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When you talk about international soccer rivalries, USA vs. Mexico is up there. The history, the players, the battles on the field, the passion of the fans on both sides, and of course the Dos a Cero victories for the USA. For a soccer die-hard like me, seeing this rivalry in-person has always been on my bucket list, and I was so excited to get my opportunity on Thursday night in Mexico City.

The stakes are high because Mexico and the U.S. have yet to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, taking place this December in Qatar.

Moreover, this qualifier in March would potentially be the last time these two rivals would face each other in a World Cup qualifier until after 2026. (Because the USA, Canada, and Mexico are hosting the World Cup in 2026 (with an expanded 48 teams), they each receive an automatic bid into the tournament.)  Needless to say, there was a lot on the line.

It’s been a long five years for the U.S. Men’s National Team since the disappointment of losing to Trinidad and Tobago and missing the 2018 World Cup. The fallout was massive, as a generation of players—including Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard—for whom fans had cheered, were pushed aside for a talented and younger “golden generation” that included new faces like Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie A long and protracted coaching search meant the team went without a coach for a year and as a result, the team struggled a bit. Combine the team’s struggles with expensive ticket prices and it took a while for the fans (myself included) to get back on board with the USMNT.

However, this past year saw the team beat Mexico three times to win the CONCACAF Nations League, Gold Cup, and the home World Cup qualifier. Some of the faith that was lost in 2017 returned and optimism was high about the heights to which this “golden generation” could take this country and its soccer fans.

While Mexico is on-course to qualify for the World Cup, most of the chatter leading up to this game has shown a team in disarray.

Back in November, Mexico’scaptain, Memo Ochoa, said, “Mexico is the mirror that the United States sees themselves in,” but recent results have shown quite the opposite, as Mexico found itself on the receiving end of a losing streak. The “Fuera Tata” campaign (calling for the firing of their coach Tata Martino) was featured in the newspapers and on social media. Plus, recent discussions have been centered around fan safety and culture after a tragic riot in Querétaro resulted in the deaths of multiple fans. The continued use of a homophobic slur in a fan chant, caused some of Mexico’s qualifying matches to be played behind closed doors.

Many fans knew how important a victory over the USA would be, but also knew the importance of eliminating these negative aspects of Mexican soccer culture.

This was all the backdrop for my trip to the Azteca Stadium.

After battling through the horrendous Mexico City traffic, sprinting through a neighborhood to get to our gate, passing through the new safety measures to get in the stadium (including multiple pat-downs from the Policia Federal), we finally made it into the Azteca. I was out of breath as we finally got to our section, and I saw the vast expanse of the Estadio Azteca for the first time.

The first thing that struck me about the Estadio Azteca was that it was old, loud and enormous, kind of like a larger version of Washington, D.C.’s RFK Stadium. Yet it wasn’t the packed house and cauldron of emotion that we have seen from past editions of the USA vs. Mexico match. Because of the homophobic chants that I mentioned previously, the Mexican team has played most of their matches with no fans. This was their first home match in quite some time  with fans in the stands, and the federation had enacted some new measures to make things more fan-friendly. This meant more of the ‘Mexican wave’ and guided pro-Mexico cheers, led by the public address announcers.

The good news is that while we in the USA section did not have to worry about bags of urine and other projectiles being thrown at us. But on the flip side, we still had barbed wire enclosing the away end and the Mexican police with full riot gear in our section.

Despite all of this, the half-filled Azteca still created a lot of noise, most of it coming from the Curva Sur where the USA fans sat.

Close to 1,000 fans made the trip to the Azteca, which was the largest away contingent the USA has ever had in Mexico. The old stadium started to rock as the action on the field picked up. Crunching tackles flew in left and right from both sides. Boos, cheers, and whistles rained down from both sets of fans. Players and coaches crowded referee Marco Escobar after every stoppage in play, trying to get every little bit of an advantage.

Both teams had multiple great chances to score in the first half, but both goalies—Ochoa and USMNT keeper Zack Steffen—were equal to the task. As the game wore on, both teams appeared tired from the all-out intensity of the match. While Gio Reyna of the USA dribbled through the defense a la Diego Maradona and carved out a few more chances, you could see that the altitude was taking its toll and the team was running out of gas. After a few more substitutions, both teams seemed to have made the strategic decision to “park the bus,” play for the tie,  and settle for a point.

As the PA announcer tried to get the Mexican fans involved with a MEXICO chant, we responded with throaty USA cheers to drown out the home fans. While the Azteca crowd whistled and implored El Tri to move forward and to attack a clearly tired USA, we responded with more and louder cheers. The last 15 minutes felt like an eternity, but the USA rear-guard was resolute, repelling all attacks on the goal.

As the final whistle blew on a 0-0, a loud cheer came from the USA end, as a cacophony of boos and whistles rained down from the home fans.

While the reduced capacity meant  this wasn’t the crazy atmosphere of years past, the affair still had the intensity of a match between two fierce international rivals. As we waved goodbye to the Mexican fans, we received the bird from some of them in return! There was mutual respect between both sides, which was nice to see. We applauded the Policia Federal as we left the Azteca and we received a good bit of cheers as we made our way through the security cordon to our buses back to Mexico City.

As we waited for the stadium to empty out, there was a great deal of relief and satisfaction in the away end. Relief that our team did their job and that we had secured  a point in the Azteca, and satisfaction that USMNT was one step closer to qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. We all knew that we may not have a match like this in the Azteca and were proud to have taken part in this latest chapter of the historic rivalry.

Gavin Lippman

Baltimore native who is always searching for that next adventure and a new story to tell.

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