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By Simon Evans
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A battling United States held Mexico to their third straight draw in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, grinding out a goalless stalemate in a tense encounter at the Azteca Stadium on Tuesday.
The result was only the second time the U.S. have earned a point from a qualifier at the Azteca and the gutsy display with an injury-hit squad took the U.S. to four points from their three games.
Panama top the standings on five points from three games with Costa Rica second in the table, ahead of the Juergen Klinsmann-coached U.S. on goal difference.
For Klinsmann, whose team have responded to media criticism of their coach with four points from the two March qualifiers, including Friday's victory in snowy Denver over Costa Rica, the result showed his team possesses plenty of character.
"We wanted to give it a shot to win the game but we are pleased. Mexico gave everything they had, they put us under a lot of pressure," the former Germany striker and coach told reporters.
"The way our team was organised, was connected and committed was unbelievable, it was a great team effort and they deserve a huge compliment," he added.
Despite dropping to fifth in the standings, Mexico coach Jose Manuel de La Torre said there was no need for panic.
"The leading team has five points, we have three and there are 21 points left to play for," he said.
"This is not what we had budgeted for, but the group is far from over and now we have to push the pace."
Mexico had the better of the possession and the chances but were unable to find a way past a well-organised and determined U.S. back line, although they were furious not to be awarded a penalty in the second half.
Javier Aquino went down under challenge from Maurice Edu in the 76th minute but Guatemalan referee Walter Lopez waved away the appeals.
"We are not going to blame the refereeing," De La Torre added. "We are responsible for our results".
The home side began brightly and clearly targeted stand-in left back DaMarcus Beasley with right-winger Aquino being joined by Giovani Dos Santos on the flank to cause early trouble for Klinsmann's side.
Aquino was brought down by Beasley in the eighth minute, earning the U.S. defender a yellow card to further add to his difficulties.
Dos Santos whipped the resulting free-kick across the face of goal but Mexico clearly felt an early strike was within their grasp.
Dos Santos's volley in the 20th minute straight at U.S. keeper Brad Guzan was, however, the only real threat on goal that Mexico produced from their early pressure.
After their shaky start, the U.S, gradually grew into the game, slowing down the pace and looking to hit Mexico on the counter attack.
Midfielder Michael Bradley led a couple of smart breaks but the U.S. were content to reach halftime with the game still goalless.
Mexico began the second half brightly again with Aquino's cross-shot clipping the top of the bar and this time their early promise was turned into sustained pressure.
The inexperienced U.S. central defensive pairing of Matt Besler and Omar Gonazalez had impressive displays, keeping Mexico's main strike threat Javier Hernandez quiet and making several timely interceptions.
Jesus Zavala went close with a deflected shot in the 69th minute, while the U.S. made changes with Eddie Johnson replacing Jozy Altidore at centre-forward and then Brad Davis taking over from Herculez Gomez on the left flank.
Mexico then had their penalty claim rejected with 14 minutes remaining and deep into injury time, Angel Reyna forced a great save out of Guzan with a fierce drive but the U.S. survived, leaving the crowd of 95,000 frustrated at the final whistle.
The third straight draw leaves Mexico in fifth place in the six-team group, a point behind Honduras with Jamaica propping up the table on two points.
The top three teams qualify automatically for next year's finals in Brazil with the fourth-placed team going into a two-legged playoff New Zealand for a chance of securing a fourth berth from the region.
(Editing by John O'Brien)