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The U.S. men's team inches closer to World Cup qualification

U.S. v Mexico soccer game
Eduardo Verdugo
United States' Christian Pulisic (10) competes for the ball against Mexico's Cesar Montes, left, and Jorge Sanchez during a qualifying soccer match for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 at Azteca stadium in Mexico City, Thursday, March 24, 2022.

The United States men's national soccer team is moving slightly closer to World Cup qualification after recording a hard fought scoreless draw with Mexico Thursday in one of the team's final matches before the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

The U.S. had hoped to win in a competitive away game at the Azteca Stadium for the first time, but missed the chances throughout the match that could have given them victory. Star striker Christian Pulisic had two shots saved by Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.

There were multiple yellow cards for both teams, including one for Mexico's coach, but the contest, one of the most intense rivalries in international competition, was less tense than in previous years. The number of fans allowed to attend the 87,000-seat capacity Azteca was about half; Mexico had applied a fan ID system following the sanctions leveled over fans' repeated use of anti-gay slurs by FIFA, soccer's international governing body.

On Thursday, some fans could be heard shouting slurs again late in the match, while the stadium announcer tried to drown them out.

The draw leaves both teams equal on points behind Canada in the qualifying table, with the top three going through to the tournament in November. Canada lost to Costa Rica away Thursday, after having a man sent off in the first half.

The U.S. men's team has two difficult matches with the highly rated Panama and Costa Rica to play in the next week, which will determine their qualification route.

The U.S. missed out on qualifying for the World Cup in 2018, for the first time in more than two decades. The 2026 World Cup will be hosted jointly by the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

Qualifying games around the world were played Thursday. In Europe, European Champions Italy was knocked out of World Cup qualification by minnows North Macedonia, in one of the biggest shocks in the sport. It means Italy will not contest a World Cup for the second time in a row. Wales beat Austria 2-1 to progress to a final game, while Portugal kept star player Cristiano Ronaldo's dreams of winning a World Cup alive by beating Turkey.

Matches between Russia and Poland and Ukraine and Scotland were cancelled or postponed due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

In Asia, Japan qualified by dramatically beating Australia in the last minutes of their match. It leaves the Australians needing to win a qualifying game to progress to the tournament. South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia have now qualified.

In South America, Brazil, who had already qualified alongside Argentina, beat Chile. Uruguay and Ecuador also secured automatic qualification. More games will be played around the world in the next week.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

Robert Griffiths
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