Steve Sampson: “We consider this a golden point.” (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)

By Michael Lewis

MEXICO CITY — A little more than half hour into its critical World Cup qualifier against Mexico on Nov. 2, 1997, the U.S. National Team was facing its ultimate nightmare and worst-case scenario.

Not only did the Americans start the match without four starters, they found themselves facing playing a man down in the final 58 minutes after an ill-timed red card.

Instead of collapsing, the determined Americans pulled off an historic upset of Mexico, leaving Estadio Azteca with a well-deserved scoreless tie before 114,000 partisan fans.

While a 0-0 draw might sound rather pedestrian to the average sports fan, you must remember that the U.S. has never won in tied here, losing 17 consecutive times over the past 60 years.

The draw qualified Mexico (4-0-4, 16 points) for the Cup, but you wouldn’t have known it as the disappointed fans booed and whistled their team off the field. During the game, fans chanted “Fuera Bora,” as in fire Bora. “Our culture right now is very negative,” Mexico coach Bora Milutinovic said.

Asked by the Mexican media if the match was fixed, Milutinovic replied, “If you ask a question in this manner, it’s a lack of respect for me. It is a lack of respect for the U.S. Soccer Federation and their players.”

The U.S. locker room, on the other hand, was more in a jubilant mood, even if it was the ugliest match the team had played, after securing its fifth tie against two victories and no losses in the final round before the Nov. 9 match in Vancouver.

“We consider this a golden point,” Sampson said. “It is very important now to take the discipline and unity into the Canada match. . . . Look, we have not qualified for anything yet. Nothing is sure right now. We won’t celebrate until we mathematically are in the World Cup.”

Had Sampson and the U.S. had taken some time to celebrate the tie for a short time, no one would have complained. This game had all the trappings of a romp by Mexico, which had won its previous qualifiers by a combined score of 15-0. The U.S. entered the match without four starters, including its top playmaker, Tab Ramos, who re-injured his knee, goalkeeper Kasey Keller, sidelined with a thumb injury, and midfielders Earnie Stewart (calf injury) and Claudio Reyna (yellow-card suspension).

The Americans lost a fifth player in the 32nd minute when left fullback Jeff Agoos was red-carded by a strict referee, Javier (The Sheriff) Castrilli of Argentina, for elbowing defender Pavel Pardo.

Agoos, whose poor pass led to Jamaica’s lone goal in a distressing 1-1 draw in Washington, D.C. one week prior, claimed he was innocent. “I had my back to the goal,” he said. “I played the ball to Eric [Wynalda]. Someone, I don’t know — clipped me (on the leg). I put up my elbow to protect myself. The next thing I know, I got a red card. It wasn’t retaliatory. I was shocked when I got it. I was shocked in the shower. And I still can’t believe it.”

Instead of allowing Mexico to take control, the U.S. became more determined. The red card forced Sampson to shuffle his lineup. He moved captain John Harkes, whose two early passing blunders had almost cost the U.S. a goal, to Agoos’ spot on the left side. Forwards Moore and Wegerle were brought back closer to the midfield and Wynalda, the U.S.’s all-time leading scorer who started the game on the wing instead of his central forward spot, was called on to play much more defense than he had originally anticipated.

It worked as the U.S. held off the Mexicans.

“The players responded exceptionally well,” Sampson said.

In fact, as the game wore on, the U.S.’s performance started to sway the heavily partisan crowd. It began with boos and whistles at halftime for the heavily favored Mexicans and it continued midway through the second half as the crowd sarcastically chanted “Ole!” every time the Americans knocked the ball around to take some time off the clock.

“It was a great feeling,” midfielder- Joe-Max Moore said. “When [110,000] fans switch to cheer you on, it doesn’t happen too many times in your career.”

Except for a late flurry in the final five minutes — Luis Garcia’s six-yard header whizzed right past the right post in the 86th minute — Mexico’s quality chances were few and far between. The defense, led by Marcelo Balboa, Alexi Lalas and Eddie Pope, stifled the big men up front, including Zaque, Carlos Hermosillo and Alberto Garcia Aspe, respectively.

Asked about Sampson’s status as coach for France ’98, U.S. Soccer president Alan I. Rothenberg offered lukewarm support. “We just picked up a point,” Rothenberg said. “It’s helpful. We’ve had a lot of coaches come down and come back without a point.”

Former U.S. national coach Bob Gansler, who had played and coached in Mexico, tried to put the “victory” into perspective. “What the guys did . . . was phenomenal,” he said several days after the result. “The importance of the game to the soccer population of Mexico, Guatemala or El Salvador, people in the U.S. can’t fathom that. This is what they live and breathe. The whole attitude of the country depends on the outcome. To withstand that pressure in that atmosphere and do it so spectacularly, it makes it so phenomenal.

“It shows a growth. We went into Costa Rica and were surprised that someone would want to throw something at you besides insults.

“It counts hell of a lot more than one point, especially for the next two matches.”

Actually, the U.S. needed only one match to qualify. Finally, on Nov. 9, 1997 after some 12 months of frustrating results, it all fell into place for the U.S. National Team in Burnaby, British Columbia. Many of the pieces fit neatly into place as they qualified for their third consecutive World Cup behind a 3-0 triumph over Canada, in front of an appreciative crowd in supposed enemy territory.