They will play again Friday for the third time in six months, only this meeting of the men’s soccer teams representing the United States and Mexico is nothing like the others. The first two games of this sequence were played, really, for the championship of each other, as the great Mark Kram wrote years ago about the Ali-Frazier “Thrilla in Manila.” The rivalry was everything in those games.
What was the occasion? The CONCACAF Nations League? The Gold Cup? Call it what you will, but what mattered was this: USA-Mexico.
This will not be the case in Cincinnati.
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“It’s the World Cup. It’s every country’s dream to go to the World Cup,” U.S. forward Brenden Aaronson told Sporting News. “For us, you see it in every game you play. I mean, playing away from home — the atmosphere. Playing at home, even, the teams that come here and play, it’s really tough, really different.
“It’s different, but I think we know what’s going to happen and we know what’s coming, so we’re more prepared.”
The U.S. and Mexico will play their seventh game of the CONCACAF qualifying cycle for the 2022 World Cup at the new TQL Stadium in Cincy’s West End. It will be the sixth qualifier between the two on U.S. soil since the turn of the century. The U.S. won four of the previous five, all of the victories coming by identical scores of 2-0, or dos a cero when translated to Spanish, which American fans did giddily when that trend became apparent starting in 2005.
If you suspect such frivolity might be a postgame occupation when World Cup qualifying is at stake, that the rivalry lives in the space between the games, that it’s qualifying that truly matters — well, some of that is true, but the drive for those bragging rights is impossible to resist.
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“I think it only enhances the rivalry, because there’s more on the line,” former USMNT goalkeeper Tony Meola, co-host of SiriusXM’s “Counter Attack” program, told Sporting News. “For the most part, the U.S. and Mexico have qualified — obviously, 2018 is the outlier — but it was always about trying to establish yourself at the top of the region, sort of flex your muscle a little bit. I think the rivalry has become even greater over the last couple years.
“You look at these groups of players for both sides: You have a really experienced Mexican side, and you have a really young U.S. side that’s sort of trying to right the wrongs, I think it’s a really interesting dynamic between the two teams.”
Meola was 20 when he held a shutout against Trinidad & Tobago in the “Shot Heard Round the World” game in November 1989, which qualified the U.S. for the World Cup for the first time since 1950. Midfielder Tab Ramos was 23, and John Harkes was 22. It was a young group, but Meola marvels at the youth of the current U.S. side, with top forward Ricardo Pepi only 18 and established star Christian Pulisic just turned 23. In the most recent game, a 2-1 victory over Costa Rica in Columbus, the U.S. started its youngest lineup ever in a qualifier. It was not the first time in this cycle a new record was established.
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Despite that youth, or maybe even because of it, the U.S. has accumulated 11 points through six games and stands in second place behind Mexico and its 14. The Americans only are three points — one game, really — ahead of fourth-place Panama. The first three teams are guaranteed spots at Qatar 2022.
“No matter what, the World Cup qualifier is what you are judged by,” analyst Taylor Twellman, who will call the game for ESPN, told Sporting News. “I would say the rivalry for this young group — young, inexperienced group, for that matter — those wins this summer were massively convincing that they’re in control of what this rivalry is going to be from a U.S. perspective. When you have a young group, you look around, you don’t know what you are, you don’t know what the group is going to be, you’re coming after the debacle of not qualifying for the World Cup, so there’s a lot of growing pains.
“But I would say this game, this is by which the rivalry is judged. This summer, you got a real good head start about what you want to be and how you’re going to go about that business and what it will look like, but I would say the trifecta is making sure you win your game at home.”
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The USMNT victories against Mexico this summer were so distinct the Americans fielded almost entirely different lineups — the U.S. Gold Cup roster amounted to a “B” team as coach Gregg Berhalter attempted to build depth for qualifying — and so the value of those results relative to what is coming can be overstated. It is helpful to know success is possible, but a pair of one-goal victories achieved in extra time is no evidence of dominance.
“It’s just games that you know you’re going to need full time. You’re not winning the game in the first minute,” midfielder Kellyn Acosta, the only USMNT player to start both games, told Sporting News. “Each game brings different obstacles and challenges. You mentioned the two different teams; with both teams, everyone was ready and willing, and it shows with this group here. It’s huge. Mexico is a strong side, and for us, it’s another opportunity to showcase what we’re all about — and to be on top of the table for the qualifiers.”
USA-MEX has been a genuine rivalry since the U.S. resumed seriously competing on the world stage in 1990, and yet it has come to be viewed as one of the best in international soccer in that short time. The all-time series favors Mexico, 36 wins to 21, with 15 draws, but in what might be called the modern era, the U.S. has owned a surprising advantage: 19-14-12, with a 57-49 edge in goal differential.
When the U.S. failed to reach the 2018 World Cup — in part because Mexico lost its final game of the cycle to Honduras and did not rescue the Americans the way the U.S. had done for El Tri four years earlier — it appeared the sizzle and hostility between the two might be replaced by disparity. A new generation of American talent, though, essentially a full squad’s worth of players 23 or under and competing in top European leagues, reinvigorated the competition.
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“Those are two opportunities for our group to lift trophies, and we were very focused on doing that, and we did that. This is a completely different animal,” U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter told SN. “This is a group format, home game, they’re going to be approaching the game with intensity, we’re going to be approaching it — it’s going to be a massive game, and we’re not thinking at all of what just happened in the summer. Our focus is thinking about what’s going to happen on Nov. 12, and how can we win that game.”
It’s possible, given a relatively comfortable lead in the standings and the fresh memory of two trophy-losing defeats, that Mexico and coach Tata Martino (below) will enjoy the luxury, if that’s the correct word, of investing itself in sporting revenge and ignoring the qualifying-specific consequences of the outcome.
In other words: Damn the pressure, full-speed ahead.
“Does he come into this game and say he’s going to have a good defensive structure — not sit in and defend, but similar to his teams in Atlanta, where he would allow his front five to go for broke, but knowing he had a base of four or five guys to cover on the counter?” Twellman said. “You’ve just got to make sure Mexico doesn’t get into a rhythm. The one thing about the Mexico national team as far back as you want to go, the more they get into a rhythm, the longer night you’re going to have. Because then their energy, their cohesion, their belief, that continues and then all of a sudden … you’re chasing the game.
“I feel like the United States has always had success against these kinds of teams when they’re getting them disjointed, get them uncertain what’s coming next.”
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If Eli Tri lose to the U.S., they will be no worse than second and quite possibly still ahead on goal differential. If they win, though, they can claim to have been biding their time toward the competition that mattered most, and the only U.S. response will be to point toward a couple of trophies whose luster will have dimmed, rapidly.
“I remember having Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie on our show, together, and they made the point five, six, 10 times during that interview they were going to turn this thing around. They were going to be the group that everyone says: This group did it. They’ve taken that sort of to heart, and I think we’re seeing that in everything they’re doing around the world and now, hopefully they can get it translated full-time to the national team.
“I keep stressing how young they are. I don’t want to use that as an excuse. Because if you’re trying to qualify for a World Cup, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.”