Christian Pulisic came off the bench and scored in the 74th minute and Weston McKennie added a goal in the 85th minute as the United States defeated Mexico 2-0 on Friday night in a World Cup qualifier in Cincinnati.
Zach Steffen made four saves to post the shutout for the US (4-1-2), which moved past Mexico (4-1-2) atop the CONCACAF qualifying standings via goal differential halfway through the 14-game tournament. The US has scored seven more goals than it has allowed, while Mexico is at plus-5.
Pulisic came on in the 69th minute for Brenden Aaronson after a skirmish near the sideline resulted in three yellow cards.
It didn’t take long for Pulisic to get what proved to be the winner on a chilly and wet night at TQL Stadium, home of FC Cincinnati.
“It was incredible, and the fans made it all that much better,” Pulisic said of the sold-out Ohio crowd, who were undeterred by the cold and wet conditions.
“They really came out tonight. It was so loud in there. Moments like that is what we live for.”
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Tim Weah, the son of former Ballon d’Or winner George Weah, drove the ball down the edge of the 18-yard box on the right wing and sent a cross for Pulisic. The Chelsea standout outmuscled a defender to get to the ball and put a strong header from about 3 yards out past Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.
Pulisic hadn’t played for the US since sustaining a sprained ankle in a World Cup qualifier at Honduras on September 8. He was sidelined until coming off the bench for Chelsea in a Champions League match on November 2 at Malmo.
McKennie doubled the advantage by putting a 10-yard shot from the right-center of the penalty area inside the far post, having regained control of the ball after his pass was blocked by a Mexico defender.
The US had to play the four minutes of second-half stoppage time short-handed after Miles Robinson received his second yellow card and was ejected in the 89th minute.
The skirmish in the 68th minute came after Aaronson was knocked to the ground by Mexico’s Luis Rodriguez, who seemed to claw at Aaronson’s face as he went down. McKennie immediately came over and pushed Rodriguez away, and Steffen later ran past midfield to jaw with referee Ivan Arcides Barton Cisneros, who carded all three players. That means McKennie will have to miss the next match, Tuesday at Jamaica, due to yellow-card accumulation.
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Pulisic said fans should always expect sparks to fly when the adversaries square off.
“USA and Mexico, you know what you’re going to get. Intensity,” he said.
“It was a crazy game for sure but it’s what we expected. It was tough to break them down. I’m happy I could come in and help us out. In the end, that’s three huge points.”
Canada, which defeated Costa Rica 1-0 on Friday, has 13 points. Panama has 11 and Costa Rica has six to round out the group’s top four.
The United States had come out on top in the two most recent meetings between the teams, but the match in Cincinnati was clearly the most important to the US side.
The team is eager to qualify for next year’s World Cup in Qatar and put behind it the humiliating loss it suffered at the hands of Trinidad and Tobago four years ago that kept it from reaching the World Cup in Russia.
“We’re in a good spot now but we have a lot more games to play,” Pulisic said.
“This is just one step closer to getting to the World Cup,” he added.