It exists on what can seem to be a legendary aircraft, with an aberrational mixture of historical past, decibels and lack of oxygen leaving the Estadio Azteca peerless in North America. As simply one among two stadiums to host the World Cup closing twice, together with Rio’s fabled Maracana, few soccer venues may even remotely examine to Mexico‘s house floor.
Tales handed down by generations of the United States males’s nationwide group solely improve that notion, and their performances on the Azteca definitely do not dispel it. In eight World Cup qualifying matches spanning 5 many years, the U.S. has by no means left the Azteca, nestled within the southern stretches of Mexico Metropolis, with a win.
“I believe we constructed it as much as be this nearly unimaginable place to get a end result,” mentioned former USMNT striker Charlie Davies. “If you happen to bought a draw, it was enormous. It was nearly like a victory and for me, it was the sport I actually dreamed of enjoying in since I used to be somewhat child.”
Heading into Thursday’s renewed (10 p.m. ET, follow LIVE with ESPN) fixture on the iconic setting, the stakes for each groups could not be a lot larger. America and Mexico enter the ultimate three-game window of World Cup qualifying tied for second within the CONCACAF standings, each with work to do to make sure secure passage to Qatar 2022.
For the U.S., a loss might go away the group with a razor-thin margin for error with video games towards fourth-place Panama and fifth-place Costa Rica remaining. Mexico’s remaining schedule (at Honduras; vs. El Salvador) is extra forgiving, however a loss could be historic on two fronts: It could be El Tri‘s first-ever loss to the U.S. in a aggressive match on the Azteca and mark the primary four-match shedding streak in a rivalry performed since 1934.
Earlier than heading to Azteca for a qualifier in 2009, a number of U.S. gamers pulled Davies, then 23, apart. “They informed me, ‘That is the massive one. You may by no means play in one other environment fairly like this,'” Davies mentioned. “You would possibly play in a stadium as large. You would possibly play in entrance of this many individuals, however the hostility is second to none.
“It is the one place I ever performed in the place you may scream on the high of your lungs to somebody who’s 5 yards away and so they cannot hear you.”
Davies bought the “full Azteca” expertise. The group, managed by Bob Bradley on the time, flew within the evening earlier than the sport and the gamers had been instructed to make use of pretend names when checking into the resort. The thought was to mitigate unwelcome wake-up calls from Mexican followers, a tactic they’d been employed previously to disrupt their rivals’ preparation. Nonetheless, an unofficial welcoming committee discovered their means within the foyer that evening with airhorns and a symphony of automobile horns performed outdoors circled the resort all evening.
“It was simply to get your focus off the sport and to all these different issues,” Davies mentioned.
‘Obligation for perfection’
Beginning with the lead to 1997, the United States-Mexico video games on the Azteca in World Cup qualifying have all been aggressive. The U.S. nonetheless hasn’t received there, but it surely has three attracts of their final six journeys whereas the opposite three losses have all been by one objective — and in two video games, the U.S. scored first.
“There was lots of stress,” mentioned former Mexican striker Jared Borgetti about enjoying towards america. “I did not have very many nationwide group video games. I did not have that a lot expertise in these sorts of [World Cup] qualifiers.”
Borgetti, who had but to face america in an official competitors earlier than the 2001 qualifier, mentioned there was “obligation to do issues, very almost, to perfection.” A crowd of 110,000 roared when 16 minutes into that match, Borgetti latched onto Alberto Garcia Aspe’s cross off a free-kick and knocked it in — a objective Borgetti recalled was “very robust” to attain.
“The video games that at all times have one thing explicit about them, one thing difficult,” Borgetti added. “Clearly, they go away you with a pleasant feeling, outdoors of whether or not you win or lose.”
Efrain Juarez, who performed in a number of key matches towards the U.S. over time, recollects that the 2009 version was “not a standard recreation.” Why? As a result of he and his teammates watched themselves consuming breakfast on nationwide TV as helicopter cameras zoomed in on the group resort.
“Once we awakened that day, it was loopy as a result of three or 4 helicopters had been round us,” mentioned Juarez, now an assistant coach at New York Metropolis FC. “It was so humorous.”
‘Too drained to have a good time’
A lot is made in regards to the altitude in Mexico Metropolis. At roughly 7,200 toes above sea stage, there is not an ideal resolution to adequately put together for the toll the relative lack of oxygen takes on unaccustomed lungs.
Previous to the journey to the Azteca in 1997, United States coach Steve Sampson bought artistic. The group spent two weeks close to Massive Bear Lake within the San Bernardino Mountains outdoors of Los Angeles, which sits at an identical altitude as Mexico Metropolis. At evening and within the morning, the gamers’ our bodies would naturally acclimate, however they’d additionally bus two hours away to the town of San Bernardino every day to coach in a scorching, smoggy atmosphere — one other train carried out to imitate the circumstances they’d expertise on the Coloso de Santa Ursula.
“It is unimaginable to say it did not assist, we will need to have gotten one thing out of that,” mentioned former USMNT ahead Eric Wynalda. “That was the one rationalization for a way we had been capable of run as long and hard as we did as a result of we had simply spent two weeks in hell.”
At that time, america had performed away towards Mexico 19 occasions, together with aggressive video games and friendlies. They had been 0-19-0.
Wynalda began the 1997 recreation enjoying on the left aspect in midfield, however needed to drop to left again when Jeff Agoos was despatched off with a first-half crimson card. After a run of play that required Wynalda to dash up the sector in assault, then monitor all the way in which again, he was utterly spent.
“I run again and I deal with the ball out of bounds. I came visiting to the submit regarded proper at [goalkeeper Brad] Friedel and threw up on his toes,” Wynalda mentioned. “His response was, ‘Properly, now you are enjoying Waldo.’ And I used to be like, ‘I hate this.’ That place will make you spin anyway as a result of you possibly can’t breathe.”
Wynalda was subbed off within the 71st minute — the sport locked at 0-0 — and as he began to jog to the sideline, his teammates inspired him to sluggish to a stroll. They wanted each likelihood they may to catch their breath, and the U.S. noticed out the 0-Zero draw to select up their first-ever qualifying level in Mexico.
“Once we bought within the locker room — what an incredible end result — we had been too frickin’ drained to have a good time,” Wynalda mentioned. “We knew we had finished one thing that by no means been finished earlier than but it surely was additionally identical to, ‘I am so glad that is over with.'”
‘I am not losing oxygen on you’
Davies is just one of 5 American gamers — Willy Roy (1972), Rick Davis (1980), Eddie Lewis (2005), Michael Bradley (2017) — to attain a World Cup-qualifying objective on the Azteca and for him, that 2009 objective stands as the head second of his profession.
Tim Howard performed an extended ball into midfield. The ball popped to Landon Donovan within the middle circle and after taking a contact round an El Tri participant, he slotted a superbly weighted diagonal ball into house for Davies. Following two clear touches, he beat Guillermo Ochoa to the far submit.
Juarez was that Mexican defender tasked with marking Davies.
“He will get within the house and we could not cease him as a result of he was so fast,” mentioned Juarez, who would later within the match get the help on the game-winning objective.
“I felt like I teleported out of my physique. It was actually an out of physique expertise,” Davies mentioned. “I had at all times labored with a objective in thoughts that sooner or later I might play on this match and right here I’m enjoying in it, in Azteca, with all of the historical past with all of the gamers which have performed on that very same pitch, I scored for my nation.”
The deafening crowd was left silent. Davies went to the nook flag to have a good time, however solely Bradley joined him earlier than it began raining bottles, cash and batteries. “At halftime, I bear in mind going over to [Oguchi Onyewu] and was like, ‘Hey, man, how come you did not come have a good time?'” Davies mentioned.
“He goes, ‘Are you kidding me? I am not losing oxygen on you.'”
Paul Arriola remembers getting doused with beer by Mexico followers whereas watching a Gold Cup closing as a young person.
However the U.S. squad quickly wilted beneath the afternoon warmth, with Israel Castro equalizing by halftime. Then, within the 82nd minute, Juarez’s second of redemption when he bought a deflected go off to Miguel Sabah for the game-winner. The roar of the 105,000 followers in attendance was one thing, Juarez says, stays unforgettable.
“I’ve performed many, a few years. Many large video games with large crowds, however that objective was particular as a result of the sound [from the crowd] is loopy.”
Juarez recollects strolling previous an exhausted Donovan, who had tried to shut him down within the run-up of the objective.
“I understand how you’re feeling if you’re not used to that scenario [in the high elevation]. I noticed his face, like two to 3 minutes earlier than, I noticed that he was struggling,” mentioned Juarez, mimicking the way in which Donovan was catching his breath.
As usually is the case for an enormous win towards the USMNT, Mexico followers occasion into the evening and collect on the famed Angel de la Independencia monument. And regardless of serving to Mexico keep on target to qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, Juarez made for an early night.
“My dad and mom picked me up on the Azteca,” mentioned Juarez, laughing. “I used to be in mattress at 9:30, watching TV.”