American and Mexican football could play for the last time in Azteca

There’s no tougher place for the U.S. national team to play than the Estadio Azteca, Mexico’s iconic fortress and Latin America’s largest soccer stadium.

If the heat, the altitude, and the passionate Mexican fans don’t get you, the smog will.

“The last time we played we had some very sick players after the game,” said Bruce Arena, who coached the United States to three World Cup qualifiers in Azteca without winning a match. “I remember being out in the tunnel and Kellyn Acosta was double-crossed vomiting.

“It’s, uh, difficult.”

It’s also why the US-Mexico rivalry is among the most intense in international sport, a rivalry that turns especially bitter when the stakes are high as they will be on Thursday when Azteca teams with a World Cup berth will be to win.

The duel could soon lose some of its luster if this match turns out to be the last the teams play in Mexico City in World Cup qualifying.

Both countries, as well as Canada, are expected to get automatic spots for the 2026 tournament since they host it, which rules out a qualifying tournament. And by 2030, with the World Cup field at 48 teams and the number of guaranteed CONCACAF participants doubled to six, the current qualifying format will have to change.

What form this will take, no one knows.

“At this stage,” a US Soccer spokesperson said, “the World Cup qualification process after 2026 has not been determined.”

But it will be different, with a likely scenario requiring separate qualifying groups similar to the format currently in place in Europe. And as long as Mexico and the United States remain the region’s top two teams in the FIFA World Rankings, they will lead different groups to the final round, which means they won’t face each other.

“It will definitely impact the rivalry,” said Landon Donovan, who has made 40 World Cup qualifiers, including two in Mexico where he was once pelted with Coca-Cola cups that contained… well, let’s say just that it wasn’t a soft drink. . “It mostly hurts the ability of fans on both sides to talk about who the best team in CONCACAF is. When you play against each other, there’s a barometer. When you don’t, [it’s] more subjective.

“It’s a shame because these games are, for both sides, some of the most memorable games, moments, etc. It’s disappointing.”

Mexico’s Jose Antonio Castro slides and kicks the ball away from American Landon Donovan during a World Cup qualifying match at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City August 12, 2009.

(Andy Mead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

A change in the qualifying format would not prevent the United States and Mexico from playing in other circumstances. The rivalry will continue in the biennial CONCACAF Gold Cup, the Nations League and with regular friendlies. But the stakes in these matches are much lower than those of a World Cup qualifier. And most, if not all, of them would be played in the United States, where Mexico has a lucrative promotional deal with Soccer United Marketing.

That’s why the United States has only played one game in Mexico that wasn’t a qualifying game in the past 22 years.

“It’s special because it’s unique,” said Gerardo Torrado, sporting director of the Mexican Football Federation and a veteran of three World Cups, of Mexico City’s quadrennial qualifier.

“Qualifying for a World Cup is always something special. But having the chance to qualify against your rival makes it even more special.

If Thursday’s game turns out to be the last qualifier at Azteca, at least the series ends with a bang. Both teams enter the game with 21 points and trail Canada in the eight-team table with three games remaining. Only three CONCACAF teams are promised places in this fall’s World Cup in Qatar, and with Panama and Costa Rica still in the hunt, this game is one neither Mexico nor the United States can. afford to lose.

The pressure could be greatest on Mexico. El Tri will play to a limited crowd of around 47,000, just over half the stadium’s advertised capacity, robbing it of some of its home-court advantage. Capacity was limited because Mexico was implementing a fan ID system following FIFA sanctions imposed following fans’ repeated use of an anti-gay slur.

Mexico has also lost to the United States three times in 2021, which has never happened in the same calendar year before. With the Americans missing four starters through injury, another Mexican loss – this time in Azteca, more than 2.1 km above sea level and a place where the United States has won just one times in their history – could cost coach Tata Martino dearly. his work, said Telemundo football analyst Miguel Gurwitz, who covered the national team for two decades.

“Mexico, they can’t lose,” Gurwitz said. “It’s not good to lose all the games they play with the United States. These 90 minutes are going to be very important for Martino.”

It wasn’t always like this. The United States vs. Mexico was once as one-sided as a hammer to a nail. The Americans won the first meeting in 1934, then won just four of 40 games over the next 64 years.

The United States, however, have had the advantage since 2000, with a 17-9-6 record, including a victory in the round of 16 of the 2002 World Cup. And that has raised the importance of cross-border competition by making it as much a matter of national pride as it is of football.

“The US-Mexico soccer rivalry is, in my opinion, the most unique rivalry in international sport,” said Jon Weinbach, president of Skydance Sports, which produces a documentary series on the US-Mexico rivalry. “There is nothing like it, where you have these issues of identity and belonging, race, culture and politics between two geographical neighbors so present on the ground.

“I can’t think of any other place in the world where you have genuine border rivals.”

The cover of the Mexican sports daily Récord showing the United States celebrating their victory over Mexico

Mexican sports daily Récord published a full-page photo of Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic, the two American goalscorers, under a headline in Spanish that read: “They are better. Say hello to the new giant.

Keeping this alive is something that CONCACAF and FIFA will likely strive to do when they develop World Cup qualification procedures beyond 2026. They could for example decide on a single-table tournament , similar to that used by the South American confederation. This would ensure that the United States and Mexico meet twice in qualifying every four years.

But the CONMEBOL competition, in which the 10 South American member countries compete for four World Cup spots, requires 90 games played over two years. CONCACAF has 41 members who would play for six spots, so an additional play-in tournament would be needed and probably a larger field for the final round. This could make a CONMEBOL-like format unwieldy.

Will the rivalry suffer if World Cup qualifying is no longer part of it? Weinbach doesn’t think so.

“The World Cup stakes always mean something. But that’s not the only thing,” he said. “The rivalry in some ways has matured beyond these World Cup qualifiers. . Every time the United States and Mexico play in this sport, it means something. It could be an exhibition game for young people. If it’s the United States and Mexico playing, there’s that advantage and there’s that cultural context. »

Michael Orozco, a former national team defender who scored the goal in the only game the United States won in Azteca, disagrees.

“They shouldn’t give up on a massive game that’s got the eyes of the world,” he said. “Everyone is watching this [game]. You have the whole political side, you have the whole football side. Everyone wants to watch this game. Everyone wants to participate in this game.

“It doesn’t just happen in those 90 minutes. It’s sort of built into it, the conversation, the emotions. That’s what football should be, the Super Bowl. The United States against Mexico at the Azteca, that’s pretty much it.

James C. Tibbs