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Craig Mitchelldyer-Portland Timbers

Timbers primed for historic night at Mexico's soccer mecca

MEXICO CITY — Estadio Azteca was part of the charm when the Portland Timbers were drawn into the same part of the Concacaf Champions League bracket as Club América. Win, and you not only get a shot at the biggest club in North America. You get a chance to matchup with them at one of the world’s iconic venues.

Azteca is home to América as well as the Mexico’s national soccer team, El Tri. It’s the most famous soccer venue in North America, the host of two previous World Cup finals, and a bucket-list destination for many the Western Hemisphere’s players. Even without fans — as Azteca will be when the Timbers and América play on Wednesday night — the place is a soccer cathedral. At one point, the venue could hold over 119,000, though after its 2016 renovations, capacity was reduced to 87,523.

“To have the opportunity to go down there and play, it's exciting,” goalkeeper Jeff Attinella said ahead of Wednesday’s Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal match (7:15 p.m. PT, FS1). The teams drew at Providence Park last week, 1-1 — the first of two matches where the winner is decided by combined score.

“When I was growing up playing soccer in America, [soccer] wasn't even probably the fifth or sixth  [most popular] sport,” the 32-year-old remembered. “It was probably the seventh or the eighth, you know? And you watch these types of games on TV and even then, the coverage, when you're watching soccer in America back then, you're watching the World Cup and you're seeing the [United States men’s] national team playing in Azteca. That's all you're ever seeing.”

For Portland’s Latin Americans, Azteca means something a little different, though perhaps equally prestigious. Head coach Giovanni Savarese, originally from Venezuela, spoke to that prestige before the teams’ first meeting last week, saying, “[Champions League] games are different, and sometimes, you’re playing in venues that are historical.” Midfielder Diego Chara gave his perspective as somebody who grew up in Colombia, explaining, “There’s a lot of history in that stadium — we know that — and now to have the opportunity to play there against a great club, it’s going to be amazing.”

“It’s one of those things where you have to soak it in and not fanboy in the moment, and [say], ‘OK, I’m playing in this massive stadium,’” midfielder Eryk Williamson said, offering another United States perspective to Attinella’s. “I think we’re all excited about going to Azteca. When you look at all the history behind the stadium, I think it will make it a little more surreal.”

Portland’s Argentines feel more tied to that history than most of their teammates. While the venue may have a different type of esteem than Rio de Janeiro’s Maracaña or Buenos Aires’ Bombonera, Azteca is where Argentina won its second World Cup. It’s also the place where the legend of Diego Maradona, one of Argentina’s greatest players, was confirmed. El Pibe de Oro (the Golden Boy) gave one of the World Cup’s defining individual performances in 1986, winning the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player after scoring twice in both the quarterfinals and semifinals.

“I was a baby: just a month or so, in the arms of my parents,” Timbers captain Diego Valeri said referring to Maradona’s defining performance: his quarterfinal brace against England.  Valeri was born on May 1, 1986. Argentina won the country’s second World Cup on June 29, 1986, with Maradona’s "Goal of the Century," below (as well as the "Hand of God" goal that preceded it) helping his country eliminate England seven days earlier.

“My father told me that when Maradona scored the goals against England, he threw me in the air and I was almost [dropped],” Valeri said. “It was a funny story for me, but I don't remember. I just watched [Maradona’s goals] in videos, but it's still very special for our generation.”

When we can’t see something live, our memories are liberated. They aren’t bound by reality’s constraints. We get to make up their context, because without the limits of evidence, nothing can contradict us. Of course, there are contemporaneous accounts of things like Babe Ruth’s called-shot home run in the 1932 World Series, or Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point night in Hershey, Pennsylvania, but once a moment becomes legend, reality’s lost its battle. Nobody wants mythos to be bound, and while sports can be about facts for some, for others, they are about dreams. They’re about mythos, and perhaps as much as any athlete is to their nation, Maradona is mythic to Argentina. And a large part of that mythos is tied to Azteca.

“For Seba, me, it was a special moment in Argentine history,” Valeri said, referencing a fellow Timber raised on the legend of Maradona, Sebastián Blanco.

“Obviously, the place where the history is created, it's special,” Valeri continued. “It has a special feeling for us to be there. I didn't have the chance to play there, before, so at this point of my career, it's something that I’m going to enjoy.”

Wednesday night’s game will be like a baseball playoff game at Yankee Stadium, or an NBA conference final at Madison Square Garden. It’s a collegiate football title game at the Rose Bowl, which is to say it’s one of the stages from players’ dreams. For Portland, there will be a “when will we have this chance, again” element to their night, something born of the stage and the opportunity. When’s the next time these Timbers this type of chance at a club like América?

For Liga MX fans whose teams regularly visit Azteca, it may not seem like a big deal, anymore. But for players like Attinella, Chara, Valeri and Williamson, for whom Wednesday night may be a one-and-only, América at Azteca will be unforgettable.

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