When you enter Azteca, surrounded by security and screaming fans, you walk in underneath the stadium and then through a corridor lined with plaques. There are plaques on the wall for every national team match ever played there. In 2012, when the U.S. National Team came for a friendly, we all could see that there were no plaques for an American victory. We had never won at Azteca before.
We were visiting Mexico at a really interesting moment. They had just won the gold medal at the London Olympics, and I think they were feeling a sense of confidence in their team and dominance in our region. The friendly was supposed to be a big, big party for Mexico, with 90,000 fans prepared for a celebration. We won and stole the party.
It was not only special because it was our first ever win at Azteca. We wanted to prove something. Our mentality was: No more. When we left the stadium after the match, a smile came over my face knowing that they would have to add that plaque to the wall.
I didn’t grow up in the United States, but I’ve always known about the U.S.-Mexico rivalry. Rivalries bring out the best in players. I know from the ups and downs of the Germany-Holland rivalry during my years as a player. Mexico and the United States are very close. They share languages and cultures and ancestry, which is absolutely beautiful. But the rivalry on the pitch is very intense, like brothers fiercely trying to win an argument. Rivalries don’t get much bigger than this.
After the win at Azteca, the reaction back home in the U.S. was amazing. It showed me how much people care about this rivalry that they were so happy to end this streak. My phone was ringing day after day, especially from coaches who have coached here for decades and are highly involved with the development of American soccer from the youth level to the college level. People kept repeating the same word: “Finally.”
It became clear to me that this was not only about one victory in a friendly. It was about something bigger. They were talking about the growth of American soccer, something I am asked about a lot. People always want to know: When will America be in position to win a World Cup?
My answer is always the same. It is what I tell my players: America will continue to go farther and farther in World Cups as our players compete year-round at the highest levels of soccer. Achieving this does not happen overnight. Just look at the European and South American powerhouses, which have been developing their soccer programs for much longer. It takes time, persistence and patience. To compete with the best — and I believe we can — our players must play with and against the best in the world. Our national team players have to live and breathe soccer 24/7. That takes a change of mentality and a change in lifestyle.
More and more, our players are doing that, and I encourage it. As a coach, you dream about having your players playing in those top leagues because they return to the national team smarter and better. For us in the last World Cup, coming out of that “Group of Death” in Brazil was huge because we left behind teams like Portugal, which has arguably the best player in the world. We left behind teams with many other players who compete in the Champions League and other top tier European leagues. The experience is paying off.
My personal expectation as a coach is that my players challenge themselves to the highest level possible. If one of our players can play for a Manchester United or a Real Madrid or a Barcelona, I’ll be jumping up and down on the roof. But what’s more important is the desire to train and play with the best possible competition. Wherever they play — whether it’s here in the MLS, in Europe, or in Mexico – it’s important they immerse themselves in the game. I expect them to carry themselves as U.S. National Team players, which means doing the extra work, above and beyond what their club teammates do. Professional careers last maybe 12-15 years, so it’s vital to make the most out of every season, every year. I want our players to look back on their careers and say: “I got the absolute most out of it I could.”
Another question I frequently hear is this one: When will America become a soccer nation?
The answer is simple: America is already a soccer nation. Our sport is here to stay. We have gained global attention with our performances in the World Cup, for both the men and the women. We have incredibly loyal fans. Last year in Brazil, the U.S. had more traveling fans than any nation in the world. The women’s game is also very strong, and credit should be given to Title IX, our youth clubs and colleges and the growth of the U.S. Soccer Women’s program. We have a professional league — Major League Soccer — that is prospering and increasingly admired in Europe and South America. Remember, the modern English Football League system has been around since 1888. Just the short history of the MLS is a fairy tale story: A league that was founded only 20 years ago, almost folded, and is now expanding. Since 1999, there have been 15 stadiums built exclusively for soccer. We have big television contracts for both English and Spanish language networks. Millions of kids are playing on fields across America every weekend. We can watch more soccer on television than any country in the world. People are now looking at the United States as a serious soccer market. It’s a conversation you couldn’t have had 10 years ago, and it is wonderful to see.
The more interesting question to me is: How do we continue to promote a soccer culture?
In soccer, the culture leads and the system follows. In this country, other sports have been the drivers. However, in 90 percent of the countries worldwide soccer is the driver. Kids grow up and all they want to do is kick the ball around from the age of four. Then later on, at a certain age, a larger development system comes into play.
In my opinion, the biggest challenge for soccer in the United States is that a lot of people still think it’s a coach’s sport. It’s the opposite, which may sound ironic coming from a coach. I learned this as a player: Soccer is self-teaching. Soccer is self-driven. It is not teachable in the way we think about other sports. A coach can give advice, a coach can help with technique, a coach can create the infrastructure for success, a coach can hope to inspire. But he must get out of the way when the whistle blows. In soccer, you can only make three substitutions, so there’s not much influence the coach can have. There are no timeouts to draw up plays. So for those 90 minutes, the players must solve all the problems. That’s why I say: “It’s a player’s game.”
This brings me back to the rivalry with Mexico. I have a lot of respect for Mexican soccer. Its culture is driven a lot by its players — by its kids who begin by playing in the street or in the backyard or against the garage door. The Mexican style has always been very technical and very smart. It has always been filled with creativity and exceptional individual skill. When Mexico comes to the Rose Bowl on Saturday, the crowd will go nuts when they see Guardado, Chicharito, and others who document a type of creativity and freedom that reflects the soccer culture of Mexico itself.
Ventura Alvarado, one of our youngest new players, could have been playing for Mexico this weekend. Less than a year ago, I was on the phone with Ventura and he told me his story. He grew up in Phoenix, and at the age of 13, the Mexican club Pachuca offered to move him and his entire family to Mexico. At the age of 15, Club América, one of the biggest clubs in Central or North America, picked him up and he grew up their in their youth academy. When I met him, he said right away, “I want to represent the United States.” His identity, like many Americans, is a mix of countries and cultures, but he felt very strongly that he wanted to wear the USA jersey.
With two passports, Ventura is like several others in our player pool. We have a Norwegian-American, an Icelandic-American, German-Americans, and Mexican-Americans. To play the CONCACAF Cup match in Los Angeles is very special for that reason. If you look at LA, it’s a melting pot within the larger melting pot of America. Out of 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl, loyalties will be divided. There will be Mexican flags next to American flags. That’s the essence of soccer, and it’s a beautiful thing.
To play against your rival for a chance to go to the Confederations Cup is a huge moment. You don’t get many opportunities in your career to play for a trophy, and this is a chance for our players to write a piece of history. We will be ready.
As a player, my biggest rival was Holland. Would a German fan ever cheer for Holland? Probably not. But if we play well on Saturday, I bet we will win over a few of those Mexican-American fans who value their heritage but also highly appreciate the country in which they live. I know we will try to win their respect. In a rivalry, that may be the sweetest final score.
Two-zero would be very sweet, too.