WCQ Series History: Three Memorable USMNT Matches at Mexico

The USMNT earned draws at Estadio Azteca in 1997, 2013 and 2017
Michael Lewis

The United States Men's National Team has yet to win a FIFA World Cup qualifying match in Mexico City. However, they have managed to walk out of Estadio Azteca with a precious road point three times in their history.

Those feats were accomplished in 1997, 2013 and 2017.

As the USA prepares to meet Mexico in a vital Concacaf Octagonal at Azteca on March 24, let's look at those three historic results:


Mexico 0:0 USA - Nov. 2, 1997

It's difficult enough to play at Azteca in front of an intimidating crowd, at altitude while battling the Mexico City smog.

It looked like a long afternoon for the Americans, who were without four starters and were forced to play a man down for almost an hour. However, they turned the tables on El Trí, registering a stunning scoreless draw before 114,000 spectators, putting them on the doorstep of qualification for the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France.

 

 

The U.S. locker room was in a jubilant mood, even if it was the ugliest match the team (2-0-5) played during that qualifying cycle.

It depended on one’s perspective.

“We consider this a golden point,” head coach Steve Sampson said. “It is very important now to take the discipline and unity into the Canada match. ... Look, we have not qualified for anything yet. Nothing is sure right now. We won’t celebrate until we mathematically are in the World Cup.”

The match had many trappings of a Mexico victory, as the hosts had won their previous home qualifiers during the cycle by a combined 15-0 score. The USA was without Tab Ramos (knee injury), its top playmaker, goalkeeper Kasey Keller (thumb), and midfielders Earnie Stewart (calf) and Claudio Reyna (yellow-card suspension).

The USMNT lost a fifth player in the 32nd minute when left back Jeff Agoos was red carded by ultra-strict referee Javier Castrilli of Argentina, for elbowing defender Pavel Pardo.

Instead of wilting, the U.S. became more determined.

Sampson shuffled 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, then the U.S.’s all-time leading scorer, was called on to play much more defense than planned.

It worked.

One minute after Agoos departed the field, the USA had its best chance of the match when Thomas Dooley’s (pictured above) low blast from outside of the box beat Jorge Campos and careened off the right post.

“The players responded exceptionally well,” Sampson said.

As the match wore on, the visiting team’s performance swayed the partisan crowd. It began with boos and whistles at halftime. Midway through the second half the crowd sarcastically chanted “Ole!” every time the Sampson’s side knocked the ball around to take time off the clock.

“It was a great feeling,” Moore said. “When [114,000] fans switch to cheer you on, it doesn’t happen too many times in your career.”

Except for a late flurry — Luis Garcia’s six-yard header whizzed right past the right post and goalkeeper Brad Friedel in the 86th minute — Mexico’s quality chances were few. The defense, led by Marcelo Balboa, Alexi Lalas and Eddie Pope, stifled the dangerous Zaque, Carlos Hermosillo and Alberto Garcia Aspe.

Ironically, the result qualified Mexico (4-0-4, 16 points) for France ‘98, but you wouldn’t have known it. Supporters chanted “Fuera Bora,” as in fire Bora Milutinovic, the former USMNT manager who had returned to take the reins of Mexico for the ’98 cycle.

They got their wish later that month.

A week later on Nov. 9, the USMNT booked a spot in France, recording a 3-0 victory over Canada in Vancouver.

 

Mexico 0:0 USA - March 26, 2013

Despite playing with two center backs inexperienced at the international level, the USA pulled off another surprising result.

Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, the two most recent MLS Defenders of the Year, had a combined four international appearances between them before being called upon at Azteca, but they kept their cool in a 0-0 deadlock.


The team played without veterans Steve Cherundolo (knee injury), Clarence Goodson (strained hamstring) and Carlos Bocanegra (left off the roster).

Gonzalez, Besler and the U.S. back line stood tall, stopping shots by Javier (Chicharito) Hernandez, Javier Aquino and Jesus Zavala as Mexico dominated possession in a crowd of 56,000.

"The guys were outstanding," USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "Our backline many said they were inexperienced. They deserve a huge compliment. ... If one guy is not here, that's a huge opportunity to the next one stepping in, and I think the guys that stepped in here, they took their chance."

During some tense final seconds, goalkeeper Brad Guzan smothered Angel Reyna's close-range shot before the match was whistled over. The USA (1-1-1, 4pts. ) moved into third place in the Hexagonal. El Trí (0-0-3, 3pts.) suffered its third consecutive draw as head coach Manuel De la Torre came under close scrutiny from his country's media for his team's poor start.

"It's always going to be a bit hectic and a bit crazy, especially late in the game," Guzan told the Associated Press. "You're never going to come to a place like Azteca and go out and have it nice and easy. So, we knew at some point, the pressure was going to come, and we were able to deal with it."

Klinsmann, who had never lost to Mexico,as a player or coach, used his 25th different lineup in as many matches.

"We wanted to win, but we are pleased with the result," he said. "They gave us everything they have."

Added Mexican-American USMNT forward Herculez Gomez: "Many people said it couldn't be done. We showed just a tremendous attitude, a tremendous willingness to sacrifice for one another."

 

 

Mexico 1:1 USA - June 11, 2017

Captain Michael Bradley early strike from distance made him only the sixth player to score for the USMNT at Azteca leading to a 1-1 draw with El Trí.

“We were certainly positioned to get three points,” Arena said. “It’s not easy in the hex to win on the road. We were close tonight. I’m proud of the result. I’m a little greedy. I would have liked to have had three points.”

 

 

The USMNT (2-2-2, 8pts.) were in third place while Mexico (4-0-2, 14) solidified its Hexagonal lead.

“Any time you can get a point here it’s great,” Bradley said. “Now we can move ourselves forward.”

Arena inserted seven new players into the Starting XI because the team only had three days of rest (including one day of travel) since registering a 2-0 home win against Trinidad and Tobago in Denver. Despite the Azteca stage, he showed confidence in the team’s younger generation, running out Christian Pulisic (18), Kellyn Acosta (21), Paul Arriola (22) and DeAndre Yedlin (23).

It worked like a charm before 71,537 spectators.

“To repeat the lineup we had on Thursday, we would have struggled big time in the altitude,” Arena said.

There were several U.S. heroes.

Brad Guzan was soild in the net. He experienced a busy night, not necessarily making saves but latching onto to crosses and loose balls that could have been turned into dangerous scoring opportunities.

Cameron led a five-man backline that blocked or cleared whatever El Tri sent toward the goal, along with center backs Tim Ream and Omar Gonzalez, left back DaMarcus Beasley, who became the first USMNT player to appear in five different WCQ cycles, and the youthful Yedlin.

“They were terrific,” Arena said.

And then there was Bradley. Besides being a ball-winner, the midfield general turned an interception of a Javier Hernandez pass into a goal with a line-drive chip shot from 35 yards over the head of goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa for a surprising sixth-minute lead.

“I took the first touch and saw that he was a good ways out,” Bradley said. “Here, if you catch a ball right with the thin air, the ball is going to really fly.”

Bradley joined Michael Orozco (2012), Charlie Davies (2009), Eddie Lewis (2005), Ricky Davis (1980) and Willy Roy (1972) as the only U.S. players to score at Azteca. All but Orozco tallied during qualifiers.

Only 15 seconds after Bobby Wood had his close-range shot blocked in the 23rd minute, Mexico countered as Carlos Vela equalized from just outside the box into the lower right corner.

Both teams saw go-ahead chances hit off the woodwork during the second half.

In the 71st minute, Mexico kept the visitors honest when Hector Herrera rocketed his free kick from 30 yards off the underside of the crossbar.

Just three minutes later, Bradley nearly recorded his second brace in World Cup Qualifying against Mexico, receiving a bouncing pass from Kellyn Acosta he hit a half volley from 30 yards that beat Ochoa, but rang off the outside of the right post in the 74th minute.  

In the end, a 1-1 draw seemed the fairest result.