Commentary: At Azteca, everything is different now for US

MEXICO CITY — First of all, let’s deal with reality: The US’ first-ever victory over Mexico means nothing. It was a friendly. Both teams were missing four or five probable starters. Both managers were more concerned with World Cup qualifiers coming up next month. Hell, the normally overflowing Estadio Azteca was only at about 80 percent capacity.

Now let’s deal with the truth: The US’ first-ever victory over Mexico means everything.

It means that the 0-for-whatever record won’t be a talking point whenever the Americans come to Mexico City.

It means that the damn “gap” — the US soccerati’s favorite internet meme these last few days — is actually what US goalkeeper Tim Howard said it was: opinion.

But most important, it means that the mystique of Azteca is gone, and that when the Americans return here next year for a World Cup qualifier, they will have “the belief that we can do it,” as US veteran Landon Donovan said.

Azteca is not just a stadium. It’s a hard, concrete volcano that erupts with sound and fury whenever los Yanquis come to town. It is, in my opinion, the most intimidating soccer stadium in the world and the most important battleground in what I consider the best rivalry in international soccer.

Here, all the twisted emotions and culture and politics that weave together Mexico and the USA like no other neighboring nations in the world come unraveled. The vitriol is loud and palpable and dangerous, as a group of American exchange students at Azteca on Wednesday learned; minutes after Michael Orozco Fiscal scored the matchwinner, they were frantically “evacuated” from the stands by a troop riot police while beer bombs dropped from above.

Mexicans have long come here to express their national pride and celebrate their glorious heritage — not for nothing is the stadium called “Azteca” — in the face of the geopolitical behemoth to the north. At Azteca, Mexico has always been the superpower.

One win does not change that. The US’ all-time record is still only 1-23-1 in Mexico. Next year when the US returns to the Estadio Azteca for a World Cup qualifier, they will once again enter the volcano.

It will be real. It will be true. But it will be different.

“We’ll have to walk down that tunnel again and there will be a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety,” Howard admitted, “but we’ll step out there and feel like we know how to win.”