The United States men's national team ventured into their rivals' fortress and emerged unscathed, standing firm and earning a 0-0 draw against Mexico, but failing to break the Mexican defense on Tuesday night.
In six previous World Cup qualifiers at the Estadio Azteca, the US had managed to claim just one tie for its efforts. On Tuesday, it earned a second one, worth an invaluable point in the final round of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
In this most heated of rivalries, brimming with slights to avenge, the US showed up stout of heart, battling and grinding their way to an unlikely draw.
It was their second nervy result in five days, and a shock after the team had appeared to have reached its nadir after a Sporting News expose revealed a sizable part of the team disliked its coach, the experimental Jurgen Klinsmann. Instead, the Americans took the report as an occasion to rally, and followed up a snowbound 1-0 win over Costa Rica in Denver with a defense-first showing south of the border.
The Americans did so in the most daunting of environments. A deafening hum of horns and the screech of whistles rained down from 100,000 Mexican fans, mostly drowning out the 500 brazen Americans who had traveled. That, aligned with the altitude and the knowledge that the US has never won a competitive game in this stadium, conspired to break the American spirit. So prone are the Mexico fans in the lower bowl - who reportedly paid a princely $150 to sit there - to throw all kinds of liquids and projectiles at the hated gringos, that a line of riot police and their shields had to protect the Americans from bodily harm.
The Americans had vowed to take the game to Mexico all the same. The US delivered a clear statement of intent by refusing to relinquish the ball for the first three and a half minutes of the game. They weren't going to just sit back, as they often have. But Mexico's superior craftsmanship soon became apparent, as El Tri found acres of space behind the American midfield on the counter-attack. American defenders DaMarcus Beasley and Matt Besler were then forced to upend these attacks outside the laws of the game, earning them early yellow cards.
Mexico crafted a pair of good chances for Javier Hernandez and a wide-open header for Jesus Zavala. But wave after wave of Mexican attacks were stranded on this unorthodox American beach-head, composed of defenders who were either inexperienced, playing out of position and a backup goalkeeper in Brad Guzan. Yet however tenuous its grip, it withstood, thanks in part to some shoddy Mexican work in putting the finishing touch on their attack.
Towards the end of the half, the emboldened Americans started to find some room to push forward of their own, deftly combining through the middle, where previously only long balls and the occasional corner had gotten them into Mexico's half, to little effect. This yielded no significant shots though, as their sloppiness on the ball persisted.
The US put no more pressure on Guillermo Ochoa's goal in the second half. But its defense settled down, keeping the box clean for long stretches. It slowly grew apparent from Mexico's mounting frustration that there was a result to be had here, in this blood-thirsty cauldron.
The US slowed the game down where it could, trying to keep the ball in its own half and venturing out only when the occasional chance for a quick breakaway presented itself. If this ploy lacked ambition, that was okay. It neutralized Mexico's inherent technical advantage, which can rip a team apart if left unfettered.
In the 75th minute, when Javier Aquino crashed to earth in the box, Mexico desperately pleaded with the referee for a penalty as detritus rained down on the field from the stands. But the US survived that scare too and continued its gritty, determined slog towards the liberation and point the final whistle promised.
As the final minutes ticked down, Mexico's manager Jose Manuel de La Torre - who was already under fire from the Mexican media before this game kicked off- made his desperation apparent, gesticulating wildly on the sideline. It did him and his charges no good, as a late barrage yielded no winner. 0-0 it ended. Beer and boos rained down in equal measure.
The American performance may have been lacking aesthetically, but to take any more risks than they did against such ball virtuosos would have been foolhardy. They played it right and got the spoils as their reward.
Because at the Azteca, a draw is as good as a win.