The diverse, multinational population of the United States combined with the popularity of sports like baseball, basketball and football means the U.S. men’s soccer team rarely enjoys the comforts of a true home game.
On Wednesday, that was evident, as an especially loud and boisterous pro-Mexico crowd gave the visitors a de facto home-field advantage at an exhibition match at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.
But, in the end, nobody in the stands played a role in the final outcome.
Playing its archrival for the first time in 17 months, the U.S. overcame a slow start and withstood a furious second-half rally to defeat Mexico 2-0 in front 62,462, the largest soccer crowd ever in Arizona.
Jimmy Conrad’s first international goal was the game-winner, as the 29-year-old who plays for the Kansas City Wizards of Major League Soccer headed in a corner kick from Landon Donovan in the 52nd minute.
“Landon played a great ball, and I just picked a spot and put it away,” Conrad said.
Later, Donovan, who is the all-time U.S. leader in assists, added a goal of his own in stoppage time.
For the U.S., it was the seventh victory in the last eight games against Mexico on American soil. Mexico has not scored a single goal during that stretch.
“Our players get excited for every game against Mexico,” said interim U.S. coach Bob Bradley, who stepped in for Bruce Arena after a disastrous American effort at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. “We wanted to make sure that they weren’t afraid at all — that they believe in themselves, and I think that showed on the field.”
Much to the delight of the crowd, Mexico controlled the run of play for the opening 20 minutes, creating two good scoring chances. The first coming in the fourth minute after goalkeeper Tim Howard lost his footing and fell down in his box, and another in the 18th minute, when forward Jared Borgetti missed an open net with a header.
Borgetti had two other golden opportunities to put Mexico on the board, failing to take advantage of a beautiful corner kick in the 41st minute and whiffing on a cross in front of the net minutes after Conrad’s goal.
“When it comes to having chances on goal, the key is to convert them, and today, unfortunately, we couldn’t convert even one,” Borgetti said.
Donovan produced one of the few American scoring chances in the first half. After taking a pass at about the 40-yard mark, Donovan got free down the left side and left-footed a blast from just outside the penalty box, missing high.
“I felt really good about the way the players held together,” Bradley said. “Obviously, there were some periods in the game where they had to deal with tough moments, and yet I still felt that on the field there was a mentality that all the work that had gone on had paid off for them.”
Conrad said the win was big considering the youth of the team and Bradley’s interim status.
“I know the World Cup is three-and-a-half years away, but this is a step in the right direction for Bob and our young players,” he said.