For days, U.S. national soccer Coach Bora Milutinovic had confidently predicted a fiesta atmosphere for Sunday's CONCACAF Gold Cup final with Mexico, a homecoming that was eagerly anticipated by Milutinovic, who coached Mexico to its best-ever finish in the 1986 World Cup--sixth.
Unforeseen by the optimistic U.S. coach was the possibility that Mexico would be doing the celebrating.
Milutinovic's homecoming party will have to be rescheduled. Mexico soundly defeated the United States, 4-0, to win its first soccer championship at any level. Mexico avenged its loss to the United States in the 1991 Gold Cup, and, under the guidance of Milutinovic's best friend and former teammate, Mexican Coach Miguel Mejia Baron, the once-powerful Mexican national team served notice that it was the undisputed regional champion.
In the third place game, Jamaica and Costa Rica tied, 1-1.
The U.S. team was stymied by a pressing Mexican defense and the home team's evasive attack. The fiesta atmosphere created by the crowd of more than 120,000 at Azteca Stadium provided a backdrop of pandemonium that the young Americans had seldom experienced.
The game-long din caused by the crowd approximated the sound of a teeming beehive. Vocal communication between players was rendered impossible and the American players made do with an elaborate pantomime to let teammates know where they were going.
Equally difficult for the Americans was the altitude of more than 7,500 feet and Mexico City's renowned smog. American players complained of difficulty breathing and one, Cobi Jones, left the game in the second half with a condition that team doctor Bert Mandelbaum called "altitude-induced asthma."
It was a generally dismal day for the U.S. team--which is 7-29-7 against Mexico.
Goalkeeper Tony Meola suffered a minor concussion in a collision with a Mexican player and Mexico's second goal came off the foot of American sweeper Desmond Armstrong, whose own goal was the U.S. team's second of the year.
"Normally, when you come home, you prefer to win," Milutinovic said. "But when you play here, it is difficult. The altitude, the air, the people . . . this is hard."
Milutinovic, who played and coached professionally in Mexico City for 12 years and remains a beloved figure here, had prepared his team for Azteca's hostile environment. The Mexican national team has not lost at home since 1981.
Also dispensing advice was Cle Kooiman, who attended Chaffey High in Ontario and was an All-American at UC San Diego. Kooiman is the captain of Cruz Azul, the Mexico City-based professional team that plays its home games at Azteca.
"Pretty much everyone came up to me and asked me about the atmosphere," Kooiman said, standing on the field and still needing to yell to be heard over the crowd noise 30 minutes after the game. "I told them they had to experience it for themselves. Look at it. It's great."
No advice or planning seemed to aid the U.S. team, which came into the game having won four games in a row. Even with the addition of four European-based players the Americans were unorganized. As compared to the Mexican players, who follow each other's directional changes like a school of fish, the Americans were spread out all over the field and failed to mount a cohesive attack.
Mexico's first goal came in the 12th minute, off a curving free kick from Ignacio Ambriz that found the corner of the net. That set off a thundering roar from the crowd, and a little leap from Mexican President Carlos Salinis, who watched the game from a private box.
Armstrong was victimized when he ran in to try to trap a centering pass with his left foot. His momentum carried him and the ball toward the net. Meola dived in vain to stop the ball as it rolled across the goal line.
The U.S. team got its first shot, from Roy Wegerle, in the 42nd minute. The Americans had only six shots in the game--compared to Mexico's 22--and Mexican keeper Jorge Campos was forced to make only one save. Meola had eight.
The U.S. team was worse in the second half. Jones, one of the team's fastest players, had difficulty breathing at halftime and was replaced by Dominic Kinnear. Joe Max Moore came in for Wegerle, who was also feeling the effects of the altitude.
"I just couldn't run," Wegerle said. "I was ineffective today in every respect. But you can't use that as an excuse. We didn't perform well as a team. It was a one-way street today."
Mexico scored in the 71st minute by taking advantage of its room to maneuver on the wings. Ramon Ramirez fed Luis Roberto Alves Zague on a give-and-go. Zague's left-footed shot went in over a sprawling Meola.
Mexico scored its final goal in the same fashion, this time by Guillermo Cantu.