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On Hallowed Ground: The Estadio Azteca's role in the U.S., Mexico rivalry

The USMNT will once again travel to the Azteca to take on their most fierce rival.

Mexico City's Azteca stadium is more than the sum of its parts. Opened in 1966, it has been the spiritual (and actual) home of the Mexico national team and Club America ever since and boasts a capacity of 87,000. Pele and Diego Maradona both lifted the World Cup in the Azteca, in 1970 and 1986, respectively.

As for the U.S. national team? Let's just say its record there puts the "dos a cero" in Columbus, Ohio, to shame: The Yanks have won only once, in a 2012 friendly, with nine defeats (aggregate score: 22-5 to Mexico) and two scoreless draws.

With Sunday's World Cup qualifier sure to add another captivating chapter to the rivalry and its connection to Mexico City, ESPN FC spoke to several players on both sides, past and present, about the hallowed ground.

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Memories of the Azteca

Omar Gonzalez, U.S. defender, 2010-present: The first time [I played there] was a World Cup qualifier when we drew there before the 2014 World Cup. It was an incredible experience. The stadium is massive, the fans are into it. It's buzzing. We ended up playing a pretty solid game and getting a draw, which was big for us.

Eddie Lewis, U.S. midfielder, 1998-2006: The thing I always remember most was that it was one of the only games where they had IVs ready for players at halftime and after the game. Generally, if it was a two-game swing, I can really remember -- particularly in Azteca -- getting an IV at halftime and even more at the end of the game. I realized how incredible the power of medicine was that literally injecting purpose-built fluids back into our body, you felt instantly better. Literally, it was almost instant. ... I wasn't necessarily ready to go out and play another game, but I remember thinking the power of medicine is pretty real.

Marcelo Balboa, U.S. defender, 1988-2000: I've been to a lot of different places, but for us the biggest game of the year, and playing in Azteca, it was awesome.

Charlie Davies, U.S. forward, 2007-09: The Azteca is Mexico's holy grail for football. It's got this magical sense ... that it's the mecca to play in. It's a special game.

Jared Borgetti, Mexico forward, 1997-2008: The game that I most remember and that made me feel nervous and unsure about what was going to happen was a game against the U.S. in qualifying in 2001. I'd only played a few games in the national team. We were expected to win and it was my big opportunity in the Azteca. The stadium was full of people demanding a victory and I managed to score a goal to win the game. It was a great memory and gave me the tranquility to say, "I'm here and I can do well [for Mexico]." And the fans that normally saw you play against Club America in the Azteca were applauding me.

Benjamin Galindo, Mexico midfielder, 1983-1997: Before World Cup qualifiers, every fan was supportive. It excited you before a game. It motivated me because of the support you received [and] the demands it put on you. In the Azteca, it was sensational because it was very strange for us to lose. First, you had the pitch, which you knew, and the climate, and above all the fans that were always with us.

Luis Roberto "Zague" Alves, Mexico forward, 1988-2002: With full respect to all the other stadiums in Mexico, there is no stadium that influences more in favor of Mexico than the Estadio Azteca.

Claudio Suarez, Mexico defender, 1992-2006: It's like the cathedral of Mexican football. The stadium is imposing but I always felt very comfortable there. It always helped that the pitch was in perfect condition. We took advantage of the climate and the pollution in the capital, which affected the opponents. Playing at midday, when the sun is strong, we were used to all that; the opponents felt bad. The altitude is also a factor; all of it helped us take advantage.

Davies: Going onto the field for the pregame, the stadium was basically full. It was like a beehive. Before you even got out to the field, there was this intense buzzing noise. I was looking around going: "Is this serious or what?" I couldn't believe the passion of the Mexico fans and what it meant to them. For me, it made it the ultimate game to play in. It doesn't get better than this. Of course, you could play in a World Cup final and play in all these tournament finals, but to play in the Azteca stadium wearing a U.S. jersey, it doesn't get better than that. I took everything in, from getting to Mexico to tying my shoes, I made sure I took every second in and enjoyed it.

Mannequins, flying objects and pressure

Balboa: It was the game we tied 0-0, and as we were walking out of the locker room to go see the field, you go down the tunnel and it breaks off to the right and off to the left. We go to the right, and as we come out, on the top deck, you see this body get thrown over. We were trying to figure out what it was. It comes flying from the top deck and all of a sudden it stops: a mannequin with a U.S. national team jersey hung by the neck. It was just hanging there. It was the funniest but also the freakiest thing because you're like: "What the hell is coming down at us?" We got the 0-0, but I have to say, I might have peed a little bit that day when I saw that thing flying over the top. The other great thing about that game was we had control of the game in Mexico City, and the fans, every time we got the ball -- and I haven't seen this in a while -- they were going, "Ole! Ole!" That put chills in your body, hearing the Mexico fans turning on their own team. The dummy thing I'll always remember, though.

Manuel Vidrio, Mexico defender, 1993-2002: One special game was in 2001 when the national team was struggling to qualify for the World Cup 2002. Javier Aguirre came in as coach and I took part in his first game in charge. It was a very complicated and difficult game against the United States. We had the fortune to win 1-0, with a play I remember perfectly. Alberto Garcia Aspe put in a great cross, one of the U.S. players tried to block Jared [Borgetti], but he finished with quality.

Galindo: When you play there for the first time, the Azteca astounds you due to the size. It's not normal. I remember when I played there for the first time, I felt something really forceful, but I had the sensation that we were always going to do well. It hits you right away.

Davies: [In 2009] I scored early on in the first half. I came out wide, Landon [Donovan] got a ball and picked his head up, saw me making a run and slipped me through. I took a couple of touches and bent it around [keeper Guillermo] Ochoa and in. And when I ran to the sideline to do my typical celebrations -- like some dancing, the Dougie or the Stanky Leg -- I quickly noticed that none of my teammates besides Michael Bradley really joined me. I was thinking: "What's going on here?" When I started seeing all these objects being thrown at me -- batteries, coins, beer -- I realized: "I guess this is why you don't celebrate when you score at the Azteca!"

Atmosphere: As intense as advertised

Michael Orozco Fiscal's goal sealed the only U.S. win at the Azteca in 2012.

Lewis: It's interesting. I've played in Mexico so many times, in a number of different locations. The great thing about Azteca was the crowd was always respectful in a strange sort of way. Rival and respect don't always go together. And there's always cheering for Mexico and booing for the U.S. and whistles, or whatever else. We never had a problem in Mexico City with rocks being thrown at the bus, or when you go to take a corner getting a bunch of things chucked at you.

Borgetti: When it had over 100,000 spectators [before the renovations] supporting the national team, it was complicated for the opponents, and even before [the game] they were aware they'd be playing in a stadium full of people supporting only one team. Then you add the altitude of Mexico City, which was a plus. Playing in a stadium with so many people, with the altitude, it is complicated [for the opposition]. It was as if opponents were undermined, psychologically, before they even came out to play.

Davies: That game was literally a dream come true. As a kid watching U.S. soccer and watching the rivalry, it's always been a dream to partake in that exact game. And to play in the Azteca stadium, the initial feeling, you knew it was a big game when the night before the fans would circle the hotel all night honking their horns, coming into the lobby blowing air horns throughout the night, and we had to give fake names to the front desk; the buildup was real. Then, on game day, pulling into the stadium, I want to say there were about 30,000 fans outside the Azteca stadium already. Walking in the tunnel, you see the plaques of Pele and Maradona playing in the stadium -- that's when it really hit home how important playing in the Azteca is when you're wearing a U.S. jersey.

Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre, Mexico midfielder 1987-1992, manager 2010-13: What makes it special? A lot of things. Firstly, its history in the World Cups; it is enormous and very beautiful in every aspect, and everything that is wrapped up with the Estadio Azteca with the national team. ... [It's] also a privilege to have played in a stadium that has such fine standing.

Vidrio: The stadium has history, and even more than its imposing size, it has the history of the great teams that have played there, like America, Necaxa and Cruz Azul. It's seen great championships. Aside from that, it is in one of the biggest cities in the world; I think it is a symbolic stadium for our country.

Is the Azteca losing its mystique?

Borgetti: It's changed. It goes hand in hand with the players' preparation nowadays. Now there are a lot of clubs that work the psychology of the players and try to make them understand that playing in the Azteca may have some things in favor [for Mexico], but for the opponent, it's simply a question of understanding where they are. I had a coach who told us that the pitch measures the same and the goals are the same size in the Estadio Azteca, in Wembley, the Bernabeu, the Maracana: They all measure the same. What changes are the setting and the stands. Today, I think the players come more prepared in that respect and understand that it is 11 against 11 and that the spectators aren't going to play. So I think it comes from the increased preparation from the mental side to taking on the Mexican national team in the Estadio Azteca.

Davies: I think it's really a combination of heat, altitude and their fans [that gave it an edge]. You definitely feel the altitude in the second half. I used to think: "That's a myth or a mental challenge. You've just got to push through," but you definitely feel the effects in the second half, that's for sure. And the ball seems to move a little bit differently in the air. I can see that for some people, [that atmosphere] might affect their game or affect you mentally when you feel like there's 100,000 people yelling at you. We've beaten them there since then, but before that, there was the factor of never having beaten them there at home. And that's in the back of your mind, that it's a very tough place to play. Some people, when you think, "[Mexico are] unbeatable at home," it could sink into your mind at some point during the game that, "Man, I don't think we can win here. They never lose." I think with that being gone now, knowing that they can be beat at home, that just helps the U.S. more.

Suarez: For me, it is still imposing. It depends a lot on the fans. When they go and really support the national team, it generates an atmosphere that is great for the home players. It motivates and drives you to play well. But it also works the other way. When the fans are angry, it generated nervousness and pressure for us. A lot of times opponents took advantage. I remember the United States in the 0-0 draw [in 1997]. The U.S. sat back, and as much as we tried to open them up, we couldn't. They felt comfortable. They tried to almost ruin the game because they heard the fans shouting at us. The fans booed us when we got the ball; they were shouting all sorts at us and that generates pressure. It happened against Costa Rica [in 2001] as well as against the U.S. [in 2012].

Vidrio: No. What's happened is that they are building newer and more modern stadiums and everybody gravitates towards the more modern ones, but those who know about football without doubt know what the Azteca represents. Through the years it loses its beauty and it changes, and comparing it with Monterrey and Chivas' stadium and other nice ones in Mexican football, things go against the Azteca, but for me, it remains symbolic for our country.

De la Torre: No. I think it is now very difficult to win anywhere against any team. The preparation [of other teams] is improving; the quality difference between teams is less. The Azteca is still powerful. It's still a stadium that is a factor [in results]. With Mexico City and the altitude, the crowd and sometimes playing at 2 p.m., as well as the heat, it is complicated for any team.

Galindo: I think it is slipping a bit. First, because of the times of games. We played our qualifiers at noon. It's not the same at midday than it is at night. It doesn't favor you as the home team [to play at night]. I think that they should repeat it because it is there that you take advantage of being at home.

Gonzalez: I just love playing there. The field is in good shape when I was playing there last, and I'm just looking forward to playing there again for such a huge, important game for us in front of a great crowd. Hopefully we can stick together, play well and get the results we need.

Pavel Pardo, Mexico midfielder, 1996-2009: The stadium has not lost its mystique. It's the home of the national team and it's never lost that. It's still imposing for teams that play in the Azteca. It is still and will still be for a long time a stadium that is imposing for visiting teams.


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