Willy Roy and the great Pele (right). (Photo courtesy of the Roy family)
By Michael Lewis
MEXICO CITY — No matter what generation, playing in Mexico City, particularity at Estadio Azteca, has always been an imposing test for the U.S. National Team.
For some U.S. internationals of yesteryear and National Soccer Hall of Famer Willy Roy, it it might have offered greater challenges because there were more obstacles to overcome in those days.
Back in the day before the United States challenged El Tri for confederation supremacy, Mexico ruled the CONCACAF roost. The Mexicans were expected to qualify for the World Cup every four years.
The Americans were in the midst of a 40-year drought between World Cups, from 1950 through 1990. They were expected to give the good fight, but always lost to the Mexicans.
The venue was just about always the same — Estadio Azteca, also known as The Azteca.
Unofficially to many Mexican soccer fans, it was known as the stadium of the automatic win, especially when it came to World Cup qualifying.
“The stadium was pretty tremendous,” Roy said. “One thing I have to say about the Mexican fans, they are very noisy and playing at the high altitude it was a huge advantage for the Mexican National Team. In those days, it wasn’t like we went in three or four days ahead of time of a week ahead of time to get acclimated. The federation did not have a major budget in those days. We were kind of went like semi pros instead, playing against professionals.”
Roy, who scored nine goals in 20 internationals matches — an amazing strike rate in a era when the National Team played but a handful of games a year — made his U.S. debut at Estadio Olympico in Mexico City in 1965, a year before Azteca opened.
He remembered putting the ball into the back of the Mexican net twice, but both tallies were disallowed by suspicious officiating calls in what turned into a 2-0 loss on March 12, 1965.
“Even now I don’t know why they were disallowed,” Roy said. “One I had a breakaway all the way from the middle and after I scored he blew the whistle that I supposedly was offside. I don’t think you would let anyone run 50 meters or 60 yards and then call him offside.”
In those days, the federation did not have the sponsorship or financial clout it has today, so everything was done a shoestring.
Instead of holding a training camp before an important game, the players would meet at an airport, sometimes greeting their teammates for the very first time, fly into a city for a game, hold one or two practices an play the game (“You basically didn’t know what your teammates looked like,” Roy said. “The next time you went, you might have a totally different team.”)
In an altitude-challenged city, it necessarily wasn’t the best of strategies, especially against a talented and crafty side such as Mexico.
“I remember they had an outstanding goalkeeper, Antonio Carbajal, he played in five World Cups,” Roy said. “They had an outstanding team. Maybe the Mexico League isn’t like the Premier League in England or Bundesliga or La La Liga in Spain, it does help when you organize and you have players you see all the time and the type of system you play.”
At that time, the U.S. system was a mish-mosh of varying styles from South America, Germany, England and other European countries. “It took some getting used to,” Roy said.
From 1965 through 1980, the U.S. went through 11 national coaches, so it was difficult establishing continuity and trying to create some sort of national team style.
Roy remembered a tour of Bermuda when George Meyer was coach and but Geza Henni acted as though he ran the team.
“They actually forgot to tell either one of them who the head coach was,” he said. “It was kind of laughable at the situation.”
Players sometimes discovered they were playing two or three weeks before a match.
“It would be different if you always had the same team playing,” Roy said. “But we had different players, so there was a lot of changes going on. We played an exhibition game in Cleveland against a Hungarian team and the coach asked me if I could call a couple of players in Chicago because we had so many injuries. I got on the phone, called a couple of guys and they came, sat on the bench so we could have backup. Some of the stuff, you can’t even tell people that these days.”
Seven years later on Sept. 3, 1972, Roy became the first American to score at Azteca, heading home a feed in the 78th minute. By then, Mexico had scored all of its goals en route to a 3-1 win. The loss eliminated the U.S. from qualifying.
“It was a nice cross,” Roy said. “I was pretty good at heading the ball, but we ended up losing 3-1, so that was not a good feeling.”
The Mexican match was the middle of a three-game span over 13 days in which Roy tallied qualifying goals. He scored in a 2-2 draw with Canada on Aug. 29 and again vs. El Tri in a 2-1 loss in Los Angeles on Sept. 10. That standard lasted until 2000, when Cobi Jones tallied in three successive qualifiers.
Roy admitted he didn’t realize he had set a record.
“It never really dawned on me,” Roy said. “I didn’t really keep track of that at all.”