MEXICO CITY -- As you drive down the Avenida del Iman, Estadio Azteca looms on the horizon. From afar, it looks like a hulking birthday cake was plopped down in the Santa Ursula neighborhood of Mexico City. As you get closer, the concrete supports look like the collective arms of Mexico supporters, pushing up on the venue's rim and out of the ground. Once inside, the stands -- despite their immense size -- give off a claustrophobic feel, and that's without any fans present.
On Thursday, the Azteca -- which has hosted two World Cup finals, in 1970 and 1986 -- will welcome the latest incarnation of the Clasico between Mexico and the United States men's national teams in a 2022 World Cup qualifier. In many ways, it feels like the end of an era.
Up to now, the World Cup qualifiers between the two neighbors have been the first fans have looked for when the fixtures are released. But change is coming. With both countries hosting the 2026 World Cup, along with Canada, there will be no qualifiers to look forward to for that tournament. By the time the 2030 qualifiers beckon, the World Cup will have expanded to 48 teams, which could result in the number of automatic qualifying spots from CONCACAF being doubled to six.
Granted, games between the two CONCACAF heavyweights will always mean something. The desire for bragging rights will remain. But the stakes -- at least in terms of World Cup qualification -- will be lessened, the damage done by a defeat less severe, and thus some of the tension will dissipate.
While such thoughts focus on the future, it is the present that concerns the U.S., and the stakes surrounding Thursday's encounter are high indeed. The two teams are level with each other in the standings, with the U.S. just edging ahead on goal differential.
The neuroses of both teams are also in full bloom. Mexico is probably the more desperate side, and the U.S. team's home match against Panama on Sunday is more important in the overall picture of qualification. But a result for either team would be an important step forward in the quest to reach Qatar. To do so at their rival's expense would be precious.
Yet for El Tri, pessimism rules the day, in no small part due to the three-game losing streak it is currently suffering against the U.S. The day before the game, sports newspaper CANCHA put Christian Pulisic and Ricardo Pepi front and center (and over Mexico players) with a "They Have An Advantage On Us" caption. Fox Sports Mexico's Fernando Schwartz went on a one-minute rant on why "Mexico is no longer the giant of CONCACAF." Over at Universal Deportes, the headline reads "Make it Weigh," imploring El Tri to make more of its historical home-field advantage.
This negativity has permeated into everyday life as well. Luis, a local driver who traveled with ESPN colleague Cesar Hernandez, spoke at length about his dismay with the current Mexico national team. While weaving in and out of Mexico City's traffic, he discussed what he thought was a lack of lideres (leaders) within El Tri's squad, and pined for the days when former greats such as Rafael Marquez and Jorge Campos were still around. The fan violence that plagued a league match between Queretaro and Atlas has added to the overall gloom.
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There are other concerns as well for El Tri. Depending on how things go in the game, the offensive and anti-gay chant could resurface at the Estadio Azteca this Thursday. Social media campaigns, such as #MexicoSinMundial (essentially "#MexicoWithoutAWorldCup") have been trending on Twitter recently. But what are they? In short: Due to a variety of different complaints about how Mexican soccer is governed and run, fans have made online threats about the usage of the anti-gay chant in the game against the United States, which could then potentially hurt the Mexican Football Federation (FMF).
Another element about the Azteca is the location. Its lung-searing altitude has weighed heavily on the U.S. over the years, although that has been lessened in recent times. The U.S. has won just once at the venue, with a 0-3-3 record in World Cup qualifiers. U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter even went so far as to say the U.S. team's record at the Azteca is "horrendous."
That the U.S. will have to play without the injured quartet of Weston McKennie, Sergino Dest, Matt Turner and Brenden Aaronson makes it a massive task indeed. But looked at another way, the U.S is unbeaten in its past three matches here: a pair of ties in World Cup qualifying preceded by a friendly win in 2012.
That is what Max Croes, a 37-year-old political consultant from Helena, Montana, is focusing on. He's been at each of the past three matches between the U.S. and Mexico at the Azteca, and Thursday will be his fourth. "I'm a good luck charm," he quipped. "I will take that. I will be gratified with one point. I would be out of my mind with three points."
The reduced capacity of 50,000, an 8 p.m. local time kickoff and the fact that some Mexico stars now play abroad further reduce the home-field advantage. For some U.S. fans, that actually counts as a disappointment.
"Going into Azteca, it's a fortress," said Heather Borjon, a middle school teacher from Orange County in California. "I've wanted to come here for so long. It's taken me 'til now to get here, and it's not even going to be the full experience at this reduced capacity. But I'm here. So, best spring break ever."
The U.S. is carrying an additional stress. The failure to qualify four years ago in Couva, Trinidad -- basically The-Game-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named -- still hangs over the collective head of the U.S. program, even though just four players on this roster were around for that debacle. One of those players, Paul Arriola, said about Thursday's match: "Fear isn't sensed within the group."
That isn't the case at the "Night Before Party" hosted by the U.S. supporters group the American Outlaws, though. The nerves are showing -- even while countless beers are consumed -- especially as it relates to the U.S.'s qualifying chances.
"I am incredibly nervous," said Michael Dovellos, a 29-year-old salesperson from outside Chicago. "I think that the burden of the last qualifying cycle is heavy. I don't want to get my hopes up again. But I don't want to be too down about it. I think that we have a really good shot at qualifying, but I don't want to get ahead of myself."
"I'll probably not eat or drink after 11 a.m. tomorrow," added Stephanie Casiano, who works for a health care provider in San Antonio. "It's going to be like, all the nerves. But this is my 48th game, so I'm invested in this team."
An inaugural win at the Azteca would make for a massive payoff.
With additional reporting by Cesar Hernandez.