MEXICO CITY — God, I love coming to this place.
On Tuesday night, I arrived in the Mexican capital for the seventh time I will have seen a game here. This one, as usual, is big: A World Cup qualifier between the USMNT and Mexico—a true Bucket List game to attend—with just three matchdays left and neither rival having clinched a berth yet in Qatar 2022.
Literally the first thing I did after arriving was to join my friends Juan, Christian, Alexis and Charlie for tacos at Los Cocuyos in the Centro Histórico. It was a phenomenal welcome back to one of my favorite cities anywhere. CDMX is the kind of place everyone should go to on vacation at some point. There are amazing restaurants, must-visit museums and a creative buzz to the city that give it constant energy. Plus all the Mexicans I’ve met here (at least the ones not in the stadium) have been extremely welcoming and friendly over the years.
And, of course, the soccer culture is as vibrant as it is in any city, anywhere. Genuine A-List global fútbol history happened here, none more so than Brazil’s 1970 World Cup final triumph (Pelé’s team may have been the best of all time) and Diego Maradona’s best-individual-World-Cup-performance-ever heroics for Argentina in the 1986 World Cup.
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Mexico’s domestic soccer culture has a rich history as well. In 2007, I rented a car and went with my buddies on a Mexican soccer road trip from Monterrey to Puerto Vallarta to Guadalajara to Toluca to Mexico City for an SI Latino story that you unfortunately can’t find anywhere online anymore.
The truth is there haven’t been that many games between Mexico and the USMNT in the country of Mexico over the years. Due to well-known immigration patterns and demographics, Mexico (the most popular soccer team in the United States) plays more games north of the border than south of it. That has left Mexico-USMNT games in Mexico to be the domain of quadrennial World Cup qualifiers and a famous friendly from 2012.
I’ve had some great memories of covering Mexico-USMNT games in Estadio Azteca over the years. Let’s break it down:
August 1, 1999: Mexico 1, USMNT 0 ET (Confederations Cup semifinal)
At age 25, I was visiting Mexico for the first time ever, and Bruce Arena’s team showed the USMNT was rebounding nicely from the fiasco of World Cup 1998. The first three games were in Guadalajara, where I made sure to visit the José Cuervo tequila distillery and saw the U.S. beat New Zealand and Germany (Ben Olsen and Joe-Max Moore with the goals!) in Estadio Jalisco along with a hard-fought 1-0 loss to Brazil to knock out the Lothar Matthäus-led Germans and advance to the semifinals.
That trip was the first time I’d ever seen Ronaldinho, who was 19 and scored the game-winner against the USMNT. And it was the first time I visited the Azteca, one of the all-time intimidating atmospheres in sports. It’s wild how vertical the stadium is, a true ThunderDome of sport. And it was all the more impressive when the U.S. went toe-to-toe with Mexico into extra-time in front of a packed house. Jeff Agoos was the U.S.’s best player, a rock in the defense, but the U.S. couldn’t break through with a goal, and Mexico’s Cuauhtémoc Blanco finally broke through in extra-time for the win. The U.S. went on to finish third in the tournament, beating Saudi Arabia, and Mexico would beat Brazil in the final to raise the trophy.
Unfortunately, I missed out on the Mexico-USMNT World Cup qualifiers at the Azteca in 2001 (Sports Illustrated cheaped out and didn’t send anyone to cover Mexico’s 1-0 win) and 2005 (during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which I was covering). But I did write a magazine feature story in 2005 leading up to that qualifier (won 2-1 by Mexico) that went in-depth on the rivalry.
August 12, 2009: Mexico 2, USMNT 1 (World Cup qualifier)
The context for this showdown was fascinating. Bob Bradley’s USMNT was coming off a historic summer that included beating Spain and advancing to the Confederations Cup final in South Africa, where the U.S. had gone up 2-0 on Brazil before losing 3-2. Mexico staged the game at noontime on a weekday to ratchet up the heat, but Charlie Davies put the visitors ahead on an early goal and did the stanky leg to celebrate.
Mexico came back, though, and got a late winner. What do I remember from that visit? 1) Then-ESPN president John Skipper (now my boss at Meadowlark) went to the game with Bill Simmons and got hit with a flying burrito, which only increased his interest in the rivalry, 2) I had a dish of crickets at a Mexico City restaurant (crunchy!), and 3) Landon Donovan revealed to me on a post-game phone call that he had contracted the swine flu. That information went on to cause the Bundesliga to sideline USMNT teammates Steve Cherundolo, Michael Bradley and others the following weekend.
August 15, 2012: Mexico 0, USMNT 1 (Friendly)
Jurgen Klinsmann certainly had his issues as a coach, but I always liked his willingness to play friendlies in hostile environments, even in CONCACAF. That paid off when Michael Orozco’s late goal gave the USMNT its first victory ever at the Azteca. Yes, it was a friendly, but it was still a big moment. I’ll always remember walking out of the stadium when somehow goalkeeper Tim Howard materialized next to me and pointed to a sign on the wall commemorating all of Mexico’s successes against the U.S. in the Azteca over the years.
“Time to change the sign,” Howard said, and he was right.
March 26, 2013: Mexico 0, USMNT 0 (World Cup qualifier)
The context heading into this game was memorable, too. Klinsmann was under fire after Brian Straus’s bombshell Sporting News story (no link available, unfortunately) revealed turmoil inside the USMNT. But Klinsmann’s Yanks had just gotten a big three points against Costa Rica four days earlier in the memorable SnowClásico, and they picked up a precious point with a 0-0 in the Azteca to put the U.S. in a much better situation in World Cup qualifying.
June 11, 2017: Mexico 1, USMNT 1 (World Cup qualifier)
I honestly can’t believe it has been almost five years since the last Mexico-USMNT game in the Azteca, but life comes at you fast. This one saw Michael Bradley’s remarkable 40-yard blast into the goal that silenced the Azteca crowd, only for Carlos Vela to get an equalizer. Still, it was a sign that Bruce Arena had stabilized the U.S. qualifying campaign, only for things to fall apart with a subsequent home defeat to Costa Rica and the infamous final-game loss at Trinidad and Tobago to leave the U.S. out of the World Cup.
We go again here on Thursday, in what may be the last high-stakes World Cup qualifier ever between the two archrivals, and I can’t wait.
Well done, Grant. Michael Bradley’s goal against Mexico is possibly the greatest goal scored in USMNT history. I know there are others—Caliguiri (T&T), Preki (Brazil), Feilhaber (Mexico), Donovan (Algeria)—but in terms of sheer technique, ingenuity, quick thinking, and audacity, all on enemy territory and at altitude no less, it’s just masterful. Brings back great memories. On the strength of that goal, we had to qualify, right? RIGHT?! A good reminder not to take anything for granted.
Heading to CDMX now for the game. So pumped!
Thanks, Grant - “our man on the scene”. Looking forward to the reports.