The soccer hero of two nations...
A few days ago Zusi came off the bench and scored the game winner in his home stadium to help secure first place on top of the hex for the United States. Last night in Panama he scored to tie the game in stoppage time, all but ending Panama's chances but extending a World Cup lifeline to the United States' biggest rivals. Mexico fans, commentators and reporters went crazy when Zusi scored. Twitter and the internet exploded with praise and love for the United States and Sporting Kansas City's Zusi.
Late in the last round of qualifiers Tuesday night, it seemed that Mexico was out. They were losing to Costa Rica and with Panama leading the U.S., Mexico would have finished in fifth place and Panama would have went on to play New Zealand for the right to go to Brazil next year.
The last few minutes of the qualifiers turned soccer in CONCACAF into bizzaro world. Many U.S. fans were not so secretly hoping for (or at least okay with) a U.S. loss so Mexico would be eliminated. Panamanians were rooting for Costa Rico and the strangest event was Mexican fans rooting for the U.S. to pull a miracle and save them.
With Mexico flailing about unsuccessfully, the U.S. could have forced their biggest rival in the region to sit at home next year. The game did not change the U.S. fortunes; it will not affect the rankings enough to get a seed in the World Cup. With nothing to play for in the standings, with many of America's biggest names injured or returned to their clubs, a loss in Panama would have been no shame.
A team with character
It would have been so easy to just play it out, let it end. It would have been easy for Jurgen Klinsmann's squad to let the Panama lead ride. Instead, the yanks showed their character and did what America does best. They kept fighting and never gave up. Just into stoppage time, Zusi headed home a Brad Davis cross. With Panama stunned and in shock, Aron Johannsson added another a minute later to steal the victory and leave the nation of Panama distraught over their missed chance.
"Finding ourselves down late again, not giving up and not settling for anything, we kept pushing the game and we found the win," Graham Zusi explained after the game.
"We punished them"
Defender Clarence Goodson seemed amazed that Panama did not do more to protect their lead late in the game. "They were winning the game and they should have dropped off. Put guys in the box and do like we did in the Gold Cup, brought Omar in and cleared balls, just play primitive. But they kept two strikers and it was very surprising. They still had a lot of gaps in their team for the game being so late and the World Cup on the line. We punished them for it."
Punish them they did. Panama could have done more during qualifying to secure a spot and in the end, while Mexico did not do much to deserve it, they will now face New Zealand for the right to be in Brazil.
One headline this morning said that Mexico is eternally grateful. Announcers on the Mexico game screamed "We love you! We love you forever and ever! God bless America!"
Lots of jokes going around on social media about the amount of tequila being shipped to Kansas City with Zusi's name on it, or the number of transfer offers from Mexican teams that will be arriving on Peter Vermes desk this week.
Somehow I do not think that gratitude will last. Mexican fans will not take it easy on the Americans when they next visit Azteca. The Mexican Federation will still try to convince players born in the U.S. that they must play for Mexico. Chivas USA will still be a blight upon MLS.
The rivalry will go right back to a normal level fairly quickly but U.S. players will know and more importantly, Mexican players will know. U.S. Soccer saved Mexico from total humiliation. For now...