The two titans of Concacaf meet with World Cup qualification on the line. The USA hosts Mexico at the Columbus Crew stadium. A special scarf has been unveiled for the occasion. The US finds itself in pole position to qualify, while Mexico has struggled to score goals and win games and fired their coach after an embarrassing loss to Honduras at home. Parity does not describe the rivalry, but rather the concept of "pendulum." Momentum swings back and forth, and has for almost a century.
The storylines and rivalry started in the 1930s, when the two teams squared off in a playoff to qualify for the 1934 World Cup. Both teams traveled by boat over a month to a neutral venue in Italy, and took vastly difference approaches to preparation. The American team exercised on the deck of the boat, while the Mexican team relaxed and confided in its superior technical ability. They were wrong. The US won 4-2 and qualified, but the pendulum swung in Mexico's favor soon thereafter. A year later, Mexico beat the US three times for a combined goal differential of 19-6.
Thus, the following pattern emerged: US upsets Mexico, then motivated Mexico goes on a run of dominance. Only in later decades would a semblance of parity emerge. Here are a few key games in that journey:
1980: Yet Another Mexi-Massacre
Since defeating Mexico to qualify for the 1934 World Cup, the US went on a dry spell of historic proportions. The US only qualified for one other World Cup for a span of almost six decades, while Mexico came to dominate the US and the Concacaf region. In qualification for the 1982 World Cup, Mexico hosted the US at the dreaded Azteca stadium just outside Mexico City. The tricolor pasted the US 5-1, even though in later rounds they would fall just short of qualifying. Even if Central American nations had started to close the gap, the Americans still looked clueless on the field. Lopsided losses to Mexico were the norm. But not for long.
Eight years later, misfortune befell Mexico and a door opened for the US. FIFA caught Mexico using over-aged players in the Olympics, and banned them from World Cup qualification. Paul Caliguiri's goal vs. Trinidad and Tobago booked the US's ticket to Italia 1990. More importantly, the US team now had the talent to capitalize on Mexico's missteps (at least off the field). A large talent gap remained between the two nations, but the US could at lest compete with the Central American and Caribbean nations (and Canada).
1991: The American Ascent
The US qualified for Italia 1990, but had a pretty lousy tournament. College-educated players looked like clueless boys against European pros. Folks wondered: was the US for real or a one-hit wonder? The inaugural Gold Cup was the perfect stage for the US to build on recent success and lay a foundation. In the semifinals, USA squared off against the neighbor to the South. Mexico fielded a full roster and was hungry for redemption. A noticeably pro-Mexico crowd of 41,000 packed the LA coliseum and cheered on the tricolor.
The first half ended goalless, but, shortly after the break, Mexico failed to clear a free kick. USA's John Doyle side footed first-time a deflected header and beat the keeper at his near post. The stadium fell silent, except for the scattered US fans. 15 minutes later, Peter Vermes, current coach of Sporting KC, latched onto a Fernando Clavijo clearance, fought off one defender, cut inside another, and lobbed the keeper to the far post from outside the box. It was a spectacular goal that crushed any hopes of a Mexican comeback.
The US was still far from producing topflight players, but the Doyle and Vermes goals showed competent athletes capable of bursts of brilliance.
1993: Revenge of the Aztecs
The 1993 Gold Cup Final was a harsh lesson for the US. America was hosting the World Cup the following year, so the team had been spared the rigors of qualification and the Gold Cup presented the best opportunity for competitive matches. In the final, the US faced Mexico at the Azteca stadium, a cavernous cell block on the outskirts of Mexico City where altitude sickness meets toxic air pollutants.
The US conceded in the 19th minute and never got into the game. A Desmond Armstrong own goal in the 31st minute ended the game before halftime, and the final 4-0 scoreline was flattering. The US may have been able to squeeze out a semifinal Gold Cup win at home two years earlier, but many of the team's top players lacked "cancha", ie, experience playing in hostile away stadiums. It would not be their last defeat at the dreaded Azteca.
Luckily, one year later, Major League Soccer would open its doors. While the league would engage in a few gimmicks (walk up penalty kicks?) and some franchises would fold (Miami, Tampa Bay), it would offer college players without the chops for Europe a viable second option. The pool of professional US players would soon expand exponentially.
2002: A Monumental World Cupset
Mexico won three Gold Cups in a row, but, in World Cup 2002, faced an unfamiliar rival in the Round of 16: the United States. El Tri had dominated the Gold Cup, but, in 1996, Major League Soccer had begun. The quality of play in the league was relatively poor but still light years ahead of collegiate soccer. For six years, MLS grew and groomed players to become professionals. The US roster for Japan/Korea featured several MLS players, including Clint Mathis and Eddie Pope.
If 1991 showed the US could produce good soccer, then 2002 showed that MLS could turn out good soccer players. The US beat Mexico 2-0 on goals by Brian McBride and Landon Donovan. McBride was a former player of the Columbus Crew, while Landon Donovan had lit MLS nets aflame with the San Jose Earthquakes. Granted, key players for the US, such as Claudio Reyna and John O'Brien, had never played professionally stateside. Still, MLS had indisputably expanded the professional opportunities for US players and helped the national team.
American fans will never forget the cups of coffee downed to stay awake during the early morning games or Rafa Marquez's vicious elbow to the cranium of US winger Cobi Jones. Cobi is still the US all-time leader in international caps, even if Brian McBride one-upped his World Cup injury record with a bloody Daniel De Rossi elbow in 2006.
2007: A Volley Good Time
For two decades, the US-Mexico rivalry fell into an established rhythm. In terms of trophies, the US would pull off a feisty upset from time-to-time in between Mexican runs of utter dominance. In terms of games, US players were superb athletes but less proficient technically. Thus, the US always camped out in its own half and hoped to score off a set piece or a counterattack. Conversely, Mexican players loved to keep the ball, even if shooting was a better option than a pass. Games were contests of cat and mouse...at least until 2007.
Bob Bradley, then the US coach, tinkered with the traditional game plan and bravely pushed his back line forward in games against Mexico (and other stiff competition). Often, the gamble backfired and an opposing striker would spring the US's naive offside trap. However, when it worked, the US actually retained possessions for longer spells and constructed first-touch attacks through the middle. Against Mexico in the 2007 Gold Cup Final, the US won 2-1 and also played some pretty soccer. Benny Feilhaber's tournament-winning volley was a stroke of individual genius, but the collective effort and cohesive game plan made it possible.
Many US fans ask: just what happened to Benny? Shortly after the Gold Cup, his club career took a nosedive. He failed to crack the first team at his German club Hamburger SV, embarked on a nomadic journey of Freddy Adu proportions, and ended up in the second division of a Scandinavian league. He still made the 2010 World Cup roster, but as a late game sub. Guess who tossed his career a lifeline? MLS. Benny still hasn't fought his way back into the USMNT fold, but if he has any more flashes of brilliance left, don't be surprised if he does.
2012: Over the Hump
Again, Mexico went on a run of Gold Cup wins. The US lost two finals to Mexico in a row, both by wide margins. However, in 2012, new coach Jurgen Klinsmann arrived unfazed. In a friendly against Mexico at the dreaded Azteca, he fielded a youthful roster with few veterans. From his perspective, it was probably a lose-win situation. The youngsters would get blooded in a hostile environment, and few expected a draw, let alone a win. Before that game, the US had only drawn one game and lost all the others.
Klinsmann fielded his normally lopsided 4-2-3-1, but the players were even more cautious than normal. Few dared to set foot in the opposing half. As the game wore on, Mexican fans grew restless and the home side grew nervous. The first half ended 0-0, and the second half looked to be a repeat. The physical and organized Americans ceded the middle of the field, but choked off space around the box. With 20 minutes left, Klinsmann tossed on three substitutes: Brek Shea, Terrance Boyd, and Michael Fiscal. In the 80th minute, they combined for a lovely game-winning goal. Thanks to a heelpass and a toepoke, the US earned their first ever win at the Azteca. The win broke a mental block for Americans, and set the stage for a World Cup draw at the Azteca several months later.
This September, Mexico finds itself in an odd position: an underdog needing a win in a hostile environment. If history is any guide, expect the unexpected. Just when one of these rivals gets seated comfortably on the Concacaf throne, he gets knocked off the perch.
Elliott Turner blogs about soccer at Futfanatico.com