Once again, the United States failed to hold a lead in a key game _ and failed to earn its first win south of the border.

Leading 1-0 after nine minutes on Charlie Davies' goal in Wednesday's World Cup qualifier against Mexico, the U.S. lost 2-1 with Israel Castro equalizing in the 19th on a wicked 27-yard shot, then Miguel Sabah driving home the winner from short range in the 82nd.

In the Confederations Cup final in June, the U.S. led five-time World Cup champion Brazil 2-0 at the half, and lost 3-2.

"To be a great team, you have to learn how to control the lead," Davies said. "Unfortunately, we were unable to do that."

Forward Landon Donovan attributed the loss partly to fatigue and fighting Mexico City's altitude of 7,400 feet. The Americans had no time to adjust, arriving in Mexico just 24 hours before the match.

"It's hard to play here man," Donovan said. "It wears you out. It's just exhausting."

The victory eased the pressure on Mexico, which has been struggling in World Cup qualifying. The loss for the United States was almost expected. The U.S. has played 24 times in Mexico and lost 23. The other result was a 0-0 draw in 1997.

Despite the setback, the Americans remain in good shape to reach next year's World Cup in South Africa.

In other CONCACAF qualifiers on Wednesday, Trinidad and Tobago defeated El Salvador 1-0, and Honduras beat Costa Rica 4-0. After six games, Costa Rica leads with 12 points followed by the United States and Honduras (10), Mexico (9) and El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago (5).

"I think it's a tight game and a fair score," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "It's a tough loss to have so many guys work so hard and then give up a late goal. The feeling inside is one of great disappointment."

Added Donovan: "This wasn't a live-or-die game for us. It was for them."

Sabah came on in the 79th minute and was all alone in front of the net when he took a feed from Efrain Juarez and beat goalkeeper Tim Howard three minutes later. Defender Jay DeMerit made a key tackle on Juarez in the area, but the ball, instead of bounding out of bounds, went to Sabah, who put it away.

The Americans nearly silenced the piercing drone of horns, drums and high-pitched screams when Davies gave the United States a 1-0 lead on a world-class goal, the fourth of his career.

Donovan turned near midfield and threaded a pass through three Mexicans on the left side to Davies, who timed a perfect run and scored just inside the far post from 15 yards.

It was the first time the Americans led a match at Azteca Stadium, which opened 43 years ago.

The U.S. edge lasted only 10 minutes. In the 19th, Cuauhtemoc Blanco found Castro, who equalized off the underside of the crossbar and just over a leaping Howard's outstretched hand.

The goal turned up the volume again for 105,000 fans in sold-out Azteca, where almost every touch of the ball by a Mexican player was greeted by cheers of "Ole! Ole!"

Mexico won the Gold Cup last month using many of the same players. But the U.S. team the Mexicans routed 5-0 in the final was a lesser squad than the one on the field at Azteca.

Mexico coach Javier Aguirre could not hide his relief.

"Today is a day to celebrate, drink a few tequilas, and then get back to work," he said. "Everybody will go to bed tonight a bit more relaxed."

In the 74th minute, tempers flared. With Davies down on the field _ apparently with cramps _ several Mexican players tried to pull him off the ground. That angered Benny Feilhaber, who shoved several Mexicans as Howard came out of goal to separate the sides.

Three American defenders _ Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit and Carlos Bocanegra _ drew yellow cards in a game that became increasingly physical. Onyewu carried a yellow into the match, meaning he will miss the next qualifier on Sept. 5 against El Salvador in Sandy, Utah.

The Americans play Sept. 9 at Trinidad and Tobago. They end qualifying on Oct. 10 at Honduras and at home with Costa Rica on Oct. 14. Mexico plays at Costa Rica on Sept. 5 and is home to Honduras on Sept. 9. Mexico will wrap up qualifying on Oct. 10 at home with El Salvador and at Trinidad and Tobago on Oct. 14.