100 Moments: Remembering USA vs. Mexico - Former MNT Internationals Recall Games South of the Border
No matter what generation, playing in Mexico City, particularity at Azteca Stadium, has always been an imposing test for the U.S. Men’s National Team.
For some U.S. internationals of yesteryear, it might have offered greater challenges because there were more obstacles to overcome in those days.
Before the United States challenged El Tri for confederation supremacy, Mexico ruled the CONCACAF roost. The Mexicans were expected to qualify for the World Cup every four years.
The Americans didn't realize it at the time, but they were in the midst of a 40-year drought between World Cups, from 1950 through 1990. They were expected to give the good fight, but always lost to the Mexicans.
Three former U.S. internationals recalled the difficulties of playing in Mexico City back in the sixties, seventies and eighties – forward Willy Roy, midfielder Pat McBride and defender Ty Keough.
They all agreed Azteca was a tough place to play, let alone pull off an upset, due to the altitude, smog, fans and a consistently talented El Tri team.
"Everything was a factor and every factor was in their favor," McBride said.
"The stadium was pretty tremendous, Roy said. “I have to say the Mexican fans are very noisy and playing at the high altitude was a huge advantage for the Mexican National Team. In those days, it wasn't like we went in three or four days ahead of time or a week ahead of time to get acclimated. The Federation did not have a major budget in those days. We kind of went like semi-pros instead, playing against professionals."
Given the built-in advantages, it is easy not to give enough credit to the opposition.
"The crowd was a factor," said Keough, who added that a red card in a 1980 World Cup qualifier "and thin air [were] bigger factors. Let’s not take anything away from the abilities of the Mexican players."
Roy, who scored nine goals in 20 international matches – an amazing strike rate in an era when the National Team played but a handful of games a year – made his U.S. debut at Olympic Stadium in Mexico City in 1965, a year before Azteca opened.
He remembered putting the ball into the back of the Mexico net twice. But both tallies were disallowed by suspicious officiating calls in what turned into a 2-0 loss on March 12, 1965.
"Even now I don't know why they were disallowed," Roy said. "One I had a breakaway all the way from the middle and after I scored he blew the whistle that I supposedly was offside. I don't think you would let anyone run 50 meters or 60 yards and then call him offside."
In those days, the Federation did not have the sponsorship or financial clout it has today, so everything was done on a shoestring.
Instead of holding a training camp before an important game, the players would meet at an airport, sometimes greeting their teammates for the very first time. They’d fly into a city for a game, hold one or two practices and play the match.
"You basically didn't know what your teammates looked like," Roy said. "The next time you went, you might have a totally different team."
It was not the best strategy in a city of high altitude, especially against a talented side such as Mexico.
"I remember they had an outstanding goalkeeper, Antonio Carbajal, who played in five World Cups," Roy said. "They had an outstanding team. Maybe the Mexico League isn't like the Premier League in England or Bundesliga or La Liga in Spain, but it does help when you have players you see all the time and an organized system to play."
At that time, the U.S. system was a mish-mosh of varying styles from South America, Germany, England and other European countries. "It took some getting used to," Roy said.
From 1965 through 1980, the U.S. went through 11 National Team head coaches, so it was difficult to establish continuity and create some sort of national team style.
Roy remembered a tour of Bermuda when George Meyer was coach but Geza Henni acted as though he ran the team.
"They actually forgot to tell either one of them who the head coach was," he said. "It was a laughable situation."
Players sometimes discovered they were playing two or three weeks before a match.
"It would be different if you always had the same team playing," Roy said. "But we had different players, so there were a lot of changes going on. We played an exhibition game in Cleveland against a Hungarian team and the coach asked me if I could call a couple of players in Chicago because we had so many injuries. I got on the phone, called a couple of guys and they came, sat on the bench so we could have backup. Some of the stuff, you can't even tell people these days."
With so many changes, it was difficult building up team spirit.
"There's no camaraderie whatsoever," McBride said. "What was very difficult was there was a lot of pressure on the coach in terms of trying to put everything together. Many times when we were playing Mexico, it was a difficult task to begin with. They were full-time professionals and the league [North American Soccer League] was just getting back and some of us were full-time professionals -- and the other half wasn't. You knew going in, especially playing at Azteca, that was going to be a really tough match."
Seven years later on Sept. 3, 1972, Roy became the first American to score at Azteca, heading home a feed in the 78th minute. By then, Mexico had scored all of its goals en route to a 3-1 win. The loss eliminated the U.S. from qualifying.
"It was a nice cross," Roy said. "I was pretty good at heading the ball, but we ended up losing 3-1, so that was not a good feeling."
All things considered, McBride was happy with the result.
"We played pretty darn good," he said. "We had our chances. It was a game we could have won. It was just a matter of whether we could get more than one goal. They had chance after chance but we had some really solid defenders. We knew we had a chance because Mexico wasn't going to score four or five or six goals."
Like it or not, return matches in the United States felt like they were road games because they were played in Los Angeles.
"If I were the president in the federation, I would have played them in either Chicago or Minnesota in February instead of playing them in the summer in Los Angeles," Roy said. "They were looking for revenue. I think we had 35,000-38,000 fans there and probably 30,000 were for Mexico. They had two home games when they played us."
The next time the U.S. ventured to Mexico for qualifying was a game at Azteca on Nov. 9, 1980, for the 1982 FIFA World Cup. With their qualifying lives on the line, the Americans brought a team of mostly 23- to 24-year-old players – starters on their respective North American Soccer League teams. They opposed a Mexican team that had players performing in Europe.
"We knew it would be difficult, but we also expected to compete," Keough said. "We would have been very pleased with a draw."
What transpired was a 5-1 Mexico victory in front of about 72,000 spectators.
Keough said the "crowd was intimidating, but not as much as the quickness of the Mexican attackers – especially Hugo Sanchez – and the oxygen deficiency.”
Back in his day, McBride called Mexico "bullies." He remembered when there was a choice of balls Mexico had the last word.
"They played with a very hard ball, so to speak," he said. "We had no say in what ball we were going to use and we couldn’t argue about the ball being selected. Nowadays, I think there is more of a standard of what ball you're going to use. There's more of a compromise between the team countries. Back then it was whatever Mexico wanted, Mexico got. They were going to call all the shots. I remember all kinds of different gamesmanship and we were always on the short end.”
Now, it's a totally different situation. The U.S. has improved immensely and uses some home field advantage tactics of its own. Columbus, Ohio is its special venue for World Cup Qualifiers against Mexico and in September will host the match for the fourth-consecutive World Cup Cycle.
"The generation after us, Landon Donovan, [Clint] Dempsey and these guys, they go down there thinking they're going to win, which is great," McBride said. "We never ever had that confidence.”
-- Michael Lewis