PLAY­ING FOR HEAPS

The U.S. played Mex­ico in soc­cer for the first time in 1934, win­ning 4-2 in a World Cup qual­i­fier. It would be 46 years and 25 games be­fore the U.S. would win again. But in the last 17 years what had been a hope­lessly one-sided com­pe­ti­tion has be­come one

Los Angeles Times - - ROAD TO THE WORLD CUP: U.S. VS. MEXICO - BY KEVIN BAX­TER

What makes this game so big?

Jared Bor­getti: For Mex­ico, los­ing to the United States is some­thing se­ri­ous. It’s some­thing the peo­ple hate. Es­pe­cially at home.

Alexi Lalas: There’s still an el­e­ment — and we ex­pe­ri­enced this in all the places where we went — where of­ten­times many of th­ese coun­tries, there was noth­ing that they could nec­es­sar­ily com­pete with us in and come out on top. Other than soc­cer. It was their one mo­ment to be bet­ter than the United States in some­thing. And they sa­vored that mo­ment.

Car­los Her­mosillo: Play­ing against Hon­duras, play­ing a qual­i­fier against Costa Rica, those games are im­por­tant and dif­fi­cult. But play­ing against the U.S. is some­thing else en­tirely. You don’t just get three points. You win the hap­pi­ness of the fans, of the Mex­i­cans who live in the United States. The games were com­pletely dif­fer­ent be­cause of the ri­valry. There was a lot of courage and a lot of claw­ing. Pavel Pardo: Don’t for­get that we are neigh­bors. It’s more for your coun­try. It’s more for your fans. Every game, you don’t want to lose. But es­pe­cially th­ese games. You have to beat them. How does it stack up against other ri­val­ries in global soc­cer? Stu­art Holden: To me, it’s the best in the world. I know Real MadridBarcelona. I know Boca-River. There was no one big­ger than U.S.-Mex­ico. Just to be a part of that ri­valry, that’s what I al­ways wanted as a soc­cer player. There’s an added in­ten­sity. Your blood is al­ready boil­ing be­fore the game starts. There is this aura around this. Eric Wy­nalda: The game de­mands full com­mit­ment and con­cen­tra­tion — on all lev­els — be­cause you didn’t want to screw up in that game. And you know that this is the one that’s go­ing to be looked at with im­mense scru­tiny. It’s the most en­thu­si­as­tic crowd you’re ever go­ing to come across. The cal­dron that you go into in that en­vi­ron­ment. Lan­don Dono­van: This isn’t a game where you pull out of a tackle be­cause you’re think­ing about pre­serv­ing your­self for the rest of the sea­son. This is the game where — es­pe­cially given the cir­cum­stances of where the U.S. is in the qual­i­fy­ing right now — it’s sort of all or noth­ing and you’ll see that in the way they play.

Clau­dio Suarez: The at­mos­phere was al­ways very [emo­tional]. Some­times it seemed like some­one was go­ing to start throw­ing punches. For­tu­nately, it never came to that. But there was great pas­sion in every game. Sun­day’s game will be played in Mex­ico City, where the U.S. has won just once in 22 tries. Why is Es­ta­dio Azteca so im­pen­e­tra­ble for the U.S.?

Cobi Jones: Just the at­mos­phere go­ing into the old sta­dium, hav­ing the cer­tain bit of an aura about it know­ing the his­tory of Azteca. Peo­ple don’t re­al­ize that in Azteca they pipe in noise. So be­fore the game, when you go to check out the field be­fore warmups, you hear it. That’s a lit­tle bit of that games­man­ship. I re­mem­ber look­ing up and there were ef­fi­gies of Amer­i­can play­ers hang­ing over the side by their neck. Things like that were con­stant. It was nuts.

Bor­getti: It’s a place where Mex­ico feels a lot of sup­port, where we can feel the fans are be­hind us. It’s high al­ti­tude. It’s a tough place for vis­it­ing teams to play.

Dono­van: To me, that is as dif­fi­cult a place to get a re­sult as any­where in the world. You’re play­ing against, gen­er­ally speak­ing, a top 10 or top 15 team in the world. Then you add in the al­ti­tude. You add in the smog, which makes it hard to breathe. Of­ten­times it’s very hot there. One hun­dred thou­sand peo­ple chant­ing and cheer­ing against you. And all of that makes for a re­ally dif­fi­cult place to play and re­ally dif­fi­cult to win.

Pardo: You have con­fi­dence at home, to play in your coun­try and to play in your house. Es­pe­cially with 100,000 peo­ple sup­port­ing you. The at­mos­phere that you have in Es­ta­dio Azteca, that kind of game, it’s amaz­ing. Cobi, you talk about the games­man­ship, the stuff Mex­ico did to in­ter­rupt your fo­cus and con­cen­tra­tion. How was that dif­fer­ent in th­ese games? Jones: If it didn’t hap­pen, that’s out of the or­di­nary. It be­came sec­ond na­ture for us to re­ally un­der­stand that was go­ing to hap­pen. How you deal with it, that’s the most im­por­tant part.

Lalas: You were con­di­tioned to

ex­pect all sorts of ridicu­lous stuff. Not mak­ing a train­ing fa­cil­ity avail­able on time. Or tak­ing for­ever to open a gate or a door. Your abil­ity to ac­cept that and just kind of Zen out and flow with it con­trib­uted to how well, ul­ti­mately, you were able to com­port your­self on the field when the whis­tle fi­nally blew. Dono­van: You had things thrown at you. It was any­thing. Bags of urine, though not so much in the later years. Coins and bat­ter­ies. Beer bot­tles, for sure.

Holden: Dur­ing the [2009] Gold Cup fi­nal, the ball went out, rolling right by the bench. [Mex­i­can coach Javier Aguirre] kicked the ball away, spit on it and said some stuff to me in Span­ish. And I was like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I still have har­row­ing mem­o­ries of be­ing in the locker room right next to them and with the thin walls in Giants Sta­dium you could hear them cel­e­brat­ing [a 5-0 win]. Our

locker room was the qui­etest I’ve ever heard. What mem­o­ries stand out when you think of Mex­ico-U.S.? Lalas: I’ll never for­get ac­tu­ally sit­ting down next to this guy [he points at Jones] at half­time of a game at Azteca and see­ing him just hawk up this dis­gust­ing glob­ule of soot. It looked like he had worked for 40 years in a coal mine. I was like, ‘Oh, wow! That’s not good.’

Her­mosillo: All the games against the United States, es­pe­cially the qual­i­fiers, were dif­fi­cult and com­pli­cated. The United States was phys­i­cal and very strong. They would mark you closely and make it very dif­fi­cult. The spa­ces would be closed and it made the games very dif­fi­cult.

Wy­nalda: One is be­ing subbed out, in Azteca. And I was at left mid­field, so I was the fur­thest from the

bench that I could pos­si­bly be. I was walk­ing across the field be­fore an an­gry, hos­tile crowd and Mex­ico’s [Al­berto] Gar­cia Aspe hugged me and said, ‘I just saved your life.’ I said, ‘You might have.’ For the first time, those last 20 yards, there was ap­plause. The 2002 World Cup was a sem­i­nal mo­ment in the ri­valry, with the U.S. beat­ing Mex­ico 2-0 in the knock­out round. What is the legacy of that game?

Jones: The orig­i­nal Dos a Cero. That game re­ally changed the way Mex­ico went about things. There are some play­ers out there that should prob­a­bly thank us for what we did. All of a sud­den they got play­ers that were much more phys­i­cal, much more di­rect. Play­ers like [Gio­vani] Dos San­tos, Chichar­ito [Javier Her­nan­dez], [An­dres] Guardado — a lot of play­ers that just have the drive and en­ergy where it’s more di­rect play, along with the tech­ni­cal skill. The Mex­ico fed­er­a­tion started look­ing at dif­fer­ent play­ers, and that hap­pened from that 2002 World Cup.

Her­mosillo: With the U.S. there was the era be­fore coach Bora Mi­luti­novic and the era af­ter. That’s when the Wy­nal­das, the Alexi Lalases, var­i­ous play­ers [came]. Tony Me­ola. That’s when Amer­i­can soc­cer re­ally started. Then came MLS, which pro­duced a lot more play­ers. It’s good for Mex­ico and it’s good for soc­cer in the United States too.

Wy­nalda: Be­fore my first game against Mex­ico, in 1991, I was like, ‘Th­ese guys are so good.’ Bora Mi­luti­novic had just coached them. His at­ti­tude in the locker room was, ‘What are you guys wor­ried about? You’re bet­ter than them.’ No­body had ever said that. That men­tal­ity switch is where ev­ery­thing changed. We went out there be­liev­ing we were go­ing to be the bet­ter team. And we were. Ev­ery­thing changed af­ter that.

Suarez: What made them bet­ter was MLS. Lit­tle by lit­tle they built a stronger foun­da­tion. And from that base came Lan­don Dono­van. So when you talk about the growth of soc­cer in the U.S., the work of MLS was im­por­tant. It gave play­ers more ex­pe­ri­ence, a place to play. And that started mak­ing things a lit­tle more com­pli­cated for Mex­ico. But that wasn’t the f irst game that changed the di­rec­tion of the ri­valry. Alexi, you men­tioned the 1997 World Cup qual­i­fier be­fore 115,000 fans in Azteca that ended in a score­less tie, the f irst point the U.S. had ever won in Mex­ico City.

Lalas: It would be even more sig­nif­i­cant as the ri­valry con­tin­ued to get big­ger and big­ger. It was still Azteca and it was still a fortress. To go down there and to be able to do it and to see how it re­flected on us and our pro­gres­sion since the ’94 World Cup and all that, that for me is an im­por­tant one.

Jones: That was a defin­ing mo­ment when you talk about just go­ing in there and get­ting the re­sult. For a U.S. Soc­cer side that was re­ally just start­ing to get its feet and re­ally start­ing to have things go our way, we did all right. Our era at Azteca re­ally es­tab­lished that ini­tial ri­valry of the U.S. and Mex­ico. Some­thing else hap­pened in that game, when Mex­ico’s Rafa Mar­quez was ejected for kick­ing, then head-butting you, Cobi. So who is the dirt­i­est player you faced in the ri­valry? Jones: I’ll go with the whole Mex­i­can team. They’re all dirty (laughs). Pardo: Alexi Lalas. Every ball, he killed you. Part of the ball and part

of your neck.

Lalas: That’s not true! Look, if it is true, it’s be­cause I learned from the best. And when I say the best, it means all the Mex­i­can play­ers I played against. The dark arts were in full ef­fect at all times.

Dono­van: Par­tic­u­larly af­ter that World Cup game, it was re­ally nasty. [Rafa] Mar­quez had some nasty chal­lenges. Cuauhte­moc Blanco had some nasty chal­lenges. Luis Her­nan­dez was pretty nasty with some of the things he said and did. It got a lit­tle more per­sonal and nasty.

Was there re­ally a ha­tred be­tween the teams and the play­ers?

Lalas: The big pic­ture and the con­se­quences and what’s at stake are ob­vi­ous. We played so many games against Mex­ico and so that de­vel­oped the ri­valry and that com­pe­ti­tion. And it bred that hate.

Wy­nalda: I have a big prob­lem with any­body that brings hate into this. I was in that boat to a cer­tain ex­tent. I thought that we had to bring some sort of ha­tred. But the longer you play the game and the more you un­der­stand about Mex­ico, you do un­der­stand why they’re root­ing against you. There’s so much in­ter-po­lit­i­cal stuff that is go­ing on that causes peo­ple to bring out what we call pas­sion or you can call what­ever you like.

Her­mosillo: On the field against the United States, I didn’t have any friends. Off the field, yeah.

Holden: You hate them be­cause you know they’re a good player. But you also hate them be­cause you know when you go into a tackle or what­ever, there’s a lit­tle bit of a push or there’s mouthing off. And when they’re win­ning … they love to rub every last lit­tle bit of it in. Those are the mo­ments that sting for me.

There have been other bit­ter mo­ments in the ri­valry. Like the stare-down of Bor­getti by U.S. de­fender Oguchi Onyewu in a 2005 World Cup qualif ier in Columbus, Ohio, the slap at­tack Mex­i­can as­sis­tant Francisco Ramirez launched against U.S. de­fender Frankie He­j­duk in a 2009 qualif ier at the same f ield and Ra­mon Ramirez’s knee to Lalas’ groin. Do those feel­ings carry on off the f ield too? Bor­getti: It’s part of the game. Noth­ing more.

Jones: It is just foot­ball. Ev­ery­body’s pas­sions get high. That’s why we’re here talk­ing about it. I re­serve the right to con­tinue to talk about the head butt and ev­ery­thing from Mar­quez. But I un­der­stand that it’s part of the game.

Lalas: We’ve been out to din­ner with them and we laugh about that stuff. Th­ese mo­ments, they’re fun and they’re theater and they’re drama. And in the mo­ment they can set a tone or they can change the course of the game. But for the most part, it’s stuff that hap­pens in the course of the game.

Pardo: When you play the game you have to win. And then, when the game is fin­ished, it’s fin­ished. In the bat­tle on the field, it’s a bat­tle. And then when it’s fin­ished, it’s a sport.

Who was the most dif­fi­cult op­po­nent you faced in the ri­valry?

Bor­getti: Well, not the most dif­fi­cult but the most im­por­tant for the United States to change things was Lan­don Dono­van.

Dono­van: For most of his ca­reer Mar­quez was dif­fi­cult to play against be­cause of what he could do with the ball. When you play against a de­fender who’s not good on the ball, it’s al­most a time to rest. But when you played Mex­ico, when he has the ball, it was al­most when they’re at their most dan­ger­ous. Pardo: Be­cause I played right back in the games against the U.S., I had to de­fend Eric Wy­nalda. And Wy­nalda was an amaz­ing player.

Which op­po­nent did you re­spect the most?

Dono­van: There are two, Pardo and [Car­los] Sal­cido. Those two, af­ter every game that we played, win, lose or draw, would shake your hand, say ‘good game’ and be re­spect­ful. Es­pe­cially as I got older I al­ways had a lot of re­spect for them be­cause of that.

Pardo: Lan­don. He had the skills. Play­ing against Lan­don Dono­van was tough, Marcelo Bal­boa, you re­spect those guys. Clau­dio Reyna.

Lalas: Suarez. He was so smooth. And classy as an op­po­nent off the field. Wy­nalda: Pardo was the smartest player I ever faced. He was such a gen­tle­man. And we had amaz­ing bat­tles. But he was the one guy that no mat­ter what hap­pened, he never lost his cool. We were two box­ers that were go­ing to fight and punch and beat each other up. And when the game was over, there was al­ways a hug.

Gary M. Prior Getty Images

RAFAEL MAR­QUEZ of Mex­ico is sent off by the ref­eree for a foul on Cobi Jones dur­ing the 2-0 U.S. vic­tory in the sec­ond round of the 2002 World Cup, a sem­i­nal mo­ment in the ri­valry.

Mel Evans As­so­ci­ated Press

JOSE AN­TO­NIO CAS­TRO CRUISES past U.S. play­ers Brian Ching, cen­ter, and Stu­art Holden dur­ing Mex­ico’s 5-0 vic­tory in the 2009 Gold Cup fi­nal at East Ruther­ford, N.J.

COBI JONES Holds the U.S. record for ap­pear­ances with 164. Serves as an an­a­lyst on Galaxy games for Spec­trum SN and also works as a com­men­ta­tor for Fox Sports.

LAN­DON DONO­VAN The U.S. leader in goals (57), as­sists (58) and starts (142), Dono­van played for the na­tional team from 2000-14. He is an an­a­lyst for Fox Sports.

ERIC WY­NALDA The for­mer U.S. record­holder for goals (34), he played in­ter­na­tion­ally from 1990-2000. Now a soc­cer com­men­ta­tor for Fox and Sir­ius XM.

JARED BOR­GETTI The sec­ondlead­ing scorer in Mex­i­can his­tory with 46 goals played for na­tional team from 1997-2008. Now an an­a­lyst for ESPN De­portes.

CLAU­DIO SUAREZ His 177 ap­pear­ances for Mex­ico be­tween 1992-2006 are the third-most caps in soc­cer his­tory. He is a com­men­ta­tor with Fox De­portes.

PAVEL PARDO His 146 ap­pear­ances with Mex­ico be­tween 19962009 rank sec­ond all-time. Serves as an am­bas­sador for the Ger­man Bun­desliga.

CAR­LOS HER­MOSILLO Scored 35 times for Mex­ico — tied for third all-time — be­tween 1984-97. He is a com­men­ta­tor with Tele­mu­ndo.

STU­ART HOLDEN Ap­peared in 25 games for the U.S. be­tween 2009-13. Works as a com­men­ta­tor for Fox Sports.

ALEXI LALAS Played in 96 games with the U.S. be­tween 1991-98. Now an an­a­lyst for Fox Sports.

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