COLUMBUS, Ohio - One of the most curious series of results of any rivalry in the game - four straight 2-0 wins in Ohio for the United States against Mexico dating back 15 years - ended on Friday with El Tri’s 2-1 victory.
The American fans will no longer chant ‘Dos a Cero’. The mystique that surrounds playing at the 25,000 venue in Columbus has been lifted. Perhaps the United States will continue to consider Columbus the natural home for qualifiers against Mexico but without quite such confidence as in the past.
Enhancing the sense of closure for Mexico, the winning goal came from a player who had been on the field for the first of those losses back in 2001 and had been sent off in the 2009 encounter- 37-year-old captain Rafa Márquez.
For all the pre-match talk of the atmosphere being perhaps poisoned by the U.S. presidential election, there was little sign of tension in the stands and supporters of both sides partied peacefully in the parking lot before taking their places in the freezing stadium.
But as he bordered the team bus to leave that venue for probably the final time, Márquez acknowledged that the win, coming after all the rhetoric about Mexican illegal immigrants during Donald Trump’s campaign, had a little extra sweetness to it.
“Maybe now they (Mexican people) have a bad time…. a time of intolerance and with this win maybe they can forget now a little bit what happened here in the United States,” said Márquez.
A little bit, perhaps. They certainly won’t forget this win though that finally ended their torment in Columbus.
For American fans, Márquez, who had an unhappy and often bad-tempered spell in Major League Soccer with New York Red Bulls, has been the Mexican player they love to hate - his name always receives the biggest boo when the teams are announced.
But in the twilight of his career, Márquez has been far from the cartoon villain of the past. There are few players, these days, that can compete at the highest level as they head towards their forties but El Patron has found the secret becoming, in many ways, a better player the more he has had to rely on his football intelligence rather than his physical abilities.
He started the game in the centre of defence but following the 28th minute injury to Andres Guardado, who was replaced by defender Carlos Salcedo, Marquez stepped up into a midfield holding role, where he stifled the American attack and prompted Mexico’s responses.
The significance of Márquez, who has captained Mexico in a record four straight World Cups, ending the jinx in what was surely his final qualifier on U.S soil, was not lost on Mexico’s Colombian coach Juan Carlos Osorio.
"Rafael has a love for the game like no-one else. He always trains as hard as he can, considering his age. He wants to play in all the games," said Osorio.
"Today, I think football, the game itself, rewarded him and I am very pleased for him, very, very happy for him," he said.
Márquez gave a rare smile when he was told of those words from his coach.
“More than my reward, this is for the whole team. We have a lot of quality and tonight in the first half we were very good. We had some problems in the second half but this win is for everyone,” he said.
The decisive moment came in the 89th minute, Márquez, broke free of his marker John Brooks and met an expertly-delivered Miguel Layún corner with a perfect glancing header at the near post which flashed past a stationary Brad Guzan in the U.S. goal.
It was sloppy defending from the Americans and Guzan, who had replaced the injured Tim Howard in the first half, demonstrably blamed forward Jozy Altidore, who had been caught with hands on hips as Marquez flashed ahead of him.
It was a cruel end to the game for a U.S. team which had fought back well after being largely outclassed in the first half. But the better team had won.
Mexico under the guidance of Osorio are a more complete and more fluid team than in the past.
Apart from the shocking aberration of their 7-0 loss to Chile in the Copa America Centenario in June (when perhaps not insignificantly Marquez was unable to play), El Tri have shown under Osorio the kind of unity and technical and tactical growth they have been looking for to get the most out of what is undoubtedly a talented generation of players.
El Tri dominated the early stages and Jesus Corona almost gave them the lead in spectacular fashion in the 10th minute when he cut in from the left and saw his brilliant curling shot tipped against the post by Howard.
The opening goal came ten minutes later when the highly-active Layún, snaffled up a loose ball near the edge of the area and fired in a low shot which took a slight deflection as it flew past Howard.
Mexico were on a high and just a few minutes later they came close to doubling their lead when Carlos Velas’s header from a Corona cross struck the cross-bar.
After a discussion on the sidelines between skipper Michael Bradley and coach Juergen Klinsmann, the U.S. switched from an ambitious 3-4-3 formation to a more traditional 4-4-2 and the move worked as they clawed their way back into the game.
It was the U.S’s most impressive player who pulled them level. Altidore, showing a markedly improved touch, turned sharply and then fed Bobby Wood and the striker, who plays in Germany’s Bundesliga for Hamburg, confidently fired home.
From then on it was the game that the Americans wanted - a real scrap with both sides battling hard in midfield and the home side gaining the edge as the game wore on.
But then came Márquez with the killer blow at the death.