, but with the draw, the Americans remained second with two games left in Concacaf’s eight-nation competition. The three automatic berths in Qatar in November remain unclaimed, but Canada (25 points), the United States (22) and Mexico (22) are closed. A fourth team will advance to a one-game playoff in June against the Oceania champion (probably New Zealand).
A journey that has carried the US team to San Salvador and Cincinnati, to Nashville, Panama City and an assortment of other stopovers across seven months will reach central Florida this weekend, when a chance to finish the job will await.
A victory Sunday night in Orlando against fifth-place Panama (18 points) would not be enough. But combined with fourth-place Costa Rica (19) tying or losing at No. 6 El Salvador (10), it would be over. A US draw and a Costa Rica loss also would do the trick.
Mexico, behind the United States on goal differential, could advance by winning at winless Honduras, while Canada will aim to wrap up its first berth since 1986 when it hosts one-win Jamaica in Toronto.
The United States will complete the 14-game schedule Wednesday in Costa Rica, where it has never won. If the Americans were to win Sunday, though, they won’t need to win Wednesday. Even if they haven’t clinched, the Americans might need only to avoid a defeat of a preposterous margin to remain ahead of the Ticos on goal differential.
“We put ourselves in a position Sunday to win and go to the World Cup,” said Pulisic, one of just four players left over from the 2018 World Cup cycle, when the team failed to qualify. “This is the situation we’re in, and we’re happy about it.”
On Thursday, they extended their unbeaten streak against El Tri to a record four games. In the two qualifiers, the Americans won and tied. In both games, they attacked with vigor and performed with a confidence belying their age. (The starting lineup Thursday averaged 24 years 4 months.)
Though they are still seeking their first victory in away qualifiers in the rivalry, they’ve earned three consecutive draws at Azteca.
The latest deadlock came despite the absence of five injured regulars. None of them will return Sunday, and because of yellow card suspensions, right back DeAndre Yedlin and winger Tim Weah also will miss the match.
Right back Reggie Cannon was out Thursday after testing positive for the coronavirus, prompting Berhalter to summon Shaq Moore from Tenerife, a Spanish second-division club. He was scheduled to arrive in Orlando on Thursday.
With three games in seven days, including one at 7,300 feet, Berhalter said he had expected to use a lot of players. On Thursday, he decided not to shield four key players from getting yellow cards; he got burned in the first half when Yedlin and Weah were booked, but Tyler Adams and Zack Steffen avoided similar fates.
Berhalter’s first two substitutions were not to strengthen the defense but to continue attacking. After replacing the quiet Ricardo Pepi, Pefok had a can’t-miss opportunity, set up by Reyna. Impossibly, from close range and much of the goal to choose, he did miss.
Reyna, still working himself into top fitness and form after a series of injuries, was fantastic from the moment he entered with about 30 minutes left. It bodes well for a starting assignment Sunday.
“You could see he is stronger,” Berhalter said. “He looked quick, and he is getting fit. When he gets 100-percent fit, he is going to really help this team for longer stretches.”
Although Mexico enjoyed promising stretches and applied heavy pressure late, “we had the bigger chances,” Pulisic said. Late in the first half, Weah’s cross connected with Pulisic for a one-timer from seven yards that goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa blocked.
The Chelsea star slapped the turf three times.
By the end of the night, frustration had given way to tranquility.
“Everyone was pretty pleased with the way things went,” Reyna said. “Sunday, we’re going to be ready to go.”