MEXICO CITY – As you walk down Avenida del Iman, the Estadio Azteca looms on the horizon. From a distance, it looks like a huge birthday cake has been dropped in the Santa Ursala neighborhood in Mexico City. As you get closer, the concrete supports resemble the collective arms of Mexican supporters, pushing over the edge of the room and out of the ground. Once inside, the stands – despite their immense size – have a claustrophobic feel to them, and that’s without any fans present.
On Thursday, the Azteca – which has hosted two World Cup finals, in 1970 and 1986 – will host the latest incarnation of the Classic between Mexico and the United States men’s national teams in a 2022 World Cup qualifier. In many ways, it feels like the end of an era.
So far, the World Cup qualifiers between the two neighbors have been the first fans searched for when publishing the matches. But change is coming. With both countries hosting the 2026 World Cup, as well as Canada, there will be no qualifying to wait for this tournament. By the time the 2030 qualifiers beckon, the World Cup will have been expanded to 48 teams, potentially doubling the number of automatic CONCACAF qualifying spots to six.
Certainly, matches between the two CONCACAF heavyweights will always mean something. The desire to brag will remain. But the stakes – at least in terms of qualifying for the World Cup – will be lower, the damage of defeat less severe, and so some of the tension will dissipate.
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While such thoughts focus on the future, it is the present that concerns the United States, and the stakes surrounding Thursday’s encounter are indeed high. The two teams are tied in the standings, with the United States just ahead on goal differential.
The neuroses of both teams are also in full bloom. Mexico are probably the more desperate team, and the US team’s home game against Panama on Sunday is more important in the overall qualifying picture. But a result for either team would be an important step forward in the quest to reach Qatar. To do so at the expense of their rival would be valuable.
Yet for Sorting, pessimism dominates the day, largely due to the current three-game losing streak against the United States The day before the match, the sports newspaper CANCHA put Christian Pulisic and Ricardo Pepi in the foreground (and on Mexican players) with a caption “They have an advantage over us”. Fernando Schwartz of Fox Sports Mexico explained for a minute why “Mexico is no longer the CONCACAF giant”. At Universal Deportes, the title reads “Make it Weigh”, imploring Sorting capitalize more on its historical advantage on the pitch.
This negativity has also seeped into everyday life. Luis, a local driver who traveled with ESPN colleague Cesar Hernandez, spoke at length about his dismay at the current Mexico national team. While weaving through Mexico City traffic, he discussed what he thought was a lack of leaders (leaders) within the El Tri team, and longed for the days when old big names such as Rafael Marquez and Jorge Campos were still around. The fan violence that plagued a league game between Querétaro and Atlas added to the overall gloom.
Herculez Gomez wonders how much Weston McKennie, Sergino Dest, Brenden Aaronson and Matt Turner will miss.
There are also other concerns for El Tri. Depending on how the game develops, the attacking, anti-gay chant could resurface at the Estadio Azteca this Thursday. Social media campaigns, such as #MexicoSinMundial (essentially “#MexicoWithoutAWorldCup”) have recently been trending on Twitter. But what are they? In short: Due to various complaints about the way Mexican football is governed and run, fans have threatened online to use anti-gay chanting in the game against the United States, which could then potentially harm the Mexican Football Federation (FMF).
Another element of the Azteca is its location. Its lung-burning altitude has weighed heavily on the United States over the years, although it has been reduced in recent times. The United States have won only once at the venue, going 0-3-3 in World Cup playoffs. USA manager Gregg Berhalter even went so far as to say that the USA team’s record at the Azteca is “awful”.
The fact that they will have to play without the injured quartet of Weston McKennie, Sergino Dest, Matt Turner and Brenden Aaronson makes it a huge task. But seen from another angle, the United States are unbeaten in their last three matches here: two draws in World Cup qualifying preceded by a friendly victory in 2012.
That’s what Max Croes, a 37-year-old political consultant from Helena, Montana, is focusing on. He has appeared in each of the last three games between the United States and Mexico at the Azteca, and Thursday will be his fourth. “I’m a lucky charm,” he joked. “I’ll take that. I’ll get one point. I’ll be crazy with three points.”
The reduced capacity of 50,000, an 8 p.m. local kick-off, and the fact that some Mexican stars are now playing abroad further reduce home-field advantage. For some American fans, that actually counts as a disappointment.
“Going to Azteca is a fortress,” said Heather Borjon, a teacher at Orange County College in California. “I’ve wanted to come here for so long. It’s taken me until now to get here and it won’t even be the full experience at this reduced capacity. But here I am. So best spring break ever the temperature.”
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The United States brings additional stress. The failure to qualify four years ago in Couva, Trinidad — essentially The-Game-That-Shall-Not-Named — still hangs over the collective head of the USA program, even though only four players on that roster were there for it breaks down. One of those players, Paul Arriola, said of Thursday’s game: “The fear is not felt within the squad.”
This is also not the case during the “Night Before Party” organized by the American supporters group The American Outlaws. Nerves show – even as countless beers are consumed – especially when it comes to the United States’ qualifying chances.
“I’m incredibly nervous,” said Michael Devellos, a 29-year-old salesman from outside Chicago. “I think the burden of the last qualifying cycle is heavy. I don’t want to hope again. But I don’t want to be too depressed about it. I think we have a very good chance of qualifying.” , but I don’t want to get ahead.”
“I probably won’t eat or drink after 11 a.m. tomorrow,” added Stephanie Casiano, who works for a health care provider in San Antonio, Texas. “It’s going to be like, all the nerves. But it’s my 48th game, so I’m invested in this team.”
An inaugural victory at the Azteca would bring a huge payoff.
With additional reporting by Cesar Hernandez.