By Nick Zaccardi
MEXICO CITY – The splash headline of Récord, the daily sports newspaper of Mexico, on Thursday read: Clásico Del Milenio.
On the cover, stare-down faces of Chucky Lozano and Christian Pulisic were the same size. The USMNT and Mexico were treated as equals in newsprint.
The US Men’s National Team still hasn’t won a competitive match at Azteca, but it also hasn’t lost one in 13 years after Thursday’s scoreless draw, following draws in 2013 and 2017.
Outside Estadio Azteca, with the fading reputation as a fortress for El Tri, the mood before the match was that the scales had already tipped. At least among a random sampling of green-and-white clad supporters.
“USA team is better than the Mexican team,” said Eduardo Del Campo, a middle-aged man. “First time ever.”
“U.S. won three games over us in a row,” said Hugo Hernandez, who is from California, noting the U.S.’s second-ever win streak over Mexico, though all three matches were in the States.
“They’re missing star power,” Eli Cuelad, a man with salt-and-pepper hair, said 45 minutes before kickoff, “and they’re missing a leader in the midfield.”
The well-versed Mexican fans marveled at this group of American players.
The U.S. fielded a squad on Thursday missing Juventus’ Weston McKennie and Barcelona’s Sergiño Dest due to injuries, but still with seven starters from the five core European leagues in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France.
Mexico’s XI had five from those leagues, granted its domestic league is largely responsible for its seven consecutive trips to (and losses in) the World Cup round of 16.
“It’s the best generation of the USA team,” Del Campo said.
Perhaps one other time was the Mexican program jealous of the U.S.: At the 2002 World Cup, when the Americans knocked out their rivals in the round of 16.
That El Tri had a snarling young Rafa Marquez red carded out of that match for head-butting Cobi Jones.
Marquez retired from international competition after the 2018 World Cup.
“They’re missing Rafa Marquez’s energy and leadership,” Cuelad said.
Much more about Thursday’s match felt different than the mythical, urine-bag-throwing days from decades ago.
Inside Azteca, the some 90,000 seats were not half-filled at kickoff: partly because of COVID restrictions on capacity and partly because of late arrivals for the 8 p.m. local start.
The American Outlaws, seated together in the upper deck, were not surrounded by Mexicans as legend dictates. They were instead bordered by Corona and Club América logos, visible because the adjacent sections were empty.
American fans were still escorted through the gates by shield-wielding Mexican authorities. The Mexican fans from which they were being protected mostly took selfies and phone videos rather than try to taunt over the rhythmic English chanting.
With the U.S., Mexico and Canada tri-hosting the next World Cup, which usually means bypassing qualification, this may have been the last match of consequence in Azteca for many of the American players.
This also may have been the last U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier at Azteca of this significance for quite some time, with the World Cup going from 32 to 48 teams.
CONCACAF is likely to see an increase in berths from its current three and a half, and as of now there’s a dip from the three biggest nations in North and Central America to the rest of the group. It may move the drama of World Cup qualifying down to the likes of Costa Rica and Panama. Perhaps deeper than that.
Jamar Assah, the Phoenix chapter president of the American Outlaws, said his first time for an Azteca match five years ago was the most scared and excited he’s ever been.
“We were in the cage in the second or third level,” he said before boarding the fans’ bus to the pre-match tailgate. “A stadium of 90,000 people, and a handful of U.S. fans. If you’re on the edge of the cage between where they sit and where you sit, it’s chaotic, the vulgarness.
“The Mexican fans are amazing people, but when that whistle blows, they’re so passionate about that football team, they’re wearing it on their sleeve.”
Perhaps that passion will be back in 2030, when the stadium is full and both nations will be back in World Cup qualifying.
But that’s a long time.
So Assah, and many others in the supporters’ group, made sure not to miss this match, which could in some ways be the last of its kind.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a different atmosphere,” said Assah, “but as far as the teams go in qualification, the desperation is not going to be there.”