Mexico was falling, out of the CONCACAF Nations League, far away from the regional throne it once held, when nine promised minutes of stoppage time elapsed.
It was down 2-1 to Honduras in a two-leg quarterfinal inching toward an infuriating conclusion Tuesday night at Estadio Azteca. It was falling further than ever before in the modern era, already on its third coach in 12 months, now threatening to miss out on the 2024 Copa América.
And that’s when Edson Álvarez appeared.
He swooped in to score a 101st-minute goal and save Mexico.
Almost an hour later, The Three won an absurd penalty shootout.
And CONCACAF executives surely celebrated along with the tens of thousands of Mexicans who braved rain and 100-plus minutes of dread to witness a stirring victory.
Luis Chávez had halved Honduras’ aggregate lead with a late-first-half free kick that brought the Azteca to life. But excitement gradually became groans and disbelief as the hosts missed chance after second-half chance, some of them seemingly unmissable. Julián Quiñones slid a simple shot wide, then fluffed an 88th-minute attempt on the doorstep.
With each successive chance squandered, Mexico crept dangerously close to the brink of calamity. And it crept toward an unsettling realization: that no coach, no tactic, no single player can slow the program’s decline.
But then, in the 11th of nine added minutes, Álvarez — one of the squad’s last remaining elite players — forced extra time.
After more Mexican pressure, and more near-misses, the match went to penalties — where it took another almost unbelievable turn.
Mexico took a lead, via Santi Giménez and the fingertips of Luis Malagón. It held that lead through three rounds, and then, in the fourth, up stepped César Huerta.
Huerta missed — but Honduran keeper Edrick Menjivar had tiptoed off the goal-line, granting Huerta a retake.
Huerta missed again — but again, Menjivar had strayed off his line to make the save.
At the third attempt, Huerta scored, barely. Andy Najar missed for Honduras. Mexico won, qualified for the 2024 Copa América, and made a lot of people hoping to sell tickets and merchandise and sponsorships at the 2024 Nations League finals in Arlington, Texas, very happy.
The Three are CONCACAF’s biggest draw, wherever they go, but especially in America. They regularly sell out NFL stadiums coast-to-coast and Chicago-to-Houston. They’re the only North American international soccer team capable of packing AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Without them, the 2023 Nations League final, contested in Las Vegas by the U.S. and Canada, was half-empty.
So, there were many sinking spirits as Honduras held its lead, and as the Nations League crept dangerously close to a final four of Honduras, Jamaica, Panama and the U.S.
Naturally, then, there were also conspiracy theories when the fourth official announced nine minutes of stoppage time, and as the head referee added a 10th and 11th on Tuesday night. They’ll play as long as Mexico needs to scorefans moaned. And sure enough, score Mexico did.
But no, there was no fix, surely no order from CONCACAF executives. Honduras had taken to the so-called dark arts, wasting time whenever it could. The extra two minutes are easy fodder for criticism; but they were completely legitimate. Menjivar, the Honduran keeper, had been down injured from the 91:15 mark until 93:10.
And when video review annulled his two saves in the shootout? He was, legitimately, a half-step off his line both times.
This was no pre-meditated outcome, no scheme to get Mexico to JerryWorld and Copa América. It was simply magic, magic that only soccer can deliver.