'USA-Mexico is a legacy-building game': An epic, sometimes nasty rivalry renewed in World Cup qualifying – Tennessean

A platoon of bodyguards in full riot gear stationed around the field at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City was just a microcosm of the U.S.-Mexico soccer rivalry.
On Aug. 12, 2009, in a World Cup qualifier, 10 bodyguards briefly failed to control the madness.  
Before USMNT star Landon Donovan was famously photographed during the match – raising his arms in disbelief as Mexico fans heaved Coca-Cola cups of abominable concoctions at him while he lined up a corner kick – the pelting and harassment began at the USMNT’s team hotel the night before.
In the southern district of the city, former midfielder and current Fox Sports soccer analyst Stu Holden remembers Aug. 11 as a typical eve to a critical match. Meetings. Team meal. Game plan installed. But when the lights went out for bed is when the rivalry lit up for the U.S.
“Went to bed and woke up in the middle of the night at like 2 a.m. with fireworks going off all around our hotel, banging drums – probably 1,000 Mexican fans (outside) just trying to keep us up,” Holden recalled. “Which they ended up doing, even though we never told them they did. 
“That was the moment where I was like, ‘Oh, this is gonna be a big deal tomorrow’.”
The U.S. lost the game, 2-1, with center forward Charlie Davies scoring the lone goal. But Holden and the USMNT eventually placed first in qualifying and reached the Round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Estadio Azteca, which seats 87,000, still equates to failure for the USMNT. Mexico holds a 6-0-3 record in qualifying at the Azteca and 9-1-2 home record overall against the Americans, whose only win at Mexican soccer’s holy grail came in a friendly on Aug. 15, 2012. The USMNT is 17-9-6 overall against Mexico since 2000. 
The rivalry continues Thursday at the Azteca (9 p.m., Paramount+) in a 2022 World Cup Qualifier, with both nations  fighting for three automatic bids to November’s global games — both teams have a 6-2-3 record. Yet the matchup may be the last of its kind until at least 2030, as both are host nations for the 2026 World Cup and won’t need to qualify.
USMNT alumni – Holden, Oguchi Onyewu and Steve Cherundolo relive what USA-Mexico means, having played in some of the matchup’s most memorable games.
Mexico’s colossal soccer cathedral, peaking at 7,200 feet in altitude, located in the Santa Úrsala neighborhood of Mexico City, has hosted three World Cups, including two finals in 1970 and 1986, acting as platforms for two of the greatest soccer players ever: Pele and Diego Maradona. 
In August 2009, Holden had just broken into the national team roster one month earlier in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. As soon as he stepped outside of the team hotel on matchday against Mexico, he felt the rivalry immediately.
Holden: “We got on the team bus and I remember we had all of our security and everyone is expecting that like, ‘OK, there’s going to be a lot of fans and it’s going to be a thing.’ So we pulled out of the hotel. There was nobody right in front of our hotel. So our security is like, ‘Oh, this is fine’.
“Then we hooked a right onto the main street and there was probably like 500 fans lined up with oranges and fruit and started pelting our bus. At that moment, you don’t really know what’s coming and everybody ducks. You don’t know if it’s rocks or whatever. Our windows were splattered with different stuff. At that point, you’re in the game already. Like mentally, how do you handle that mentally? 
“I remember vividly walking into Azteca for the first time and the hallways are lined with previous scores of us, Mexico and all the teams that have come down there and failed and then you walk up this like spiral staircase into the stadium and I took a picture of that. I remember that day. It was such a cool thing for me. The stadium, the size. I know it’s changed a little bit since 2009, but it’s still Azteca Stadium.”
USMNT first played Mexico at Azteca in September 1972, a 3-1 loss for the U.S. in a 1974 World Cup Qualifier.
But the rivalry as we know it kicked into high gear during the 2002 World Cup Qualifying cycle – the birth of “Dos A Cero,” or “two to zero,” in February 2001, when the U.S. beat Mexico by that score at Historic Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. It was the first qualifier win for the U.S. since 1980. So the return leg in July meant revenge for Mexico.
Before a slew of stadium renovations between 2006-12, the Azteca used to fit 110,000 spectators. Every seat was accounted for in summer 2001, when Mexico avenged its winter loss, 1-0. Another 110,000 showed up for the 2009 matchup. The atmosphere was invigorating for U.S. players.
Center back Oguchi Onyewu would know. Now CEO of Belgian second-tier club R.E.Virton, Onyewu made 69 USMNT appearances and played for 12 clubs in Belgium, France, Spain, Netherlands, England and the U.S. between 2002-18. The Azteca atmosphere ranks in the top tier, he said.
Onyewu: “Even though it’s intimidating for the opponents that come in to play, it’s actually endearing because you’re like, ‘Wow, this is really football. This is what football is about’, you know what I mean? And you get that kind of atmosphere in other places as well. Definitely the San Siro, when Inter (Milan) and AC (Milan) are playing each other. In Portugal, when you get Benfica and Sporting (Lisbon), it’s crazy. In Turkey, with Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray, it’s very good.
“There’s some hardcore derbies – Celtic and Rangers in Scotland. There’s hardcore derbies across the world, but in terms of international derbies, I think it’s up there, America-Mexico, played in the Azteca, has to be up there as one of the most intimidating atmospheres to play in.”
Holden: “I think two hours before kickoff, the stadium was about 90% full and we’re getting jeered. We’re getting whistled, we’re getting like – just everything. I remember it’s like a psychology thing: the Mexican team didn’t come out for warmups. They warmed up on a different field, I think underneath the main playing field, so you don’t see your opponent. It’s the buildup and some mind games that start so early and you don’t even see them until the game kicked off.”
Former right back Steve Cherundolo, now coach of Los Angeles FC in MLS, started in that qualifier in August 2009, as did Onyewu. Holden was a second-half substitute. While making a career in the German Bundesliga with Hannover 96, Cherundolo made 87 appearances for the USMNT.
Cherundolo: “The Azteca is a very difficult place to play. It’s loud. It’s large. The grass is kind of spongy. It’s a little higher. Sometimes plays fast, sometimes plays slow. You have the altitude, you have sometimes poor air quality. So there’s a lot of obstacles to overcome.”
Onyewu: “I can’t stress enough how much of an effect the altitude has on you. And you think that you can kind of push through it but you know, when you can’t catch your breath because of the conditions and it’s really hard to be at your best level. When physically, it’s almost debilitating.”
Thursday’s World Cup qualifier will begin the final trio of matches for both nations to clinch berth for the World Cup in Qatar. It is the USMNT’s chance to rectify its 2018 failure to qualify, but to also add a chapter to one of the biggest rivalries in soccer.
Onyewu: “You hear stories about how difficult it is to play at Azteca, but you honestly don’t really comprehend or grasp it until you’re actually in it. So it’s gonna be a very unique experience for them because, I’m sure, they’ve heard stories from old folk like myself and even generations before me. But playing in that atmosphere, playing in that altitude, it’s one of a kind. I’ve obviously played all over the world and Azteca is an atmosphere to be rivaled.”
Holden: “USA-Mexico is a legacy-building type of game. (Fox Sports play-by-play announcer) John (Strong) and I still talk the Michael Bradley goal from half field (in 2017), or the first time that we beat them down there. Charlie’s goal, I was a part of. 
Charlie’s national team career unfortunately was cut shorter than you would have hoped. But he’s got a moment that he’s gonna tell his kids. His kids’ kids are gonna tell the stories about him scoring a goal at Azteca stadium for USA against Mexico. These are the games that people really talk about, that people remember. There’s no bigger game when you’re a United States men’s national team member and probably for Mexico, too.”
For stories about Nashville SC or Soccer in Tennessee, contact Drake Hills at DHills@gannett.com. Follow Drake on Twitter at @LiveLifeDrake. Connect with Drake on Instagram at @drakehillssoccer and on Facebook.


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