First stop on USMNT final stage of World Cup qualifying: Mexico's feared Estadio Azteca

By Dylan Butler | Posted 2 years ago

Long before he was named to the U.S. men’s national team roster, long before he arrived in Mexico City, Kellyn Acosta heard the chatter ahead of the final three games of Concacaf World Cup qualification. 

The middle game — at home against Panama Sunday night in Orlando — was the one pundits and fans were pointing at as the pivotal make-or-break match. But the LAFC midfielder knew better. 

“The game at Mexico is gonna be really key,” Acosta told “Obviously, people are looking at Panama in the second game, but I think the first game is the most important, the game that’s ahead. It’ll kind of set the tone for the qualifiers.”

That game is Thursday when a rivalry is renewed between the United States and Mexico. And the venue is the Estadio Azteca, Mexico’s fortress, especially so during World Cup qualifiers. 

It seats 87,000 and is 7,200 feet above sea level and the United States have never won there, going 0-3-3 in qualifiers in the modern era. 

In fact, there have been six US players to score at the iconic venue, including Michael Bradley, whose stunning golazo helped the US forge a 1-1 draw in the last World Cup qualifier between the foes in June, 2017. 

Paul Arriola was in the starting XI that day. 

“Playing in Azteca is different, it’s a different atmosphere,” the FC Dallas winger said. "But there’s so many guys on this roster who have played in just as big games, bigger games than going down to the Azteca. So for me there’s not really much to say besides our mentality is to go down there and win an that’s what we're going to try to do.”

Considering how late this meeting is in the qualification stage — each team will have two more matches — it just ramps up the intensity. 

“There's no fear. There's no fear at all,” Leipzig midfielder Tyler Adams said. “The minimum is that every game that we go into, we're leaving it out all out on the pitch so that we don't have any regrets. And when we leave it all out on the pitch, we're going to win games, that’s the bottom line.

“So, we’re confident in the group and we're confident in the mentality of the group.”

The United States enter the final three matches of World Cup qualifying in second place on 21 points, ahead of Mexico on goal differential (+3) despite being level on points. 

The top three teams in Concacaf automatically qualify for the World Cup, while the fourth-place team — currently Panama on 17 points — go to an inter-confederation playoff against the Oceana winner for a World Cup spot. 

The USA could clinch a World Cup berth  with a historic win at the Azteca, combined with a Panama loss to Honduras and a Costa Rica loss to Canada.


So, yes, outside of a 2-0 win by the USA in the Round of 16 of the 2002 World Cup, the stakes have never been higher. 

“One thing I told the staff in our meeting as we started camp was, this is probably the biggest week of our lives as professional coaches. And that’s just honest. I’ve coached in Columbus and I've coached an MLS Cup final, but this is bigger than that,” USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter said. “What I’ve reassured the group is we’ve all coached in three games before, we’ve been through qualifying already, we’ve coached a lot of games before and we have a process and just stick to the process. That’s what's making it easy both for the staff and the group, is we just stick to the way we work.”

While the US haven’t had success at the Azteca before, they have against Mexico of late, beating El Tri in the Nations League final, the Gold Cup final and in World Cup qualifying. But all three of those games were on U.S. soil. 

Still a young US team gleans confidence from those results as they look to make history. 

“Of course, it would mean everything. We know it's not going to be easy. Of course, we got the better of them the last couple of games, but that means nothing coming into tomorrow’s game,” Chelsea forward Christian Pulisic said in a press conference Wednesday. "We're going to need a battle, we're going to need another top performance and continue to do the things we have been doing the past games against them and we're going to need an amazing performance to win the game tomorrow.”

Berhalter embraces both truths — the US Men's National Team's struggles at the Azteca and how his different sides have found recent success against their rivals. 

“Our record here is horrendous. The odds are against us getting something out of this game. We know that, we realize that. That’s just how it is,” Berhalter said. “We’re focused on going in and being difficult to play against, competing, but we certainly do have confidence from how we grew as a team in those three games.”

The USMNT enter this crucial stretch less than full strength. While they welcome back Gio Reyna and Tim Weah from injury, influential midfielder Weston McKennie, fullback Sergino Dest and winger Brenden Aaronson are out with injury. 

While Berhalter was coy about his lineup choices — “My stock answer is just going to be we’re working through it, even if we had made a decision” — Acosta is a leading candidate to possibly step into McKennie’s position.

“Obviously not having Weston is a big blow, but we got guys that are playing really well at their respective clubs and ready to impress and help the team and contribute. So its that next guy up mentality,” said Acosta, who also started for the US in that 1-1 draw at the Azteca in 2017. “For us, it's going to be a good matchup. Mexico’s looking to get points, we need to get points. Everyone knows what's at stake. So, it's gonna be intense.”

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