MÉXICO CITY -- Facing a massive crowd, a sharp, hungry opposition and decades of ineptitude, the U.S. soccer team stood tall for 81 minutes at Azteca Stadium on Aug. 12.
Too bad for them, the game runs 90.
An opportunistic goal by Miguel Sabah in the 82nd minute handed México a 2-1 victory in a crucial World Cup qualifier, extending the Americans' winless streak at the 120,000-seat venue to 20 matches (0-19-1). The Americans are 0-23-1 on Mexican soil.
The loss dropped the United States to 3-2-1 in the qualifying round, a point ahead of México (3-3), which moved into third place in the North and Central América and Caribbean group. The standings do not reflect a late Wednesday match between first-place Costa Rica (4-1) and fourth-place Honduras (2-2-1).
The loss also continued a disturbing trend for the Americans: blowing leads against quality opponents.
They allowed three second-half goals to Brazil a 3-2 loss in the Confederations Cup final in June.
"It's a tough loss to have so many guys to work so hard and give up a late goal," said Bob Bradley, losing in his first trip to Azteca as the U.S. coach. "It's a feeling of great disappointment."
A few hours earlier, there was a decidedly different feeling on the U.S. side: hope.
Nine minutes into the match, striker Charlie Davies sucked the hot air out of the stadium with a goal off a pinpoint shot.
U.S. takes lead
Davies broke the scoreless tie when he took a perfect ground pass from Landon Donovan on the left flank and outran the Mexican defense to the net. Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who was left alone, didn't have a chance of stopping Davies' right-footed shot from 15 yards. It was the first time the Americans led at Azteca Stadium.
After the goal, Davies dashed to the corner flag and used it as a dancing partner -- much to the chagrin of the Mexican partisans, who threw water bottles at him.
"It's amazing," Davies said. "It's what you live for, especially as a striker."
For all the talk of México City's poor air quality, there wasn't a cloud in the sky at kickoff. And with temperatures comfortably in the 70s, it was a far cry from the brutal conditions the U.S. team trained under in Miami on Monday and Tuesday.
Still, you can't discount the altitude. México City is more than a mile above sea level, and it might have had an effect on the outcome.
Perhaps with fitness in mind, Bradley made a few eyebrow-raising changes to his lineup.
He sat Jozy Altidore and moved Donovan back to midfield. That meant the starting forwards were Davies and Brian Ching, a completely new attack.
The strategy paid dividends early, but the lead didn't last long.
In the 19th minute, Israel Castro tied the score with a laser shot from more than 25 yards out that hit the underside of the crossbar and landed past the goal line. Castro, with an assist by Cuauhtémoc Blanco, was left open after Donovan got tripped and Clint Dempsey appeared to have his head turned.
Just like that, the game was back on.
The Mexicans nearly forged ahead in the 24th minute, when Giovani Dos Santos shook free on the left side, but his shot scooted wide right.
The U.S. team kept the match even for the rest of the half -- in large part because of Oguchi Onyewu, a stout center back who seemed to track down every loose ball and turn away every advance he faced.
Action was static until the 51st minute, when the Americans had their first chance of the second half. Stuart Holden raced down the right sideline and sent a cross that just missed the forehead of a diving Davies.
Then, the game got rough. After a free kick, Davies ended up on the ground, and when he didn't get right back up, several members of the Mexican team tried to drag him off the pitch, thinking he was faking. That led to a shoving match between the teams, and Davies was carted off the field. Altidore took his place.
But after hanging on for most of the match, the United States finally let go of its grip in the 82nd minute.
México's Efraín Juárez led the rush through the box, splitting Donovan and Carlos Bocanegra. Jay DeMerit closed on Juárez, tackling the ball away.
But instead of trickling out of bounds, the ball ricocheted to Sabah, who collected it 10 yards out and sent it over Howard's reach and into the back of the net.
The crowd erupted in cheers, and beer cups were sent flying, toasting yet another Mexican victory.
"How the ball pops up, I don't know, but the guy turns on it," Howard said. "Those kinds of bounces seem to go against us in games like this."