Like many sides around the world, getting a result at Mexico’s Estadio Azteca has proven difficult for the U.S. Men’s National Team. The 7,200 feet of altitude, humid conditions, smog and 87,000 or more El Trí fans all play their part in creating the heavy home-field advantage Mexico relies on at the vaunted stadium.
In 48 World Cup Qualifying matches played at Azteca, Mexico has racked up an incredible 38-2-7 record all-time. The U.S. MNT has visited the vaunted venue on 11 occasions, mostly for World Cup Qualifying, and gone just 1-8-2.
And while taking points at Azteca is difficult, just as rare is an opponent scoring a goal there. In total, Mexico has conceded just 27 goals in its 48 home qualifiers. Four of those were scored by U.S. players, including the first goal ever recorded by an opponent during a World Cup Qualifier at Azteca.
That marker came from none other than USA forward Willy Roy during the MNT’s 3-1 defeat to Mexico on Sept. 3, 1972.
“The game was kind of disappointing, because in those days they would call the team two or three weeks before the game and say ‘Are you guys in shape? Are you ready to go?’” Roy remembered.
With the U.S. team playing just a handful of games every year, turnover in the squad was high, making Roy somewhat of a rarity himself. The German-born striker had already represented the USA in qualifying for the 1966 and 1970 FIFA World Cups and with 13 caps, was the most senior member of the team that faced El Trí that day. He was also the only player in the squad to have experienced a qualifier in Mexico, coming when the U.S. fell 2-0 at the Estadio Olímpico Universitario in 1965.
That game was also Roy’s first cap and on the day, the 22-year-old striker claimed to have scored two goals that were both called back.
“For some stupid reason that I still don’t understand, on one I had a breakaway and I scored,” Roy told The Guardian last year. “Suddenly the whistle [blew] and somebody said I was offside. The whistle should have blown early so I didn’t have to make that 50-, 60-yard run for nothing.”
Returning to Mexico City seven years later, Roy was part of the patchwork U.S. side that had gained only one point from its home-and-away set of qualifiers against Canada weeks earlier, though the striker was in form, having tallied in both matches. While Roy might have been in good shape, some of his teammates weren’t.
“As it turned out, we had some injured players that were available to go on the trip, but there’s no way they should have been playing. You know how tough it is to play in Mexico City with the altitude and things like that. So we didn’t have probably the best team we could’ve had.”
Playing in the first-ever qualifier at Azteca, the U.S. team conceded in the 12th minute and was down 3-0 by the hour mark. The score line didn’t deter Roy, however. Pressing for a goal, the Saint Louis Stars striker rose in the area to get on the end of a cross, which he headed past Mexico goalkeeper Ignacio Calerón in the 78th minute.
While he remembers a lot about his National Team career, Roy can’t recall who made the cross to him. At the time, he didn’t even realize he was the first opposing player to score a World Cup Qualifying goal at Azteca.
“I didn’t know that,” he joked. “I don’t think anybody knew that!”
And while he doesn’t have video of the historic goal, he does carry fond memories thanks to the clips he took out of the Mexico City newspapers the following day.
With the goal, Roy also became the first U.S. player to score in three-straight qualifying matches, a record that held until Cobi Jones equaled the feat in 2000. In the end, the loss officially doomed the USA’s chances of advancing to the following year’s CONCACAF Championship, which served as the region’s final round of qualifying for the 1974 FIFA World Cup in West Germany.
“Having been born in Germany, I’d have loved to have been part of a World Cup team representing the U.S. in the country of my birth and it never happened,” Roy said. “It wasn’t so much blaming the team, the players, it was just where we were as a soccer federation in those days. We didn’t have the funding to be as competitive as we could have been.”
In the years since, Roy has been joined in the MNT’s “Azteca Scoring Club” by four other U.S. players. Rick Davis converted a penalty kick in a 5-1 qualifying defeat in 1980, while Eddie Lewis and Charlie Davies both scored in narrow 2-1 World Cup Qualifying losses there in 2005 and 2009, respectively. Most recently, Michael Orozco scored the game-winning goal in the USA’s historic 1-0 friendly win against El Trí on Aug. 15, 2012.
WATCH: The Five U.S. Players That Have Scored at Azteca
A week after scoring in Azteca, Roy played what would be his final World Cup Qualifier for the U.S. – a 2-1 loss to Mexico in Los Angeles. He continued his MNT career for one more year, taking part in a series of friendlies in Mexico, Haiti and Israel. During that trip, Roy became the USA’s joint leading all-time goal scorer, tying Peter Millar when he tallied his ninth international goal in a 3-1 loss to Israel on Nov. 13, 1973 in Tel Aviv. The pair would not be surpassed until Bruce Murray reached 10 goals in 1990.
“People told me for some 25 or 30 years I was the leading goal scorer on the U.S. National Team,” Roy said. “I thought they were kidding. I couldn’t believe it took that long for someone else to score more goals while playing tons more games than we did in our days!’
Two days later, Roy played his 20th and final match for the MNT and witnessed obscure American soccer history in the process when a 22-year-old goalkeeper named Bruce Arena replaced Bob Rigby at halftime of the USA’s 2-0 defeat to Israel in Beersheba.
“We were briefly teammates, so I can say I was happy to see my former teammate return to take over the National Team,” Roy said of Arena’s re-appointment last November. “He’s been successful in MLS, successful with the U.S. team before and he knows the players, so that was a good choice as far as I’m concerned.”
With the U.S. carrying momentum from Thursday's 2-0 win vs. Trinidad & Tobago, Roy says he’ll be watching closely as the side once again faces the tough task of getting a result in Mexico City.
“I’m one of the lucky ones to have had the opportunity to play a bit for the national team at a time when soccer here wasn’t big. When I see the U.S. play today, I watch with pride. It’s a team capable of getting results anywhere and that’s a great measure of how far we’ve come.