Oguchi Onyewu’s first Mexico moment isn’t one he remembers fondly.
Entering a final round World Cup Qualifying match on March 27, 2005, the promising young defender with only two caps to his name was handed his toughest test to date when then-head coach Bruce Arena elected to start him in central defense in the U.S. Men’s National Team’s quadrennial visit to Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.
“You hear the stories about Azteca, but you can’t quite grasp it until you’re in it,” Onyewu told ussoccer.com. “The altitude in the stadium, the fans and the atmosphere plays an even bigger part in making it one of the toughest places to play in the world.”
Partnering with Gregg Berhalter on the back line, the 6-4 center back was also given the unenviable task of marking Mexico’s all-time leading goal scorer Jared Borgetti. The veteran forward, known for his aerial prowess, broke free from Onyewu in the 30th minute to deliver the hosts the opening goal. Beyond his goal, Borgetti gave Onyewu fits most of the match, helping Mexico to a 2-1 win while providing the budding U.S. center back a difficult lesson in World Cup Qualifying.
“Borgetti is a mainstay in Mexican soccer history. He got a goal and unfortunately rained on my parade. It was a definite eye-opener for my first USA-Mexico game at Azteca Stadium.”
Despite the loss, the U.S. cruised through “The Hex” that year, winning its next four matches. Onyewu appeared in two of those wins – a 2-0 victory three days later against Guatemala and 1-0 shutout against Trinidad & Tobago that August – and picked up even more international seasoning that summer by helping the U.S. lift the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Those results had the MNT riding a nine-match unbeaten streak heading into September’s rematch against Mexico in Columbus. With both teams making quick work of their qualifying opponents, a win for either side that night meant they would be the first from CONCACAF to punch a ticket to the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
Putting the bigger picture aside, the rematch had personal meaning for Onyewu.
“After the first game and our loss I definitely was looking forward to the home game in Columbus,” he said. “It was about redemption for myself, but also to rectify the result that we didn’t get in Mexico City. I was extremely focused, as well as everyone else on our team, but I definitely was not about to let Borgetti get the better of me two times around.”
In order to do that, Onyewu focused his efforts on physically frustrating Borgetti from the first whistle and set the tone for the one-on-one clash in the ninth minute. A ball played for Borgetti up the left flank saw him immediately shadowed by Onyewu. The two grappled down the touch line before Carlos Batres blew his whistle to indicate a free kick.
While a foul was committed by Onyewu, it also served to get under Borgetti’s skin, with the veteran forward immediately popping up to throw verbal jabs at the towering defender.
What happened next has become one of the most iconic moments in the USA-Mexico rivalry.
With Borgetti animated in his frustrations toward his marker, Onyewu didn’t respond. Instead, he chose to kindly brush aside the Mexico forward’s protests with an intimidating look that has come to be known in U.S. Soccer circles as “The Stare Down”.
“Obviously in that moment, it never was my objective for that stare to become as big as it has,” Onyewu said. “It’s just one of those moments in the game, and it was such a physical battle between him and I.
“What I remember is that I knocked him down, he got up and he looked like he was going to do something to me and I was really hoping he would. I don’t know what would have happened next, but I was expecting something would have happened. I’m just staring at him like, ‘Either do something or don’t do something.’ I guess that image is forever imprinted in U.S. Soccer history. That image itself speaks of the whole subject of that game in Columbus, Ohio against Mexico.”
The moment sent a message to Borgetti that the match would be altogether different from March’s encounter at Azteca. At the other end of the field, Onyewu's header off the left post setup Steve Ralston's go-ahead goal in the 53rd minute before DaMarcus Beasley added the second five minutes later. Onyewu indeed gained redemption as his play on both sides of the ball earned him Man of the Match honors.
And while a victory against Mexico always provides a reason to celebrate, bigger party plans were in order that night as the U.S. booked its spot at the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.
“We had confirmed our berth in the World Cup and we were just celebrating and happy,” Onyewu said. “I think that’s the only thing that was on our minds: the fact that we accomplished our goal and we had something even bigger to look forward to.”