100 Moments: Depleted U.S. Men’s National Team Records Historic Point at Azteca
Playing archrival Mexico in a vital World Cup qualifier in Mexico City was a difficult enough challenge for the United States on Nov. 2, 1997.
After all, the U.S. National Team had never recorded a point south of the Rio Grande.
Add the fact the team was missing four key starters – midfielders Tab Ramos (knee injury), Earnie Stewart (calf injury) and Claudio Reyna (yellow-card suspension) and goalkeeper Kasey Keller (thumb injury) and it looked like it was downright impossible for the Americans to walk out of the cauldron called Azteca Stadium with any sort of result.
About a half hour into the match, the degree of difficulty got much more difficult, when defender Jeff Agoos was red carded, forcing the Americans to play a man down.
Despite these obstacles, the Americans persevered and pulled off what was considered the impossible – a scoreless draw while earning a precious qualifying point and feeling like they actually had won.
"Let's be honest: I don't think anybody gave us a chance going into that game," U.S. defender Marcelo Balboa said. "Everyone thought we were going to walk into Azteca and lose 3-0. Everything kind of fell our way."
Added defender Alexi Lalas: "I don't think any of us were running to Vegas before the game to say this was happening."
- MNT vs. Mexico: Highlights – Nov. 2, 1997
- READ: The Match Report from Estadio Azteca on Nov. 2, 1997
The U.S. did its best to prepare for the confrontation. Head coach Steve Sampson had the team train at altitude for 16 days at Big Bear Lake, a ski resort 6,800 feet above sea level, which lies northeast of Los Angeles. A typical day consisted of a 7 a.m. wake-up all, cross-training (bicycling or running) at 8 a.m, lunch at noon, field training at 2 p.m. and dinner at 6 p.m.
"We were looking at it to do everything we possibly can to give ourselves a chance to come up with some kind of result," Lalas said. "It was a good time to get away. It was a different type of camp than we were normally used to. We were hiking and out in the wilderness. So it gave us a different type of feel."
The players were able to get closer to one another, and that type of camaraderie was needed in Azteca.
Azteca is all about intimidation, even before the players enter the field.
"We walked down this long tunnel and you break off to the right," Balboa said. "You go up this ramp to go into the stadium. As you walk up this ramp, all you see is fans because it's so high. All of a sudden you see this white uniform, a U.S. uniform on a mannequin being thrown from the top tier and you see it hanging from a rope as we walk out into the stadium. You're like, 'Oh, my God!' That's the intimidation factor."
Lalas compared it to the Mad Max movies: "It's like Thunderdome," he said. "You walk in and the sky is distant because of the effect of it being straight up. That was amazing because you walk out and the noise and all of that was crazy – but this is an outdoor stadium that it takes time to realize that there is an outdoor element to it. The sky is so far. All you see is people."
That is only stage one. Next comes the altitude, smog and again those fans all dressed in green. On this November day, some 110,000 jammed into the stadium.
"It's everything. It's not just one thing," Balboa said. "You walk out there in Mexico and it's hot. The field is huge, the grass is long, the smog starts kicking in and you're coughing all the time. Intimidation of playing in such a huge stadium with so many people and the whole stadium is in green. Everything comes together with Azteca. And 12 o'clock on a Saturday or a Sunday, it is very intimidating."
After the first qualifier in Foxborough, Mass. Ended in a wild 2-2 draw in April, a no-nonsense referee without any CONCACAF affiliation – Javier “The Sheriff” Castrilli of Argentina - was brought in to officiate this encounter.
The complexion of the game changed in the 33rd minute, when Agoos was red carded by Castrilli for elbowing Pavel Pardo.
The Americans did not have the luxury of talking about their new playing strategy.
"We just knew what we had to do," Balboa said. "You don't have time to get together. You were in Azteca. It was sold out and it was packed. You can't hear. They're screaming and yelling. Before the game, the game plan was to defend and we knew how to defend. We had hit them quickly on counterattacks before and we knew they were going to send numbers. On the counterattacks, we were unfortunate on [Thomas] Dooley hitting the post."
The red card forced Sampson to shuffle his lineup. He moved captain John Harkes to Agoos' spot on the left side. Forwards Joe-Max Moore and Roy Wegerle were brought back closer to the midfield and Eric Wynalda, who started the game on the wing instead of his central forward spot, was called on to play much more defense than he had originally anticipated.
As the game wore on, the U.S.'s performance started to sway the heavily partisan crowd. It began with boos and whistles at halftime for the Mexicans and it continued midway through the second half as the crowd sarcastically chanted "Ole!" every time the Americans knocked the ball around to take some time off the clock. It got worse. The spectators chanted, "Fuera Bora!" as in “fire their coach,” former U.S. National Team head coach Bora Milutinovic.
"It was as much a respect for how well we were playing as it was an indictment on how poorly they felt Mexico was playing," Lalas said. "That doesn't happen often."
"I think it was the first time in our history that the Mexican fans turned on their own team and started yelling, 'Ole! Ole!,' kind of like the scenario when Mexico and Jamaica played [another scoreless draw on Feb. 6, 2013],” Balboa said. “The crowd was getting behind Jamaica because they were so disappointed with the way Mexico played. That's the way it was that day. You can just feel as the game went on, that we kept growing in confidence."
Chris Henderson came on for Cobi Jones in the 56th minute, his speed giving the Americans an opportunity to take advantage of some open midfield space on their counterattacks.
"Now, the way we got that point, I wouldn't say it was pretty soccer," Balboa said with a laugh. "But it was effective. We slowed the game down. We knocked it around. We did everything possible to take Mexico out of their game. And, when they got rattled, they started to launch balls. They started attacking quicker and that was perfect because those were our strengths. Everything kept on going our way. You need a little bit of luck and we got it that day. They could have walked out of there with a 1-0 loss, the way we were playing."
Except for a late flurry in the final five minutes – Luis Garcia's six-yard header whizzed right past the right post in the 86th minute – Mexico's quality chances were few and far between. The defense, led by Balboa, Lalas and Eddie Pope, stifled the big men up front, including Zague, Carlos Hermosillo and Alberto Garcia Aspe, respectively. Goalkeeper Brad Friedel handled everything sent his way.
When Castrilli whistled the end of the game, the teams had varying reactions.
"Oh my God! That was a win," Lalas said. "That was a point in Azteca. For what it meant not just for the qualifying process, but just against Mexico at that time it was huge. When we got back into the locker room, we knew we had done something historic. It didn't mean that we would win the World Cup, but it would be something that we would be talking about for many years to come. There was a recognition that something important had been done."
The U.S. needed a victory at Canada the next week to clinch a spot at France '98.
"We walked out of that place like we just qualified for the World Cup. We didn't yet," Balboa said. "Mexico qualified and they walked out of that stadium like they lost. It shows you the intensity and the rivalry of how it used to be. They qualified and they didn't even celebrate. It was a huge point for us."
-- Michael Lewis