Looking back at when USMNT scored vs. Mexico at Azteca: ‘I felt like I teleported out of my body’
3: 29 PM ET
Kyle Bonagura and Cesar Hernandez
It exists on what can seem like a mythical plane, with an aberrational combination of history, decibels and lack of oxygen leaving the Estadio Azteca peerless in North America. As just one of two stadiums to host the World Cup final twice, along with Rio’s fabled Maracana, few soccer venues can even remotely compare to Mexico‘s home ground.
Stories passed down through generations of the United States men’s national team only enhance that perception, and their performances at the Azteca certainly don’t dispel it. The U.S. has never won in eight World Cup qualifying matches that span five decades.
“I think we built it up to be this almost impossible place to get a result,” said former USMNT striker Charlie Davies. “If you got draw, it was huge. It felt almost like a win and it was the game that I had always longed to play since I was a child. “
Heading into Thursday’s renewed (10 p.m. ET, follow LIVE with ESPN) fixture at the iconic setting, the stakes for both teams couldn’t be much higher. The United States and Mexico enter the final three-game window of World Cup qualifying tied for second in the CONCACAF standings, both with work to do to ensure safe passage to Qatar 2022.
For the U.S., a loss could leave the team with a razor-thin margin for error with games against fourth-place Panama and fifth-place Costa Rica remaining. Mexico’s remaining schedule (at Honduras; vs. El Salvador) is more forgiving, but a loss would be historic on two fronts: It would be El Tri‘s first-ever loss to the U.S. in a competitive match at the Azteca and mark the first four-match losing streak in a rivalry played since 1934.
Before heading to Azteca for a qualifier in 2009, multiple U.S. players pulled Davies, then 23, aside. “They said to me, “This is the big one.” Davies stated, “You won’t play in a different atmosphere quite like this.” “You might not be able to play in a stadium that is as large. Although you might be playing in front of so many people, the hostility is unrivalled.
“It’s the only place I ever played in where you could scream at the top of your lungs to someone who is five yards away and they can’t hear you. “
Davies got the “full Azteca” experience. Bob Bradley was the team manager at the time. The players were instructed to use fake names for check-in. This was done to avoid unwelcome wake-up calls by Mexican fans, which they had used in the past to disrupt their preparation. Unofficially, a welcoming committee made their way into the lobby with airhorns and a symphony from car horns. They stayed there all night.
“It was just to get your focus off the game and to all these other things,” Davies said.
‘Obligation for perfection’
Starting with the result in 1997, the United States-Mexico games at the Azteca in World Cup qualifying have all been competitive. Although the U.S. has yet to win there, it has drawn three of its six previous trips. The other three losses were all by one goal. In two games, the U.S. won.
“There was a lot of pressure,” said former Mexican striker Jared Borgetti about playing against the United States. “I didn’t have many national team games. I didn’t have much experience in these types of [World Cup] qualifiers. “
Borgetti, who had yet to face the United States in an official competition before the 2001 qualifier, said there was “obligation to do things, very nearly, 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 goal Borgetti recalled was “very tough” to score.
“The games that always have something particular about them, something challenging,” Borgetti added. “They leave you with a pleasant feeling, regardless of whether you win, lose, or draw. “
Efrain Juarez, who played in several key matches against the U.S. over the years, recalls that the 2009 edition was “not a normal game.” Why? Because he and his team watched as helicopter cameras zoomed in to the hotel.
“When we woke up that day, it was crazy because three or four helicopters were around us,” said Juarez, now an assistant coach at New York City FC. It was hilarious. “
‘Too tired to celebrate’
Much is made about the altitude in Mexico City. At roughly 7,200 feet above sea level, there isn’t a perfect solution to adequately prepare for the toll the relative lack of oxygen takes on unaccustomed lungs.
Prior to the trip to the Azteca in 1997, United States coach Steve Sampson got creative. The team spent two weeks near Big Bear Lake, San Bernardino Mountains, Los Angeles. It is located at the same altitude as Mexico City. At night and in the morning, the players’ bodies would naturally acclimate, but they would also bus two hours away to the city of San Bernardino each day to train in a hot, smoggy environment — another exercise conducted to mimic the conditions they’d experience at the Coloso de Santa Ursula.
“It’s impossible to say it didn’t help, we must have gotten something out of that,” said former USMNT forward Eric Wynalda. “That was the only reason we were able run as hard and as long because we had just spent two weeks living in hell. “
At that point, the United States had played away against Mexico 19 times, including competitive games and friendlies. They were 0-19-0.
Wynalda started the 1997 game playing on the left side in midfield, but had to drop to left back when Jeff Agoos was sent off with a first-half red card. After a long run of play that saw Wynalda sprint up the field in attack and then track all the back, he was exhausted.
“I run back and I tackle the ball out of bounds. Wynalda stated, “I came over to the post and looked right at [goalkeeper Brad] Friedel. I threw up on my feet.” “His response was, “Well, now you’re just playing Waldo. I hate this. You can’t breathe and that place will make your head spin. “
Wynalda was subbed off in the 71st minute — the game locked at 0-0 — and as he started to jog to the sideline, his teammates encouraged him to slow to a walk. They needed every opportunity to catch their breath and the U.S. won the 0-0 draw to earn their first ever qualifying point in Mexico.
“When we got in the locker room — what an amazing result — we were too frickin’ tired to celebrate,” Wynalda said. We knew we had done something new, but it was also like, “I’m so glad that is over with.” ‘”
‘I’m not wasting oxygen on you’
Davies is only one of five American players — Willy Roy (1972), Rick Davis (1980), Eddie Lewis (2005), Michael Bradley (2017) — to score a World Cup-qualifying goal at the Azteca and for him, that 2009 goal stands as the pinnacle moment of his career.
Tim Howard played a long ball into midfield. The ball popped to Landon Donovan in the center circle and after taking a touch around an El Tri player, he slotted a perfectly weighted diagonal ball into space for Davies. Following two clean touches, he beat Guillermo Ochoa to the far post.
Juarez was that Mexican defender tasked with marking Davies.
“He gets in the space and we couldn’t stop him because he was so quick,” said Juarez, who would later in the match get the assist on the game-winning goal.
“I felt like I teleported out of my body. Davies stated that it was an out-of-body experience. “I had always hoped to play in this match one day, and here I am, in Azteca with all the history with all those who have played on the same pitch. I scored for my country. “
The deafening crowd was left silent. Davies went to the corner flag in celebration, but Bradley was there before it began raining bottles, coins, and batteries. “At halftime I recall going over to [Oguchi Onyewu], and was like, “Hey man, how come that you didn’t come celebrate?” Davies said.
“He goes, ‘Are you kidding me? 33469677215660′”
Paul Arriola remembers getting doused with beer by Mexico fans while watching a Gold Cup final as a teenager.
But the U.S. squad soon wilted under the afternoon heat, with Israel Castro equalizing by halftime. Then, in the 82nd minute, Juarez’s moment of redemption when he got a deflected pass off to Miguel Sabah for the game-winner. The roar of the 105,000 fans in attendance was something, Juarez says, remains unforgettable.
“I’ve played many, many years. There have been many big games with huge crowds. But that goal was unique because of the sound [from the crowd]. “
Juarez recalls walking past an exhausted Donovan, who had attempted to close him down in the run-up of the goal.
“I know how you feel when you’re not used to that situation [in the high elevation]. Juarez mimicked Donovan’s breathing and saw his face.
As often is the case for a big win against the USMNT, Mexico fans party into the night and gather at the famed Angel de la Independencia monument. And despite helping Mexico stay on course to qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, Juarez made for an early evening.
“My parents picked me up at the Azteca,” said Juarez, laughing. “I was in bed at 9: 30, watching TV. “
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.