Mexico's draw with the USMNT avoided an 'Aztecazo' but marks disheartening end to era

MEXICO CITY -- Even if you wanted to, it was impossible to escape the attention of Thursday's World Cup qualifier between the United States and Mexico. Walking around North America's oldest metropolis, countless images of the two rival soccer teams appeared on newsstands while restaurants buzzed with chit-chat about the match at the Estadio Azteca.

Even at the National Museum of Anthropology, in what should have been a quiet morning distraction on the day of the game, a couple of attendees with U.S. men's national team jerseys wandered around and gazed upon ancient Mexican artifacts.

When the USMNT walked onto the pitch on Thursday night, many of them also likely gazed outwards, wondering what had made the Azteca a significant relic of its own for Mexico. No matter the push and pull between the two rival soccer nations, the imposing venue in the heart of the country had never provided a win for the USMNT in an official match.

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Only two times has Mexico lost a World Cup qualifying match at the Azteca -- to Costa Rica in 2001 and to Honduras in 2013. So rare that those defeats are simply referred to as Aztecazos. It surely didn't want to see the USMNT etch its name to that list.

Considering that both the USMNT and Mexico will not need to qualify for the World Cup as co-hosts in 2026, and that an expanded tournament will put the qualification process into question going forward, it became clear that Thursday's match would also be the last meaningful one for the two countries at the venerable Azteca for at least several years, or perhaps even ever.

Mexico were eager for redemption. After losing three previous times to the USMNT in the CONCACAF Nations League final, the Gold Cup final and a previous qualifier, a statement win at the Azteca would be a perfect goodbye to their infamous clashes on the home ground.

With an ever-increasing amount of hype, the stage was ready for a celebration. A high-stakes battle with a potential World Cup spot on the line, and while the 87,000-capacity stadium was capped to 50,000 supporters due to security protocols, the stage had all of the necessary ingredients.

Traditional songs such as "Cielito Lindo" and chants like "¡Olé!" and "¡Si Se Puede!" ("It can be done") rang out as Mexico's fans aimed to bring life to the party. The PA announcer, in order to drown out instances of the anti-gay chant that has plagued El Tri matches, encouraged fans to shout "¡Méxicoooo!" on goal kicks.

Then the disappointment arrived. One moment nostalgic lyrics filled the crisp evening air, the next, a chorus of boos rained down onto the pitch as both teams floundered to a 0-0 draw. The undefeated streak had continued for Mexico at the Estadio Azteca, but the same couldn't be said about finally reclaiming a win.

For many El Tri fans, their anger was also focused on the inability to claim three points that would have brought them incredibly close to qualifying for the World Cup.

And yet, Mexico manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino didn't seem too bothered with what had just unfolded, even as the "¡Fuera Tata!" chorus grew in the stands.

"We competed well with the United States," said Martino after the match, oddly pleased. "Today we seeked to equal the rhythm of the game during the 90 minutes."

On paper, 0-0 isn't the worst result for the two.

A win would have undoubtedly changed their fortunes, but with another point each they've been able to slightly maintain their distance above fourth place Costa Rica (19 points) and fifth place Panama (18 points) in the Octagonal table. As long as Mexico (22 points, third place) and the United States (22 points, second place on goal difference) maintain their place within the top three, a direct spot to this year's World Cup will be earned.

Looking back at Mexico though, who were slightly fortunate to not allow a goal by their American rivals, bittersweet feelings remain about their latest performance.

Martino's substitutes were made far too late, the attack lacked chemistry, and although the defense was one of the few positives, they allowed the USMNT to create dangerous chances -- which, luckily for El Tri supporters, they missed.

Will Martino find improvements?

"We've lost that calm in the last 25 meters of the field. Not only during the times when we need to score a goal, but also when needing to make that pass," Martino said. "It's clear that it's a subject that we need to restore."

Mexico's next two and final opponents in the Octagonal, will be more forgiving. On March 27, they'll visit a Honduran side who are now officially out of the running for the World Cup with a four-point tally at the very bottom of the table at eight place. Then, on March 30, El Tri will host sixth place El Salvador, who are also eliminated for World Cup contention with 10 points.

There is a straightforward path to World Cup qualification here, but the issue isn't one just about qualifying for the big tournament. It's about showcasing along the way that the team can compete for something far greater than regional dominance.

Attention spans are notoriously short in the international window and there will be another opportunity at home when Mexico hosts El Salvador. However, after walking out of the Azteca on Thursday night, one couldn't help but feel that the stadium had lost some mystique -- and that El Tri closed the latest chapter of its rivalry with the USMNT on a shaky and precarious note.