By Michael Lewis
For the most two decades, it has been taken for granted that the United States usually reigns supreme over Mexico on American soil.
But it hasn't always been the case. For 46 years, El Tri had its way with the USA, whether it was in Mexico or in the United States -- until Nov. 23, 1980.
In front of 2,126 rain-soaked spectators, the U.S. defeated Mexico, 2-1, at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale. Steve Moyers struck twice for the winners, while Hugo Sanchez (he played in both the original NASL and Major League Soccer) found the back of the net for the visitors.
"It was a monumental win," Tampa Bay Rowdies technical director Perry van der Beck said. "You look at Mexico and how they've done in the CONCACAF hex all the time. It wasn't until the late nineties and early 2000's that Bruce [Arena, former U.S. men's national coach] was in charge. Now we're dominant in the region. It wasn't just Mexico. We've been in the last six, seven World Cups. The league that we have here right now, the professional leagues in the United States that are developing the players."
"I know they didn't like to lose," former Cosmos defender Boris Bandov, the 1980 national team captain said with a laugh. "They were always so dominating."
That result did not turn the tide of Mexican domination, but it reminded the Americans that they could compete and defeat their neighbors to the south.
"I didn't know at that time it was going to be a historical game," van der Beck, who played for the original Rowdies. "Things were different back then, the preparation. We did have an NASL. The make-up of that league was you had to have two Americans on the field at all times. So it was like all of our American players were playing consistently, day-in and day-out to play at that level for a World Cup qualifier.
Which wasn't enough to turn the tide on a consistent basis.
At the time, the U.S. was in the middle of 40-year drought in the World Cup desert between competing on the world stage. The Americans last participated in the World Cup in 1950 and they would have to wait until 1990 before playing there again.
Still, it was a special moment, given the fact what Mexico had dumped on the U.S. in gamesmanship through the years, making it that much more difficult for the Americans.
In 1979, the U.S. played against Mexico for a spot in the Olympics. The Mexicans won the series, but they were forced to forfeit because they used professional players during a time in which the Olympics was still for amateurs. The U.S. defeated that team in the LA Coliseum, 4-0, in a friendly.
"We went to Mexico and we played the team in Leon," Van der Beck "Little did we know it was a professional team. They beat us 2-0 then they turned around and beat us at home, before the Cosmos game. We ended up tying that game. What ended up happening was that the passport showed professional players. So Mexico was out and the U.S. was in for the 1980 Olympics.
“Having played against Mexico, whether it was for the Olympics or the World Cup, it was always a game, it was always a battle. In the U.S. we had a viable first division back then. But not all the Americans were getting most playing time. Every NASL team probably had maybe seven or eight foreign players. So beating a team like Mexico at that time was big for us."
Bandov remembered when the team played in Toluca, although the team stayed in Mexico City.
"They took us to Toluca for the high altitude," he said. "We stayed in Mexico City. When we went down to Mexico City, they had all these distractions, drums, the whole night at the hotel. When we were going to the game, they wanted to win any which way possible. What happened was the bus driver took us on a dirt road, instead of a regular road. It took about two-something hours. It was just terrible. We arrived for the game almost late. Policemen were guarding our locker room. We couldn't even walk. It was 3-0 after a half an hour. It was terrible. We were angry. We came into the locker room at halftime and most of the stuff [players' belongings] was gone. Police was guarding the locker room.
"When we played in Fort Lauderdale, we had an incentive to play for. It was more for revenge and stuff like that. I thought that was one of the best games we ever played."
On Nov. 9, 1980, exactly three weeks prior to the Fort Lauderdale encounter, Mexico put the U.S. on the verge of elimination from contention for the 1982 World Cup with a sparkling 5-1 triumph. Needing Canada to upend the favored Mexicans a week later, both teams played to a draw, ending the U.S. hopes.
"So in the return match, it was important for us to say, 'Look, we lost to these guys in Mexico. Let's not repeat that. Let's give it our best effort,' which we did," van der Beck said.
"We basically played for pride that game," said Bandov, who captained the National Team that game. "We were more relaxed, less pressure. There were a lot of changes. Walter Chyzowych did not even play [Moyers] at all in the other qualifying games. He added some players. I thought Steve played quite well. I remember we were moving the ball and all that. They [the Mexicans] didn't like to lose, period."
Moyers struck twice -- once in the first half, sandwiching the goals between a Sanchez score. He scored in the 32nd and 65th minutes. Bandov said that Moyers did not start much for U.S. national coach Walter Chyzowych.
"The New York Cosmos had a lot of Americans players, so how they were doing in the playoffs depended upon when we were going to start our preparation for the qualifiers," van der Beck said. "Now, the team, the selection's there. Jurgen [Klinsmann, U.S. coach] says I want the players in camp at this time. It wasn't always like that back then. The other league that we were competing [against] was the MISL [Major Indoor Soccer League] because the players at that time were making very good money. Those owners were saying 'Hey look if you're taking our players, you either pay for them so we can get other players to commit and fill their shoes.' They we weren't willing to that. For the most part."
In case you were wondering, the entire U.S. Starting XI was made up of NASL players. The other players and positions included goalkeeper Arnie Mausser (Jacksonville Tea Men), defenders Colin Fowles (Fort Lauderdale Strikers), Rick Davis (New York Cosmos) and Larry Hulcer (Cosmos), midfielders Ringo Cantillo (Jacksonville), Angelo DiBernardo (Cosmos) and forwards Mark Liveric (Cosmos) and Njego Pesa (Dallas Tornado).
Van der Beck never got around to seeing the end of the match. He was replaced in the 22nd minute for what was called a fifth metarsal injury, although game reports in the 2013 U.S. Soccer men's media guide and in the book, "The United States Tackles the World," did not have any mention that Van der Beck was taken out of the match
"I didn't actually see the whole game," van der Beck. "I do remember the intensity of the game. Being a World Cup qualifier. It was not a game we had to win. Mexico was dominant in the region. We played some of our best soccer."
Moyers and van der Beck grew up together in one of St. Louis's parishes, although Moyer was older than van der Beck by a couple years.
"Steve Moyers happens to be from the same hometown in St. Louis as I was," van der Beck said. "Steve is a couple of years older than I. In St. Louis people ask you the question, what parish are you from? Stevie and I went to the same school. I want to say if you look at the roster, there were probably nine of us that were from St. Louis."
Now professional teams are comprised of players from throughout the United States.
"I look back and at the strides that we've made have been enormous," van der Beck said. "To see what we're at today, I'm not surprised because look at the history, the working effort by the U.S. Soccer Federation. The coaches that have been involved from the top to the bottom. It has been well deserved. And again, again when the U.S. is playing friendlies, we're expected to compete. We're not going to win every game. You look at what Bob Bradley did at the Confederations Cup in South Africa, where he beat Spain and they're beating Brazil 2-0. They wound up losing, 3-2. That was four years ago. We beat Italy in Italy. Obviously, we're recognized and we're respected internationally now."
It wouldn't be until another 11 years that the U.S. would upend Mexico again -- by another generation in a 2-0 win in the CONCACAF Gold Cup in Los Angeles on July 5, 1991.
But that's another story for another time.
Michael Lewis is the Editor of Big Apple Soccer.com
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