Long before Josh Wolff scored his first international goalagainst Mexico during an October 2000 friendly, he'd already made plenty ofmemories playing against America's biggest soccer rival.
Most of them, D.C. United's forward now recalls, were ratherunpleasant.
"We'd get thumped," Wolff says of his frequent youth levelrun-ins against El Tri in the mid-to-late 90's. "The first time I was on a team that beat [Mexico] was inColumbus."
By "Columbus", Wolff means a late February qualifierfor the 2002 World Cup held at frigid Crew Stadium. Two minutes into the second half, Wolff raced behind theMexican defense and beat goalkeeper Jorge Campos before finishing into a wideopen net to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead. Wolff sealed the unwelcome visitors' fate with a brilliant assist on EarnieStewart's 87th minute goal.The victory was the beginning of an unprecedented run ofsuccess for the Americans. Highlighted by a second-round win over Mexico at the 2002 World Cup –another match in which Wolff provided a critical assist – the U.S. beat their topregional foe seven times over ten contests between 2001 and 2007.
If Tony Meola, John Harkes and Eric Wynalda were responsible for finally pulling U.S. Soccer even with its southern neighbor,Wolff's generation had clearly taken the next step.
"The way that we were playing we went into that matchthinking there wasn't a reason we couldn't win the game," says Wolff of the Round-of-16 win in South Korea. "When you get good results, beliefturns a bit. We started to getthose results in our favor and for the next six or seven years we did prettywell against them."
One of the few results that didn't go America's way duringthat stretch was a qualifying loss at Azteca Stadium in March of 2005. Wolff, who was on the U.S. bench thatday, recalls the visit to one of world soccer's most intimidating locales.
"The horns, the noise, the obscenities are all constant,"Wolff notes. "There is a real hostility to it. That and the altitude gets to you, the heat too. There is a lot that plays into it."
As Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. team heads back to Azteca on Wednesday, they do so looking to reclaim some of the regional dominance that Wolffand company helped build. It will be nosmall task against a Mexican side that even the former U.S. international acknowledges has overtakenCONCACAF's top spot.
"It's naïve to say that they haven't staked the claim tobeing the top team in our region," says the 35-year-old. "As qualifying goes through we'll seewhat happens. They've put it to usa couple times. And what they've done with their younger players; they arecoming along at a nicer clip than maybe ours are."