By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
MEXICO CITY, Aug. 11 -- Azteca Stadium, the colossal structure in the Santa Ursula neighborhood of this sprawling metropolis of 19 million, has hosted the Olympics and two World Cup finals. It has welcomed America's Team (the Dallas Cowboys), the King of Pop (Michael Jackson) and a pope (John Paul II).
Soccer's greatest players, Pelé and Diego Maradona, were crowned here 16 years apart.
But for all the celebrations and observances, one momentous occurrence remains elusive: A victory by the U.S. men's national soccer team.
On Wednesday afternoon -- in thin and gritty air, with 105,000 spectators in attendance and an opponent famished for victory to remain in the hunt for a 2010 World Cup berth -- the Americans will attempt once again to beat Mexico on its home turf.
They have lost eight times and tied once at Azteca. They lost all 10 matches elsewhere in Mexico City and four in other Mexican cities before the big stadium opened in 1966. All told, they have an 0-22-1 record with 14 goals scored and 80 conceded. The only goal scored by the United States at Azteca in the past 25 years (in five games) came in its previous visit four years ago.
"It's almost like a rite of passage," goalkeeper Tim Howard said, "to really get your feet wet and play in that type of atmosphere."
Azteca is one of the world's elite stages, a transcending venue that, like Wembley in London and Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, is known by a single name. The acutely vertical design and partial roof prevent sound from escaping, and without much buffer between the lower stands and the field, the spectators are almost as much a part of the game as the players.
The Mexican team, branded El Tri and Tricolores for the three colors on the national flag, has benefited from Azteca's personality, losing just one World Cup qualifier there, in 2001 against Costa Rica. The Americans have come close in recent visits -- a 0-0 tie in a qualifier in 1997, a 1-0 overtime loss in the 1999 Confederations Cup and a 2-1 defeat in a qualifier in 2005 -- and appear to be in the best position ever to break their 75-year drought.
In the six-nation final round of qualifying, Mexico is in fourth place with a 2-3-0 record while the Americans are 3-1-1 and second behind Costa Rica (4-1-0). Few observers foresee El Tri failing to secure one of the three automatic berths to South Africa and missing the World Cup for the first time since 1990. However, victories at home are essential to the cause, and unlike previous campaigns, they are not as certain.
Mexican fans around the city speak highly of the U.S. squad -- "They learned how to beat us," said Sergio, a taxi driver -- and for perhaps the first time, the supporters are worried about the outcome.
Even so, it is difficult to imagine the Americans overcoming all the usual obstacles: 7,300-foot elevation, smog, the pulsating audience and a determined rival. "Of course, we will win, 3-0," Mexico midfielder Andrés Guardado declared this week.
The Mexicans added a twist this year by scheduling the match to start at 3 p.m. locally instead of at night, an attempt to take advantage of the warmer temperature (upper 70s instead of low 60s) and the murkier air.
The move was clearly in response to U.S. gamesmanship of selecting chilly Columbus, Ohio, as the site of its home qualifier against Mexico in February, a 2-0 U.S. victory. The U.S. Soccer Federation also staged a qualifier against Mexico in February 2001 in the frosty Ohio capital with the same outcome.
Though the U.S. team boasts a veteran roster, only four of the 20 players have ever played at Azteca and Coach Bob Bradley has never guided a team there.
"Each of these stadiums have their own feel, and when you put it all together," he said, "Azteca is a stadium we all know about and we all are excited about the challenge. We know the history there and are ready for it."
To prepare for the altitude, the Americans didn't prepare at all: Based on recommendations from experts, including the U.S. Olympic Committee, about athletic performance at high elevations, they decided to practice at sea level in Miami -- a central location for players arriving from MLS teams and Europe -- and touch down in Mexico City about 22 hours before kickoff.
"The research we have stuck with is one that says if you don't have enough time to acclimatize, which can take 10 days or so, then going in late is your best bet," Bradley said.
Beyond the physiological challenges, though, the Americans have to contend with a Mexican program beaming from a 5-0 victory over the United States in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final July 26 at Giants Stadium, a result that ended El Tri's 11-game winless streak on U.S. soil. In that tournament, however, the Americans used an experimental roster while Mexico was at about half-strength.
For years, American supporters mocked their Mexican counterparts with chants of "Dos a Cero!" -- a reference to several victories in the series by a 2-0 score, including a second-round showdown at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea. Since the Gold Cup blowout, Mexicans have responded with a stronger statement: "Cinco a Cero!" -- the refrain heard at Benito Juarez International Airport when the Americans arrived Tuesday afternoon.
Said USSF President Sunil Gulati: "Until two weeks ago, I'd say the pressure was squarely on Mexico in this qualifier. But the result of the Gold Cup put some pressure on us. A 5-0 result is not the last moment we want to remember. . . . It's rare you get a chance for redemption so quickly. We have a chance for redemption. . . . I think we are going to change history tomorrow."