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Noah Davis | March 26, 2013

Not just another game

When the USMNT played Mexico in 1980, everything changed

Steve Moyers rose up into the dark Florida sky, on the evening of Nov. 23, 1980, his hair soaked with perspiration and the steady rain that fell from above. The 24-year-old forward, who had recently appeared on the cover of Kick Indoor alongside the tagline "California's Emerging Frontline Star," attempted to propel the top of his 5'9 frame above Mexico's imposing backline duo of Mario Trejo and Alfredo "Capitán Furia" Tena. The target: a leather ball expertly curled by his American teammate Larry Hulcer to an area between the penalty spot and the six-yard box.

As Moyers leapt, he was also trying to escape frustrations, both personal and for his disappointing team. Despite his status as the highest-scoring American in the North American Soccer League (NASL), the St. Louis native hadn't cracked the starting lineup for the United States Men’s National Team in the three previous 1981 CONCACAF Championship qualification matches. Moyers believed he had more skill than the forwards who head coach Walt Chyzowych preferred, but he didn't get on the field. The squad lost two and tied one, eliminating it from reaching the final round of the tournament and qualifying for the 1982 World Cup. At the outset, the Stars and Stripes players, bolstered by increasing, though still limited opportunities to play in the NASL, believed they had the ability to qualify for the world’s biggest soccer stage for the first time since 1950. Instead, the team showed a near comical inability to finish during a 0-0 draw with Canada in Ft. Lauderdale, then traveled to Vancouver needing a victory and retuned with a 2-1 defeat. The low point came on Nov. 9, 1980, when El Tricolor—the nickname for Mexican National team—destroyed the U.S. 5-1 in Mexico City's 110,000-seat footballing fortress, Azteca Stadium, virtually eliminating the Americans from 1982 World Cup consideration. This left only one apparently meaningless game to play.

All that remained was a home rematch with Mexico, an expected beat-down from a team that had outclassed the Americans for half a century.

All that remained was a home rematch with Mexico, an expected beat-down from a team that had outclassed the Americans for half a century. The red, white, and blue had not beaten its southern rivals—not once—in a friendly or a qualifier, since the first time the two countries played at Rome’s Stadio Nazionale in 1934. Although that 4-2 victory, which sent the Americans to the World Cup and Mexico home, created "a rivalry that lasted forever," according to Mexican soccer historian Carlos Calderón Cardoso, the so-called rivalry had been a one-sided affair for 50 years. In the last two dozen games against Mexico, the U.S. posted 21 losses, three ties, and a goal differential of minus-70. For El Tri, led in 1980 by UNAM Puma's brilliant left-winger Hugo Sanchez, the Americans were simply a distraction, a bug to squash on the sidewalk while running to a bigger game.

These were the facts as Moyers, a classic finisher who was fearless in the box, contorted himself around the Mexican defense and somehow reached the ball first and headed it toward the goal. Keeper Ignacio Rodríguez had no time to react. Moyers turned his head to follow the ball’s flight and watched it fly toward its target. Then, at the last second, it trickled wide.

Typical. The names of the players changed, but the results never did.

The match remained scoreless, the plot points already set: Mexico would turn up the pressure, the U.S. defense would collapse, and the visitors would prevail. Again.

Except this time, the U.S. refused to conform to the expected narrative. Over the next hour, the red, white, and blue would unite, turn history on its head, and do the impossible. A band of overlooked castoffs, playing out of position and in anonymity, would lay the foundation for a turning point in the story of the Stars and Stripes, one that divided its history into two halves. The first, characterized by loss and invisibility, was nearly over. The other, fueled by optimism and growth, continues today.

On March 26, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann will lead the current U.S. national team into Azteca seeking another historic win. The on-field rivalry between CONCACAF’s two strongest squads has never been bigger, thanks to a growing interest in the sport, savvy marketing by television networks, and a true back and forth on the field. The U.S. has generally had the upper hand since 2000, winning 11 times – including a stirring 2-0 triumph in the most important setting, the Round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup. Although Mexico took back momentum with an emphatic 4-2 victory in the final of the 2011 Gold Cup, the Stars and Stripes and El Tri are equals, soccer foils with only a thin border separating them. That was not always the case. Things started to change that one night in Florida three decades ago.

Searching for Footage, Part One: David Brett Wasser

More than 30 years later, the loss is still so embarrassing and painful in Mexico that film of the game—if it even exists— remains hidden away

More than 30 years later, the loss is still so embarrassing and painful in Mexico that film of the game—if it even exists—remains hidden away in the depths of the archives at Televisa, the media conglomerate that broadcast the match. In terms of the U.S.-Mexico soccer rivalry, it would be as if the Soviet Union controlled the only tape of the American "Miracle on Ice" victory in 1980 Olympics. David Brett Wasser was the first person to alert me about potential footage of the game, which appeared on a Spanish-language channel in the U.S. The New York City-born, Austin, Texas resident has a collection of around 250 United States national team games, more than 350 NASL games, and many others that he trades on DaveBrett.com. But he doesn’t own the victory in 1980. He believes Televisa has a copy, but he contends that the Mexican federation refuses to release it because of the score line. "Mexico shouldn’t have lost that match. Why would they want to add to a U.S. highlight reel?" he said. "The only way it’s going to happen is for [United States Soccer Federation president] Sunil Gulati to get on the phone with his counterpart at the Mexican soccer federation and say that he’d really like a copy of the tape because it’s a historic moment."

Wasser did share a DVD of the 5-1 El Tri victory in Mexico "Televisa released a tape because they have no problem because of the result," he said. The grainy color footage shows an overmatched U.S. squad, chasing its opponent all over the field. Players on both teams sport floppy, 1970s- appropriate haircuts and small white shorts as they battle through the heat of the afternoon sun. Imposing metal spikes jut out from the bottom of their cleats. The stadium is only two-thirds full and there's a dearth of advertisements on display. It's evidence of a bygone era in international soccer, footage from a simpler time. "It’s a really historic moment for the U.S. national team," Wasser said of the 2-1 win in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., "but who knows if we'll ever get to watch it."

A Brief History

In 1980, the United States national team was an afterthought. Although the squad qualified for the Olympics in 1972 and 1980, missing the latter event due to the boycott of the Moscow Games, they had not reached the World Cup since 1950. While Americans discovered soccer thanks to Pelé and the NASL, few cared about the qualifying campaign. "The whole U.S. national team was such a minor deal then," Soccer America editor-in-chief Paul Kennedy said. "There weren't any fans saying, ‘Oh, we’re playing Mexico.’"

the average soccer fan was barely even aware of the national team.

In fact, the average soccer fan was barely even aware of the national team. High school games received more attention in local papers than wire stories detailing the latest United States fixture. Not only did major sports like basketball, baseball, and football receive more media coverage, but so did jai alai and dog racing. And in the U.S., where sports were built around a foundation of interscholastic and intercollegiate sports, not federations—apart from the Olympic squads—the national team model was almost an alien notion. That concept was for Russia, East Germany, and other nations of the Communist bloc and Europe, not the United States in the decade after Vietnam, when overt nationalism still caused some discomfort.

Against this backdrop, the Americans nevertheless attempted to reach the World Cup. To prepare for the qualification tournament, Chyzowych, the Ukrainian-born head coach who immigrated to the States as a child and was a two-time All-American at Temple before playing in three matches for the Stars and Stripes in the 1960s, took his team on a five-game tour of Europe. The Americans played well, defeating Hungary and Luxembourg while drawing with Portugal and losing to France and Ireland, but the trip tore the team apart when the players demanded a $50 per week raise from the USSF to $400. A counter offer of $385 turned the players against each other, some wanting to settle and others choosing to strike, dividing them at a time when they needed to come together. "I didn't want to go on the strike because I felt nationalistic and patriotic. I didn’t play for the money for the national team. That strike wasn't for money, to tell you the truth. It was for stupid things, like per diem $15 more," said midfielder Boris Bandov, who was earning a proper salary with the wealthy New York Cosmos. Still, despite the internal dissension, the American team believed it had the talent to reach Spain in ‘82.

Chyzowych’s troubles extended beyond a divided team, as he battled NASL owners to release players for national team duty. But the clubs had the power, not the USSF. The Cosmos, the most famous team in the world, operated with impunity. Immediately following October’s disappointing draw against Canada in Ft. Lauderdale, the team's general manager Krikor Yepremian—brother of NFL placekicker Garo—had the audacity to walk into the U.S. locker room with three plane tickets for his players and demand they join the team on its European tour. While the trio refused, continuing on to Vancouver where the U.S. fell 2-1, the incident illustrated the weakness of the USSF—choosing to play for the national team sometimes came at the cost of a professional career. "The U.S. struggled to get players," said Tony Cirino, author of 1983's "U.S. Soccer vs. the World." "Somebody was always missing. Somebody had to play indoor. Somebody had to play outdoor. Those were different times."

The American coach desperately needed his players to understand he was in charge. As a result, Chyzowych wasn’t above leaving the high-scoring Moyers on the sideline or benching another young man just to make a point. "I usually started but Walt (Chyzowych) was a little upset with me because I had been traded to New York and I turned professional," 1979 NASL Rookie of the Year Larry Hulcer said of the qualification campaign. "I had two figures [on my contract]. If I stayed amateur, I got this [amount]. If I turned professional, I got this. I don’t want to sound greedy, but I took the bigger number." The midfielder did not appear in either match against Canada.

After the disastrous results against their northern neighbors, the Americans needed a win or a tie in their first match against Mexico in Mexico City to maintain a realistic chance of qualifying for the World Cup. Beset by difficulties from the outset, they arrived to practice the day before the game, but found the stadium locked. By the time the team managed to take the field, attendants refused to turn on the floodlights to illuminate the grass and they had only minutes of daylight left in which to train. The Americans—tired, dejected, overmatched, and facing an uphill battle that grew steeper as the obstacles mounted—decided to cut their losses and head to the hotel to recuperate from the journey.

Mexico was behind its national team and its citizens were desperate to help in any way they could.

Even that plan backfired. The U.S. squad was a group of intruders in a foreign land, and treated as such. "They had hundreds of people playing drums outside our hotel at night. They would keep you up," Bandov said. There was no escaping the reality of the situation: Mexico was behind its national team and its citizens were desperate to help in any way they could.

The next day, an exhausted U.S. team tried to do the impossible and beat Mexico on its own turf. But they first had to reach the field. "The stadium was like a 40-minute ride away," the midfielder remembers. "They took us on a dirt road. It took us three hours." The team was so late that Chyzowych announced the starting lineup on the bus.

From the outset, Mexico proved to be the superior team, better rested, more skilled, and more comfortable in front of 68,000 flag-waving supporters. Poor tactical choices didn't help matters. Chyzowych made the curious decision to start star midfielder Ricky Davis in the center of the U.S. defense and played man-to-man defense, a staple of the entire U.S. program at the time, but hardly the best choice given Azteca’s nearly 8,000-foot altitude. "If your man took you somewhere, you had to go with him. A lot of times, we were busy chasing players and not having possession. When we won possession, we were too tired to keep it," said Perry Van der Beck, captain of the side that qualified for the 1980 Olympics. "I think the guy Angelo DiBernardo was marking touched every blade of glass twice. He was all over. It was tough."

The Americans hung on for a while, scraping and hustling to break up Mexican forays at the last second, but Chyzowych’s troops tired quickly, overwhelmed by the attitude, the pace, the heat, and the environment. The first goal came in the 24th minute after Adrian Camacho dribbled through the U.S. backline and rushed in on Winston DuBose. The goalkeeper made the initial save with a sprawling dive, but the rebound bounced directly to Hugo Sánchez in the box. He blasted a shot with his left foot and while a U.S. backliner managed to get his head to the ball, he could only redirect it into a different part of the net. The effort was there, but the skill was left wanting.

A second goal soon followed. One of the few brief American attacks fizzled in the box and Mexico countered, finding acres of space in the midfield. The U.S. defenders conceded territory, then watched helplessly as a deft give-and-go between Camacho and Sanchez resulted in an elegant left-footed finish to DuBose’s right. It was a team goal that began in the back and moved steadily, intractably forward with intelligence and skill—beautiful soccer, the type the Americans could only hope to play in the altitude of Azteca.

The loss shattered the American’s dream of the World Cup and prompted calls for the coach's head.

By the half-hour mark, it was clear that any hope of an improbable victory was gone. By the 38th minute, it was 4-0. Davis kept the U.S. from a shutout with a goal that finished off the scoring, but that was the lone bright spot on an abysmal day. American supporters read about the beat-down in a two-paragraph story in The New York Times the next day sandwiched between a report on the World Boxing Association’s lightweight champion and another detailing the outcome of a horse race at Aqueduct.

The loss shattered the American’s dream of the World Cup and prompted calls for the coach’s head. "A change must take place now, not a year from now. The man should resign immediately," outspoken Cosmos star Giorgio Chinaglia told the Times. Team owner Ahmet Ertugen echoed the sentiments, expressing his disgust with the proceedings on the field while failing to mention his role in making things difficult off it. Chyzowych said he had been planning to resign, but now stubbornly refused to do so. He would coach the team in the return leg in Ft. Lauderdale, hoping to prove to the Cosmos executives, the USSF, and his uncaring, adopted country that he, and the U.S. team, could compete.

Searching for Footage, Part Two: The producers of Gringos at the Gate

"Gringos at the Gate," a 2012 independent documentary directed by Roberto Donati, Pablo Miralles, and Michael Whalen, examines the growth of the rivalry between the United States and Mexico. During the editing process in 2011, the crew attempted to gain access to the footage from the match, the only modern era game between the two countries not readily available. Tanya Brum Da Silveira, the post- production supervisor, contacted Leon Krauze, an official historian for the Mexican team. He initially offered to help, but never came through. She also tried to go through Televisa. "My experience was pretty terrible," she said. "I just kept going back and forth. It seemed like I had a lead at Televisa, but then they couldn't give me any answers. I ended up reaching really nowhere. Five months went by and we needed to move on. In the end, they said they couldn’t get it for me. I was waiting and waiting and waiting for them. It exists, but it’s under lock and key somewhere."

They also interviewed Leonardo Cuéllar, the current Mexican women’s national team coach who played in the Ft. Lauderdale match. Donati conducted the Q&A and found former Pumas star to be exceptionally open to talking about the rivalry, except for one game. "I asked him about the match in 1980, and he basically ignored the question," the director said. "I asked him again and again he ignored. Clearly, he had no intention of talking about that game. Thirty years later, he’s still mad about the defeat." (Cuéllar initially agreed to be interviewed for this story, but stopped responding to emails. Representatives from the Mexican federation declined to provide contact information for any other players from the match.)

Mexico: Talented but Flawed

While today Mexico’s soccer team is perennially the best in CONCACAF, the country did not always feature such a strong side. Although it had a proud tradition and plenty of individual talent that developed on grass and dirt fields across the country, the 1980 team, according to Mexican soccer expert Carlos F. Ramirez, "Was a mess. They were trying to reconstruct the national team. It had been a failure. All the people who were running the Mexican Federation were fighting among themselves."

While today Mexico’s soccer team is perennially the best in CONCACAF, the country did not always feature such a strong side.

Just 10 years earlier, the nation hosted a World Cup, an event that galvanized the country. The colors of the national team flew on cars in the streets and hung from balconies all over the country. The opening match, a 0-0 draw between the hosts and the Soviet Union, saw 107,000 rabid supporters in the Azteca stands and three cautions handed out by German referee Kurt Tschenscher in the first minute. Massive crowds of over 50,000 turned out to Estadio Jalisco in Guadalajara to watch the group containing Brazil and England. More than 105,000 fans packed into Azteca for Mexico’s final, must-win group stage game against Belgium. Gustavo Peña's penalty kick in the 14th minute sent the crowd into rapture and the hosts through to the knockout stage for the first time in its history. While they fell 4-1 in the quarterfinal—Peña played the villain after conceding an equalizing own-goal—football fever had overtaken Mexico.

The product on the field was generally the best in the region, but power struggles between the clubs in Mexico City and the ones outside the capital soon led to an inconsistent and incoherent national squad, a team beholden to the whims of federation executives. El Tri failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup, finishing behind Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago at the 1973 CONCACAF Championship. (The U.S., comparatively, didn’t even reach the final round, losing three games and drawing one in a qualification group with Mexico and Canada.)

Mexico managed to book a ticket to the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, but played terribly. "We lost in the most awful ways. I have never seen in my life a worse Mexican national team than in that one," Ramirez said of the squad that finished 16th out of 16 teams after defeats to Tunisia (3-1), West Germany (6-0), and Poland (3-1). Tunisia’s win, which came after Mexico went up a goal just before halftime and then watched in horror as the slow defense was overrun after the break, was the first for an African nation at the World Cup. More than 35,000 witnessed the debacle against West Germany at Cordoba’s Estadio Chateau Carreras, a result that embarrassed Mexican federation leaders. Coach José Antonio Roca paid with his job.

The chaos continued after the tournament as managers José Moncebáez—a former Atlante star— and Peña, retired from playing, lasted a total of four games. Then Raúl Cardenas, a veteran of three World Cups as a player (‘54, ‘58, ‘62) and one as a coach (‘70), returned for his fourth stint at the top. Cardenas, a strong, courageous midfielder during his day on the field, was stubborn, a man who refused to admit when he was wrong—an easy task since he never thought he was. His team had plenty of skill in Sanchez, center back Trejo, playmaking midfielder Guillermo Mendizábal, veteran right wing Cristóbal Ortega, and others, but he failed to stick to a system, trying out an absurd 19 forwards over a short span.

Mexico opened qualifying for the 1981 CONCACAF Championship with a 1-1 tie in Toronto, a match in which they failed to connect passes and finish chances, looking very much like the one-step-at-a- time work-in-progress that they were. The team blamed the field, the ball, the coach, and each other for their struggles. While Mexico recovered enough to stomp the U.S. 5-1, they regressed in a 1-1 draw with Canada at Azteca on Nov. 16, a result met with disgust in the stands and in the local press. A week later, they traveled to Florida seeking a better result.

Searching for Footage, Part Three: Cesar Diaz

Cesar Diaz is the editor-in-chief of LatinoSports.com and ThisIsCosmosCountry.com, and another person who has attempted to gain access to the tape. In an August 2012 blog post, he wrote, "In an effort clearly based out of curiosity, I contacted both Televisa and the Mexican Football Federation [about the film]. Even though both companies were polite with me, I knew I was going nowhere them."

He explained further in a telephone call: "It’s almost like the one hidden document that [the federation doesn’t] want to reveal. I’ve reached out to my buddies in California to see if they can get it on the black market. If you’ve been to East L.A., go to Olvera Street on a Saturday or hit one of the swap meets. [They got me] plenty of stuff on Lucha Libre, but nothing on the game. I have to give it to the Mexican Soccer Federation: They’ve done a good job keeping it under wraps."

United States 2, Mexico 1

On a rainy night in Ft. Lauderdale, the United States and Mexico took the field to scattered applause from the tiny audience of just over 2,000 in Lockhart Stadium. The American team had expected more—the NASL Ft. Lauderdale Strikers routinely drew crowds of more than 14,000. "There was some support, [but] not what we were looking for…" DiBernardo said of the crowd.

Ironically, the lack of fans affected Mexico more than the home team. The American squad was accustomed to playing in near anonymity in front of a few thousand souls scattered throughout the bleachers of a rundown stadium; they usually did at home. The opponent, however, fed off the buzz of the crowd, and the absence of noise was disconcerting. "The atmosphere of the stadium wasn’t the same," DiBernardo remembers. "That bothered the Mexicans."

Still, the Americans were seriously undermanned. After their last defeat, as the chance to qualify evaporated, many of Chyzowych’s stars had returned to their club sides. The Major Indoor Soccer League season was beginning in a few weeks and the coaches demanded their players arrive for preseason. For those scrapping and clawing to make a living as a soccer player in America, the national team ranked a distant second to club commitments. In addition, first teamers Steve Pecher and Greg Makowski missed the match due to disqualification and Ty Keough was injured. As a result, Hulcer started at right back, a position he had never played professionally. Bandov also started at fullback, with Ricky Davis reprising his defensive role. There were a few unfamiliar faces on the bench, too. "We added Steve Ralbovsky to the team because he was in Ft. Lauderdale and we needed some extra players," said Hulcer. Meanwhile, Cardenas played the majority of the team that started in the game two weeks prior. The contest had every earmark of a colossal mismatch.

The game meant nothing in the standings, but it was still the United States against Mexico. As an American soccer player, it didn't get bigger than this, a fact drilled into Stars and Stripes hopefuls at an early age. "I was with the youth teams, the U-17s. Any time you were playing in the region, Mexico was the top team," said Van der Beck. "Learning that when you’re 16, 17 years old, you have that engrained in you. Anytime you play Mexico, it was going to be a hard game. It was going to be all about pride, about beating that country. When you got to the senior level, it was no different."

Each American in the starting line-up was frustrated and angry, either with the way the U.S. played in qualifying, with his individual place on the U.S. team, with his NASL and MISL clubs, with his coach, or with soccer in the United States in general. Now, each man had one final shot to salvage the qualifying campaign. For 90 minutes, in driving rain, those slights would be forgotten. "We had something to prove to ourselves more than anyone else," said DiBernardo. "They blew us off the field in Mexico."

From the start, the American side looked different. "The biggest problem [we had] was keeping possession of the ball and putting the other team under pressure," said Arnie Mausser, the starting goalie. In Ft. Lauderdale, the U.S. managed to maintain control and keep Mexico out of the attack. The home side continued to play man-to-man, but the players chased less because of their increased possession and they didn't tire as quickly close to sea level. The increasingly slippery playing surface limited the superior technical ability of the visiting side. The American defense, anchored by inch-and- a-half metal spikes on their shoes, repelled any attacks. The U.S. had more than a fighting chance; early on, it looked to be the equal to its formerly unbeatable nemesis.

Just before the half-hour mark, the Americans had their first good chance. A foul on the right side of the field gave the U.S. a free kick about 30 yards from goal. Mustachioed Louie Nanchoff, who replaced Van der Beck in the 22nd minute after the latter man broke his fifth metatarsal following a tough challenge, normally supplied the service, but stand-in defender Hulcer stepped up to serve the ball into the box. Nanchoff relented to his determined teammate. Hulcer peered into Ignacio Rodríguez’s penalty area and located Steve Moyers hiding among the stout and imposing Mexican backline. The right back kicked the ball and it flew toward the mass of players, curling gracefully away from the goalkeeper. Moyers rose out of the pack and headed the ball. Rodríguez could do nothing but watch as it rolled just past his post and out of play. The score remained tied, 0-0, but would not be there for long.

Just minutes later, Mexico committed another foul in almost the exact same spot. Hulcer’s service had been good on the previous one, so Nanchoff told his teammate to do the same thing again. Hulcer did. "I always remember that kick," he said more than 30 years later. "They didn't put anybody in front of me. I just bent it so it ended up between the penalty spot and the six-yard box. Everybody went to the back post so they could run onto it. Steve was always the one to get on the end of things. He was that type of player in the box."

In the 31st minute, Moyers’ header gave the U.S. a 1-0 lead.

But Hugo Sánchez, one of the most successful Mexican club players of his era, ensured that El Tri wouldn’t be behind for long. In the 40th minute, he stepped up to a free kick 25 yards from the American goal. The attacker, months away from transferring to Spain to play for Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid, blasted a shot at Mausser’s cage. The United States wall held strong, stopping the effort, but it rebounded across the soggy ground to Sánchez. He reloaded, shot, and beat Mausser to the goalie's left. Tie game. The crowd groaned. They had seen this story before.

Halftime came with no score and no changes on the field. The rain continued to fall as Chyzowych encouraged his troops in a sparse locker room underneath the near-empty Lockhart Stadium stands. With only 45 minutes left to play, the players had a choice. They could hunker down, look for the tie, and hope to catch a break, or they could continue the assault on the Mexican net and push for a winning goal, leaving them vulnerable to a potentially devastating counterattack.

They chose to play to win. In the players' minds, it was the only option.

They chose to play to win. In the players’ minds, it was the only option. They had nothing to lose. No one expected this rag-tag group to accomplish something no American team had done in nearly 50 years. For once, the disappointing, underachieving U.S. squad was determined and united. "We played with intensity. I wished we’d played this way the whole tournament. We were more together. The attitude was positive," Mausser would tell the Ft. Lauderdale News after the game.

The work paid off in the 65th minute, again through Moyers. A ball played into the box bounced around before landing fortuitously at the attacker's feet. The man from St. Louis, one of the best, most clinical finishers in the country with an innate ability to find the net, didn’t miss the half chance, giving the U.S. a 2-1 lead it needed to hold for less than half an hour. The America team started to believe. So did the few fans in the stands. The anticipation rose. History was in the making.

While the crowd still buzzed over the goal, disaster struck for the U.S. as both teams lost a man. Mexican Mario Trejo lost control of his emotions and got into it with Njego Pesa, a pesky, 5’9 spark plug of a forward who played for the Dallas Tornado and was just a year removed from starring at Ulster Community College in upstate New York. Guatemalan referee Marco Antonio Garcia had no choice but to show both men red cards in the 68th minute.

Cardenas, desperate for a tying goal and seeking to consolidate the advantage gained by his more talented team with fewer men on the field, looked to make a change. He didn’t want to be known as an embarrassment, the manager who lost to the United States, so he took off defensive-minded Gustavo Vargas and inserted Ricardo Castro in the 73rd minute. The substitution demonstrated the coach’s despair at the situation that was unfolding on the slippery field. In previous matches, he had buried Castro on the bench, despite the attacker’s useful offensive abilities. "The coach decided against him because he argued with him in training, so he took him out of the national team," Mexican soccer expert Ramirez said. With little more than a quarter hour to go, however, need trumped philosophical stances. The fourth official held up Vargas’ number, then Castro, sins momentarily forgiven, sprinted onto the field.

Mexico pushed its entire team forward for the final minutes. They conducted an all-out assault on the reeling, but resistant U.S. Yet the American backline held together. Time ticked away. The remaining fans in the stands grew louder, cheers rising above the sound of the falling rain. The red, white, and blue repelled attack after attack, bending but not breaking, then booting the ball upfield as far as they could into the Florida night. The U.S. no longer had the energy or will to chase. Mexico would retrieve, and then redouble the effort on the attack.

Garcia blew his whistle one final time. The Americans had prevailed. But there was no raucous celebration. "There was a sense of disappointment knowing that we had just come off the field and beat Mexico 2-1," said DiBernardo. "If we had played that way against Canada the previous two games and against Mexico in Mexico, the story could have been different." The impressive victory provided a last stark reminder of what would have, could have, perhaps even should have happened during the 1982 qualifying campaign. "We worked for each other. We didn't do that in our other games. Tonight, we jelled," Moyers told the News following the victory. (He did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

"This was a matter of respect for ourselves," netminder Mausser added 30 years later. In the end, the small group of Americans gained what it wanted. The U.S. team may have been out of the World Cup, but the side managed to accomplish something bigger: Over the course of 90 minutes, the disjointed squad came together and began undoing nearly half a century of negative results.

Searching for Footage, Part Four: My Efforts

I ran into the same wall: The footage exists, but will never see the light of day.

I tried, I really tried. I piggybacked off the efforts of Wasser, Da Silveira, and Diaz in an attempt to find the footage. I spent what seemed like hours listening to smooth Latin jams and Tejano music on hold with various branches of Televisa. I called and emailed the Mexican Federation. In the end, however, I ran into the same wall: The footage exists, but will never see the light of day.

I asked U.S. Soccer’s communications team if they had a tape, and they did not. They would, however, be interested in getting one for their archives, although it’s unclear whether they would have the rights to do anything with it. Nothing came of my efforts with the USSF.

The best lead I got was Alberto Sosa, the director of sports at Televisa. I spoke with his assistant, a helpful man named Jose Manuel. I explained who I was and what I wanted. He said he would see what he could do. The next day, I got an email: "I have checked with my boss, Alberto Sosa, who is responsible for Mexican team TV Rights and according [to]? him we are unavailable to help you with the material request." He suggested I try Fernando Villafranco at TV Azteca. I thanked him, and emailed to ask if that meant the tape was in the archives, but that it couldn’t be released.

While I waited for a reply, I called, and then emailed Villafranco. He said he would email his producers Javier Rojas and Rodolfo Ramírez who had to authorize the service. I emailed them as well. Almost immediately, Rojas responded: "I’m not sure we have this footage, at that time we did not make any cover of Mexican team in our network." A few days later, "I’m afraid, we have nothing." Another dead end.

The next day, I got an email from Jose Manuel. "Sorry Noah, I can not provide such information without previous authorization."

I asked what "previous authorization" meant. I didn't get a reply. I emailed a few days later. Still nothing. The final whistle had blown for now.

The Aftermath and the Future

Although the victory proved to be a significant step in the creation of a competitive, viable American national team and an important moment in the soccer rivalry with Mexico, it did not resonate in the United States at the time. In fact, it was barely acknowledged. "Who knew that we had beaten them, other than our families and people who were at the game itself?" Hulcer said.

A short story in the Ft. Lauderdale News headlined "U.S. itches for ‘84 after beating Mexico" included no details on the game itself, instead focusing on the future of the in-flux national team. Chyzowych took the rare opportunity to speak to the press not to tout his team, but to rail against the establishment. "The whole administration needs to be revamped. The authoritative body which runs soccer in the country in theory must start doing so in practice," he told reporter Jim Sarni. "The USSF must start laying down mandates and establishing policies in every league in the United States. If it doesn't do that, we will remain behind the eight-ball. We've got to start asserting ourselves, and we need full-time professionals. They can't do this as a sideline and expect the coaches to work miracles."

In Mexico, however, the loss hurt. "In our country, of course, the press ate the players and the coaching staff alive," Carlos Calderón Cardoso said. Cardenas tried to calm the masses, assuring the country the defeat didn't mean anything and that El Tri would still qualify for the World Cup. They failed. On Nov. 22, 1981, almost exactly a year after losing to the United States, the team needed a victory against Honduras in the last match of the 1981 CONCACAF Championship. It managed a draw, 2-2, and watched Spain ‘82 from home. Cardenas lost his job. Honduras and El Salvador, the CONCACAF's two World Cup representatives, would go winless, posting a combined goal differential of minus-13.

Meanwhile, the U.S. program regrouped. After the disappointment of the failed qualifying campaign, the Americans didn't play for nearly 18 months, next taking the field on March 21, 1982 in Port of Spain against Trinidad and Tobago. Moyers started and Davis scored one of the goals in a 2-1 win. The squad didn't face Mexico again until October 1984, falling 2-1 in a friendly at Mexico City's Estadio Neza ‘86. The team would fail to qualify for the 1986 World Cup, hosted by Mexico.

soccer gained a firmer foothold in the U.S. and the rivalry between the Americans and the Mexicans grew stronger.

Over the next few years, slowly and surely, soccer gained a firmer foothold in the U.S. and the rivalry between the Americans and the Mexicans grew stronger. A famous semifinal in the 1991 Gold Cup cemented what would become the most heated contest in North and Central American soccer. The U.S., fresh off playing in its first World Cup in 40 years, defeated its southern neighbors 2-0 at Los Angeles' Memorial Coliseum, this time in front of 41,103 fans—many rooting for Mexico at the start, but by the end giving the Americans their due. "This was the first time we outplayed Mexico and really took it to them. They were blown away," captain Peter Vermes said in 2009. "The crowd was actually chanting ‘ole’ for the U.S. After the win, we realized what kind of potential we had as a country moving forward. From then on, every meeting has been different between the United States and Mexico. After that game, they were very, very upset and extremely unsportsmanlike, which was a sign that we finally garnered respect. It also made us realize our potential and created a strong rivalry."

The rivalry has only grown stronger, deeper, and more entrenched in the ensuing two decades, but it developed on that wet pitch in Ft. Lauderdale, where a group of young men, playing in near obscurity, proved they could compete with, and even beat, Mexico. "We were starting to make some inroads," Hulcer said about the vital, yet overlooked result.

The perception is different in Mexico. According to Calderón, the pain of the defeat still resonates. "That loss to the United States seriously hurt," he said. "It was like the beginning of the end." More than 30 years later, it is an end they still cannot bear to watch.

Design/Layout: Josh Laincz | Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler

About the Author

Noahdavis

Noah Davis is a freelance writer and deputy editor of American Soccer Now. He frequently writes for The Wall Street Journal, Grantland, Outside, The Classical, and other publications.

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