Marcelo Balboa on playing in Mexico City: You see a lot of players struggling toward the last 25-30 minutes of the second half,” he said. “That’s when your legs start going. It’s tough. They leave the grass a little longer to leave the grass a little heavy. It’s a few tricks of the trade. It’s a very tough place to play.” (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)

With the U.S. playing a World Cup qualifier in Mexico Sunday night, the Americans certainly will have their hands full with an intimidating huge crowd, playing at altitude and a pretty damn good Mexican side. While the USA has endured more than its share of problems playing at Estadio Azteca, the Red, White and Blue has shown it can be done, securing a pair of ties through the years. The Americans accomplished it twice — in 1997 and 2013. This is how the USA prepared for the 1997 qualifier.

By Michael Lewis

After stumbling and giving away points to Jamaica in a disappointing and frustrating 1-1 home World Cup qualifying draw on Oct. 3, 1997, the United States had a month to retool and rethink before starting its final run of three matches, starting in Mexico Nov. 2. That would be followed with a trip to Burnaby, Canada oNov. 9 and a game against El Salvador in Foxborough, Mass. a week later.

The Americans realized it would be an uphill battle in more ways than one against the tough Mexicans. They had never won or even tied in Mexico City in 17 games over 60 years, scoring only 13 times and allowing 63 goals.

If they needed any convincing, they only had to consider these facts:

* Mexico had never lost a qualifier at home.

* Mexico’s record at Guillermo Canedo Stadium (aka Estadio Azteca) since it was built in 1960 was virtually invincible in 101 matches — was 69-6-26.

* The last time Mexico lost a full international there was 1981, a 3-1 defeat to Spain.

* The last time the United States scored two goals in a game in Mexico City was in 1949.

Mexico’s domination is due to the higher altitude (7,350 feet), smog (considered the worst in the world) and a stadium that holds 120,000 fans (mostly enthusiastic, some bordering on fanatical).

Defender Marcelo Balboa, who played with Leon in the Mexican First Division, knew the pitfalls of playing in Mexico City better than anyone. “You see a lot of players struggling toward the last 25-30 minutes of the second half,” he said. “That’s when your legs start going. It’s tough. They leave the grass a little longer to leave the grass a little heavy. It’s a few tricks of the trade. It’s a very tough place to play.”

So U.S. coach Steve Sampson devised a plan that would prepare the players physically and bring them together as a team. To become better accustomed to the altitude and smog, the Americans trained twice a day for 16 days at Big Bear Lake, a ski resort that was 6,800 feet above sea level, which lies northeast of Los Angeles. Early, a typical day consisted of a 7 a.m. wake-up call, cross training (bicycling or running) at 8 a.m., lunch at noon, field training at 2 p.m. and dinner at 6 p.m.

“It’s the best preparation for Mexico City that we have done,” Sampson said. “We hope it will pay with some dividends come Sunday.”

Sampson had contended that he hadn’t had enough time to prepare the full team for an extended period. Player commitments to their Major League Soccer clubs cut into any long-term camp until Big Bear.

“We had the worst preparation of all CONCACAF teams,” he said. “The priority was MLS. Somehow, we have to get more time for the National Team. For the first time since the summer of ’95, when we had 49 days together, this is the first time we’ve had extended training dates. We had 34 days total — that’s not enough. I’m not criticizing MLS or the federation.”

That was just the new life of soccer in the U.S. if you wanted everything — a successful national team and a successful national league. MLS was in the midst of completing its second season.

From the very first practice session, Sampson had a player or a staff member give the word of the day. The player would say the world and why it was important to the team as the entire team held hands in a circle. It sounded corny, but it worked.

Sampson started it with sacrifice and was followed by 15 other words of the day: Discipline (Frankie Hejduk), Self-Actualization (Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, the team doctor), Belief (Alexi Lalas), Togetherness (Thomas Dooley), Focus (Eric Wynalda), Control (Jox-Max Moore), Character (assistant coach Clive Charles), Desire (Kasey Keller), Confidence (Earnie Stewart), Respect (John Harkes), Opportunity (Peter Vermes), Honor (Paul Caligiuri), Perseverance (Eddie Pope) and France (Claudio Reyna).

“There is an urgency,” Sampson said. “Our backs are against the wall and this team has performed well when our backs are against the wall. Hopefully, in the next three games you will see a team that works hard and much more intelligently than Jamaica.”

The U.S. was ready, but there were other obstacles to contend with. On Oct. 17, goalkeeper Kasey Keller suffered a compound dislocation of his right thumb in the last minute of practice with Leicester. He was operated on that night and would miss the next two matches.

Keller had registered a 5-1-3 mark in qualifying with a 0.67 goals-against average and six shutouts in qualifying. Brad Friedel, his replacement, hadn’t fared as well with at 1-1-2 and a 1.50 GAA and no shutouts.

“The positive side to this setback is that we are very deep at the goalkeeper position and I have the utmost confidence in Brad Friedel to step up and taken over,” Sampson said.

And only days before the game, the team announced that it had suffered a devastating blow as Ramos re-injured his left knee, suffering torn ligaments in a recent National Team practice. He would miss the rest of qualifying and was considered questionable for the World Cup.

“It’s an enormous disappointment for us and Tab,” Sampson said. “I think Tab is very, very disappointed. . . . It was a freak accident, an unfortunate accident. . . . He came back and played well for New York and against Costa Rica. He showed flashes of brilliance against Jamaica.”

Ramos was so serious about his comeback that he hired a personal trainer after the MetroStars were eliminated from MLS playoff consideration in late September. He suffered the injury in a non-contact situation in practice after he joined the team at Big Bear Oct. 17.

“He knew it didn’t feel right when the incident happened,” Sampson said. “Tab’s situation is very strange. No one was near him when he landed on his left foot. His knee buckled.”

After four or five days of therapy to strengthen the knee and two MRIs, it wasn’t until Ramos had arthroscopic surgery on Thursday, Oct. 30 that the severity of the injury was known. The federation, not wanting to give the heavily favored Mexicans any advantage, kept the news of Ramos’ injury under close wraps.

This stunning news deprived the U.S. of a player who could hold the ball under pressure, which would be needed against the highly skilled Mexicans. Reyna, regarded as Ramos’ successor despite several disappointing international performances, missed the game with a yellow-card suspension.

In fact, the U.S. played without four starters. Earnie Stewart, the fastest player on the team, was nursing a calf muscle pull, and Keller had his thumb injury.

Despite those obstacles, the U.S. managed an historic scoreless draw at Azteca, the first points the Americans earned at the stadium.