PASADENA, Calif. --
Paul Aguilar produced a stunning late volley to give Mexico a deserved 3-2 victory over the United States after extra time in this gripping CONCACAF Cup playoff.
Aguilar ultimately separated the sides two minutes from the end with his angled volley inside the far post to give Mexico the title and send El Tri to Russia for the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.
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It proved a fitting conclusion to a pulsating, open game. Javier Hernandez completed a sweeping Mexican move after 10 minutes to score his first goal against the U.S. and stake his side to the lead. Geoff Cameron replied six minutes later by nodding home the equalizer from a Michael Bradley free kick to restore parity.
Mexico controlled the affair from that point onwards and wasted a chance to grab firm control when Hernandez missed from four yards just before the hour. The hosts held out long enough to send the match into extra time.
Oribe Peralta restored the Mexican lead after 96 minutes when he peeled off a back post run to slot home from close range. Late substitute Bobby Wood rounded off a tidy American move after 108 minutes to draw the Americans level for a second time, but Aguilar thrashed home to send Mexico to Russia.
The outcome reflected the balance of the game on the whole. Mexico exerted dominion in possession and pinned the Americans back for long stretches. The hosts held out for as long as possible and mustered that stunning riposte from Wood, but they eventually succumbed to a goal worthy of winning this final.
"A loss is always difficult to swallow, especially when there is so much at stake," USA manager Jurgen Klinsmann said after the match. "I think it was an open game until the very, very end, You thought already how to prepare the penalty shootout. They hit you with that volley and leave you there."
Mexico interim manager Ricardo Ferretti played three forwards from the start and reaped the rewards immediately. All three of them contributed to carve open the American defense and procure the opener inside 10 minutes. Peralta created most of the danger with a wonderful dummy to expose an American defense struggling to shift accordingly. Raul Jimenez flicked through with his heel for Peralta to surge behind the line and square for Hernandez to bundle home from close range.
The opening goal rewarded Mexico for a bright, intense start, but the Americans recovered quickly and responded six minutes later through a set piece. Every component of the Mexican defense crumbled as Bradley whipped his ball toward the near post. Cameron made a determined run to the near post and provided the finish the exquisite delivery deserved to restore parity.
Both teams finally tempered their ambitions as the first half progressed. The furious tempo faded accordingly with Mexico operating most often in possession and the U.S. setting out their stall. The decision to move Jermaine Jones to the left and shift Gyasi Zardes to the right strengthened the American shape in midfield. The focus on the counter from both teams led to quick play on the break when possession turned over in adverse areas.
The ensuing space prompted both teams forward and spurred opportunities in both halves. Brad Guzan rushed out to block Peralta at the far post and spark a modest fracas in the process. Jozy Altidore poked a Zardes cross wide at the far post, while Moises Muñoz recovered from his own poor positioning to push Bradley's free kick from the left wing around the post just before halftime.
Mexico dominated the proceedings after the interval and forced the Americans to retreat into their own half. The cadence in possession eventually created gaps and yielded a chance for Jimenez inside the first two minutes. Guzan rushed out bravely to block, but his intervention failed to stem the tide.
The pressure built and built until Mexico created the gilt-edged chance required on the hour. Jimenez once again found a way behind the line and squared toward the unmarked Hernandez, but the Leverkusen striker somehow managed turn wide with a heel flick from inside the goal area.
Hernandez's miss incited a response as the Americans pushed forward at least a bit and relieved the pressure for a few moments. There were opportunities to counter as Mexico advanced further and further, but the lack of pace in the American side ultimately tempered those efforts. Altidore created a corner kick from very little, but Muñoz rose highest to corral Bradley's service at the back post. Clint Dempsey then squandered a chance on the break after he pressed too earnestly with his own run instead of playing Zardes through the center channel.
Fatigue peeled away much of the tempo of the game in the late stages. Mexico enjoyed plenty of the ball without doing enough with it. There were shouts for handling against Matt Besler in the dying embers of normal time, but they were waved away as the match ended all square after 90 minutes.
Peralta pestered and threw himself about until finally receiving his reward eight minutes into extra time. Hector Herrera benefited from the latitude afforded in midfield and clipped a ball over the top. Aguilar rounded DaMarcus Beasley and pulled the ball back toward the far post with a cushioned cross back toward the penalty spot. Peralta checked his run as the entire American line track toward the goal line and slotted home to spark wild celebrations.
Mexico thought it procured the winner when Peralta restored the lead, but the Americans improbably responded after 108 minutes. Bradley distributed out to the right to locate DeAndre Yedlin in space. Yedlin picked up his head and played a diagonal ball into Wood's diagonal run through the static Mexican defense. Wood -- reprising his role against Germany and Netherlands -- poked through Muñoz's legs to peg El Tri back for a second time.
Wood's goal appeared to set the match on course for penalties, but Aguilar summoned last moment of magic to break American hearts and cinch Mexico's trip to Russia.
"When you're on the losing side, it hurts," Klinsmann added. "It's normal. It takes a couple of days to swallow that. I told the guys heads up, you gave everything you had."