2018 World Cup Qualifying, Featured, USMNT

Estadio Azteca: Still A Mystical Place, and for the US, A Hurdle It Hasn’t Cleared

For all the talk of Azteca losing its mystique, it remains a venue where the US have largely poor memories. The US can change that Sunday night.

Neil W. Blackmon

MEXICO CITY

Thursday night in Denver, the United States Men’s National team won the game it needed to win in the two-game June World Cup qualifying set. Now can the Americans win the game they so desperately want to win?

Can the US win at Azteca?

Estadio Azteca, the 7,500 feet in the air cauldron of sound that serves as the home of the Mexican National team, has hosted the Olympic games and two World Cup finals, seen the last marvelous international run of Pele, staged the “Hand of God” and Maradona’s “the Goal of the Century.” It is, in a sport that savors the mythical, a mystical treasure, a monument to memory.

For visiting teams, not so much.

Mexico City was built on what used to be Lake Texcoco, an ancient body of water that the Aztecs used as a central commerce route and water supply. The lake dried up, but the large-scale settlement remained, leaving behind what has become one of the largest cities in the world, built high in the sky, on shaky firmament.

When you approach Azteca in daylight, a ring of air pollution and smog hovering just beyond the tips of the stadium wall swallows the mountain peaks in the distance and is noticeably visible from the streets below. The diminished air quality makes even a simple jog at altitude exhausting, let alone a ninety minute soccer game. The altitude plays tricks on more than the lungs. Balls veer and dip at funny angles, making judging shots difficult for goalkeepers. Long balls to start counters or keeper distributions hang in the air, requiring the game to be played on the ground.

US midfielder Kellyn Acosta is familiar with the way altitude can affect a soccer game, having played multiple CONCACAF Champions League games with FC Dallas.

“The biggest thing is getting over the first hump” Acosta said. “After thirty minutes, the burning in the lungs stops, and you feel a bit better. You have to overwork the warm-up just to get your lungs used to it, just to let your body adjust.”

And even if you adjust, the thinner air plays tricks on the ball.

“We played Pachuca, which is even higher” Acosta said. “The ball flies more, the passes move different, it’s harder to hit the ball on target. It’s definitely different.”

Acosta is among the young Americans who grew up exposed to this rivalry. And despite being a veteran of multiple national team camps at only 21 years old, he admits this is the largest stage he’s played on. But part of respecting Mexico also involves the dream of beating Mexico in this storied venue.

“Yeah, I watched this game growing up on televisión as a kid. It’s something any American kid wants to be a part of, and (to win) would be the ultimate,” Acosta said.

And after all of those problems, there’s the noise.

When full, the vertical seating structure of the building traps the noise, making it one of the loudest soccer venues on the planet, and on Mexico City’s shoddy soil, when the noise swells enough, you get the sensation, even on the ground, that the building is shaking.

“It’s daunting,” Honduras coach Jorge Luis Pinto said last week. “The fans are seated straight up, the noise is relentless. The building pulses with the flow of the game. It’s extraordinarily difficult.”

Azteca is every bit as loud and hostile as the legendary college football stadiums of the SEC and Big Ten, but with the taxing physical conditions imposed by the heat, smog and altitude, more frightening. The end game is one of soccer’s most imposing home field advantages.

For the United States, it has largely been a house of horrors.

The Yanks have never won a World Cup qualifier in Mexico, and results of any sort on Mexican soil have been few and far between. In the modern era, the United States have managed only a pair of draws in qualifying visits to their neighbors to the south. The combination of El Tri’s talent, the crowd and the altitude has proven too difficult a riddle for even the best American teams.

Still, there have been close calls.

In 1998, the US traveled to Azteca and secured a draw, and were within an eyelash on a whipped in corner and subsequent header late, from collecting full spoils. The shock of the match in Mexico resulted in a coaching change by the historically hot under the collar board at the FMF. Bora Milutinović, in his second stint as Mexico manager, was fired and the local Mexico City dailies called the result “Una gran verguenza en Azteca”.

In 2009, the Yanks actually did take the lead, with Ricardo Clark stepping into a passing lane and quickly shuffling the stolen ball to Landon Donovan, who threaded a probing whip of a pass to a streaking, pre-car accident Charlie Davies. Davies beat his pursuing defender and with chilly verve, slotted past the El Tri goalkeeper to give the US a brief lead. At the time, many US commentators pondered whether the counterattacking goal was the most technically gorgeous piece of football in US history. It remains a part of that debate.

But after taking the lead, Steve Cherundolo is among the American veterans who felt the US backed off, “unsure of how to handle a lead at Azteca.” The game was level shortly thereafter and in the second half, the US withered, the energy, concentration and effort of Bob Bradley’s pressure defense combining with the altitude, daytime smog and heat to sap the American legs of the strength they needed to fight back, even as they never lost resolve. Mexico scored a late goal against an exhausted US and won, 2-1.

El Tri have a 7-0-2 mark against the US at Azteca in competitive matches, outscoring the Yanks 18-3.

All told, Mexico hold an astonishing 7-0-2 record against the United States in competitive matches at Estadio Azteca, a mark that includes a CONCACAF Gold Cup final and a FIFA Confederations Cup semifinal. In those games, the Yanks have tallied only three goals. Mexico have eighteen.

And yet, the margins are thinning.

Jurgen Klinsmann deserves credit for not only orchestrating a friendly at Azteca during his tenure as US manager, but for making history by winning, a late Michael Orozco goal giving US fans a famous victory. It wasn’t a Monet or Frida, but it was a win, a validation that the US could go to Mexico and win. That was a friendly, but it afforded the Yanks the confidence to play a defensive and tight qualifier in 2013 as well, snatching a draw on the backs of tremendous performances from Maurice Edu, Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler. The US are, as they say, edging closer.

At some point, the United States will win a World Cup qualifier at Estadio Azteca, or some other venue on Mexican soil.  Soccer bursts with stories of the teams that defied history, that bucked conventional wisdom and carved out a place for themselves in the sport’s institutional memory. Brazil in 1982 were one of the most stylish sides to ever play. They lost, because, as Italian manager Enzo Bearzot reminded the press afterwards, “nothing is impossible in soccer”, and at some point, a tougher team can trump a more talented one.

Enzo is right and he’s wrong. Toughness and grit produce results on occasion in soccer, but talent helps too. That Italy team beat Brazil because they defended, to be sure, but it helped to have Paolo Rossi scoring goals. The United States can claw out a qualifying draw with Matt Besler and Maurice Edu, but when they’ve defeated Mexico historically, it has been on the backs of players like Landon Donovan and Brian McBride.

Count Bruce Arena among those who doesn’t buy that there’s no mystique to Azteca anymore.

There are arguments, of course, that Azteca’s mystique is wearing out, and maybe, some merit to them, especially after El Tri struggled in the venue in the previous World Cup cycle. Bruce Arena insisted Saturday afternoon that wasn’t the case.

“Azteca is one of the great football stadiums in the world. It hasn’t lost any mystique. It’s a great venue. This is a great rivalry.”

If the US are finally to clear the Azteca hurdle Sunday night, however, they’ll have to do so against the most talented Mexican national team ever assembled, and one that has lost only one competitive match under its current manager, Juan Carlos Osorio.

Nothing is impossible. It’s just that some things are less than likely.

Bruce Arena says of course his players will approach the game expecting to win it. He agrees at some point, the US will win, and it isn’t crazy to talk about doing just that.

“I thought it was crazy to talk about Mexico winning in Columbus, Ohio,” Arena told the press Saturday night. “Maybe you all think it is crazy to think of the US winning in Mexico City. We’ll see.”

DeAndre Yedlin says the team understands the daunting challenge ahead.

“It’s a big challenge,” Yedlin told the media Friday. “We all know that. Mentally, we need to be well prepared. We know the conditions will be tough. We know the ref probably won’t be on our side. The fans obviously won’t be on our side. We’re going to have to be tough.”

Against the best Mexican collection of talent ever, in a venue that has never been kind, the US will need to be.

Neil W. Blackmon co-founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon. 

Neil W. Blackmon