The latest tipping point for American soccer appears to be doing just that, tipping, and it’s located in Mexico City, no less.

It’s called Azteca Stadium, imposingly perched atop volcanic rock 7,400 feet above sea level, which is only one reason why it might be the toughest road game in all of sports. Throw in smothering smog, withering heat, 100,000-plus wildly partisan fans and a host desperate for a World Cup qualifying win – and what you’ve got is the perfect time and place for the U.S. team to demonstrate it’s finally serious about soccer.

U.S. fans have been waiting decades for just such a development and by almost any measure, the sport has never been more popular here. They’ve proven they’ll pay good money to watch foreigners play topflight soccer, packing stadiums from Seattle to Foxborough, Mass., to see world-class clubs like Chelsea, Barcelona and AC Milan play each other and even teams from Major League Soccer.

They lingered in front of TV sets in record numbers to watch the U.S. team recover from a bumbling start at the Confederations Cup and throw a scare into mighty Brazil right up until the final whistle. Then they stuck around to see a “B” squad of their countrymen carve a path all the way to the finals of the Gold Cup.

All that momentum won’t mean much, however, if the U.S. team gets beat next Wednesday at the Azteca. The Americans may have clawed their way to the No. 12 ranking in the world, but you can’t honestly call yourself a big dog on the international scene unless you rule in your own backyard.

“There is this very tangible negativity that I feel toward me the second I step on the field,” U.S. striker Landon Donovan told ESPN .com recently, “As an athlete, I love it. Good or bad, you want people to care. And for some reason, they certainly seem to care.”


Since the Azteca opened for business in May 1966, Mexico has been beaten there only once in World Cup qualifying, 2-1 by Costa Rica in 2001. The U.S. team is 0-18-1 in the Mexican capital dating back to 1937, and counting its four other losses around the country, effectively 0-for-Mexico.

Defenders of U.S. soccer don’t put much stake in historic records, and it’s a fair argument up to a point. More kids played soccer than basketball here beginning almost three decades ago, but it wasn’t until Americans played host to the World Cup in 1994, followed by the startup of MLS, that the sport garnered serious attention from fans and funding from sponsors like Nike and Adidas.

The U.S. loosened Mexico’s stranglehold on the region not long after that. While the series tilts 15-30-11 in Mexico’s favor over the years, since 2000, the U.S. team is up 10-3-2. Included in that run was nearly a decade of dominance in home matches that was snapped only late last month in New Jersey, where Mexico beat a “B” squad of U.S. players 5-0 in the Gold Cup final.

One measure of how desperate “El Tricolor” is at the moment – currently ranked fourth in regional qualifying, one spot out of an automatic berth – are the words national team coach Javier Aguirre used to warn players arriving at training camp Wednesday.

“In Mexico we’re prone to throw ourselves on the floor after a loss and later feel very good after victories,” he said. “We have to find a happy balance. It’s not easy. It’s a temptation to be very up – or very down.”

This has all the makings of a trap game: Mexico needs to win, the U.S. doesn’t because it’s been steadily earning qualifying points and there are convenient excuses all around. Most U.S. team players won’t leave their European clubs and gather in Miami until two days before the game and they won’t train at altitude.


After all the successes the sport racked up in the states in recent months, someone asked U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati where the game stood.

“Do I think that we’ve been at a tipping point this summer?” he said. “I’m always careful about saying that because we would have had a dozen tipping points in the last 10 years, so I don’t think I’m ready to say that.”

But a moment later, Gulati said the U.S. showing in the Confederations Cup was as close as he was willing to lean in that direction. He acknowledged the Gold Cup loss to Mexico had taken off some of the gloss, but knew exactly what would restore the shine: a win in that singular place where batteries, curses and challenges have rained down on a U.S. team like no other.


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)

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