Two decades ago, on Feb. 13, 2002, the Mexican national team played its first-ever game in Arizona. With State Farm Stadium still four years from completion, El Tri lost to Yugoslavia on a makeshift pitch awkwardly fit into what was then Bank One Ballpark.
Still, they drew over 40,000 fans, packing the Diamondbacks’ stadium with red, white and green.
That match, just a decade after the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) shifted towards hosting the majority of its friendlies north of the border, offered a glimpse of what games in Phoenix could look like. In 2005, El Tri returned, beating Hungary, 2-0, at the newly renamed Chase Field.
A year later, State Farm Stadium opened, bringing a whole new world of possibilities for the presence of the country’s most popular soccer team in the Valley. Since then, Mexico has played in Arizona 10 more times, including nine at the Cardinals’ stadium.
This summer, they’ll add another Phoenix-area game, playing Uruguay in Glendale at 7 p.m. on June 2. Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on April 18 at MexTour.org.
The match, which was announced Tuesday, is part of Mexico’s four friendlies over the summer as it prepares for the World Cup in Qatar in November. The other three games will be against Nigeria, Ecuador and Paraguay in Dallas, Chicago and Atlanta, respectively. Mexico is also playing Guatemala in Orlando in April, but that match is outside of FIFA’s international windows and will feature a limited squad.
Given this summer’s UEFA Nations League and a desire to avoid replaying matches against rivals from CONCACAF — Mexico’s qualifying region — El Tri was mostly restricted to playing opponents from South America, Asia or Africa for its summer friendlies. Initially, Argentina had been rumored as a potential opponent but that changed when the two nations were drawn together in Group C at the World Cup.
“We need to bear in mind that you have to consider your possibilities,” Mexico manager Tata Martino said through a translator. “You cannot always achieve what you want, but considering the possibilities of the rivals with so many matches going around in the world, we are satisfied — we are happy with the summer we are going to have.”
While Martino is primarily focused on the opponents, selecting locations was an equally critical piece of the puzzle for FMF. Unsurprisingly, all four summer host cities have modern NFL stadiums and significant numbers of Mexican residents.
But for FMF president Yon de Luisa, Phoenix’s history as a host for El Tri played an even larger role than its on-paper qualifications. Just this past summer, Mexico sold out State Farm Stadium for a 3-0 win over Honduras in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
“Phoenix, no doubt that it is a fantastic stadium,” de Luisa said. “We have been there many times. And also the fanbase in Phoenix is fantastic for us. It is a venue where every year we look forward to coming back and this year, there's no doubt that having a match with an opponent the size of Uruguay is going to be a fantastic, fantastic for us.”
Although six of Mexico’s 12 all-time matches in Phoenix have come in competitive tournaments rather than friendlies, the timing of this summer’s match just five months before the World Cup adds a new layer of significance. For Mexico, these friendlies serve as a critical proving ground.
In CONCACAF only the U.S. and Canada possess comparable talent to El Tri, which features the likes of Wolverhampton Wanderers striker Raul Jimenez, Napoli winger Chucky Lozano and Atletico Madrid midfielder Hector Herrera.
So while Martino guided his team to qualification with a second-place finish in the eight-team final round, he remains under heavy criticism for picking up just two points from four qualifying games against the U.S. and Canada after losing to the U.S. twice in tournament finals last summer.
“To recover the level we had in the early years of this process,” Martino said of his goals for the summer. “It is quite clear that being together and not being under the pressure of results in a World Cup qualifier, when it is good to play well but it is even better if you do it with results. We were unable to play well but we got results so we will have the possibility of working more comfortably and making corrections over the course (of the summer).”
Mexico, though, did find better form toward the end of the qualifying cycle, with four wins and two draws over its final six games.
Uruguay, meanwhile, finished third in CONMEBOL qualifying, behind only Brazil and Argentina. La Celeste is reaching the end of a golden generation that’s led them to the knockout rounds of three straight World Cups but still offers a formidable opponent for Mexico.
Striker Luis Suarez, in particular, is a cut above any attacking threats El Tri has faced in CONCACAF.
Neither Suarez nor his teammates, though, will be entirely unfamiliar to Mexico. The two teams last played in a 2018 friendly that Uruguay won, 4-1. Two years earlier, they faced off in a Copa America Centenario group stage match in Glendale — the ninth of El Tri’s Arizona visits.
On that day, 60,025 fans watched a 3-1 Mexico win.
Theo Mackie covers Arizona high school sports and Phoenix Rising FC. He can be reached by email at email@example.com and on Twitter @theo_mackie.