US/Mexico - The Teams You Love to Hate

The US first played Mexico in soccer in 1937. Mexico won.

This pretty much set the tone for the next 40-odd years as the US accumulated a 0-21-3 record against our neighbors to the South.

In most of the countries on Earth, this level of soccer futility would be cause for national outrage. Coaches would be fired, players would be hung in effigy and civil insurrections would have to be quashed by baton-wielding riot police as the pent up frustrations of humiliated fans found expression in flaming cars and smashed windows.

Sort of like Chicago after a typical Cub season.

In the US, however, there is no record that much of anyone even noticed. The US sucked, and the US just didn’t care. Even through the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, despite growing US soccer participation and interest, and an occasional US victory here and there, Mexico could still pretty much rely on being able to beat the US in games that really mattered.

Not surprisingly, Mexico liked it that way. They are a nation of soccer fans and soccer players, and the passion they bring to both the field and the stands is awe inspiring. And understandably, having this kind of dominance in sport over their richer and more powerful neighbor was a source of great pride.

Then a funny thing happened. On the last day of February 2001, in a newly constructed galvanized Erector Set version of a soccer stadium in the unlikeliest of places – Columbus, Ohio – on a night so brutally cold that the Mexican team refused to come out and warm up, an overwhelmingly pro-US crowd of 24,000 screaming lunatics saw US Soccer come of age.

One person called it “the Woodstock of American soccer”, the day when something which had been quietly building suddenly exploded beyond anyone’s expectations. And the place it exploded was right smack in Mexico’s face.

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Mexico lost that night. The score was 2 – 0. Dos a cero.

And although Mexico won the return match in the Azteca in July (they tried to regain the psychological advantage by denying the US the right to practice in the stadium the day before the match on the grounds that they thought maybe “a monsoon” might come along and they had to keep the field covered. Bruce Arena threatened to put his team back on the plane and Mexico relented. Shockingly, no monsoon appeared) the relationship had changed forever.

And despite how most Mexico fans might feel, this is a good thing for both teams. Both programs need a challenge, a team to measure themselves against, a team that’s always lurking in the background waiting to knock them down.

Unfortunately, as the above video demonstrates, there’s usually a little more “knocking down” in these matches than a lot of soccer purists are comfortable with. Even without the geopolitical, historical and cultural currents running in the background, these two teams just don’t like each other.

Of course, in soccer, the most compelling stories in any rivalry are the one on one, player vs. player subtexts. Like, for example, the night – once again, in Columbus, Ohio - when Oguchi Onyewu, a rising young US defender who had been badly abused by Mexican superstar Jerod Borgetti, returned the favor:

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(Note: if the video won't play, go HERE. Damn YouTube.

And then there’s Landon. Lord how they hate Landon.

The funny thing, of course, is that Mexico still believes in their hearts that they are the superior side. The US going 9-1-2 over the last 12 games? Piffle. Biased refs, cheating, bad luck, monsoons, it’s always something. Soon they may be down to “my mother told me not to get these pants dirty”. Anything to avoid admitting what losing nine games out of the last 12 would clearly indicate to any rational person.

But then soccer fans are seldom accused of being rational.

So how about this game Feb 6 in Houston? With nothing at stake, no Cup, no Copa, no medals, ribbons or plaques and no World Cup spot on the line, why are they even holding this game?

The simple answer is money. Both federations stand to make a killing. Enough of a killing that Mexico doesn’t mind playing it in the US, and the US doesn’t mind playing it in front of a crowd which is likely to be largely pro-Mexico.

One side attraction for the game will be the first on-field appearance of the new US National Soccer teams’ uniform:

Sort of a cross between a rugby shirt and whatever Tiger Woods is wearing this week.

As for the teams, they’re both led by first year coaches: former MLS coach Bob Bradley and former MLS player Hugo Sanchez. Neither one’s job is on the line here, although whoever loses will take a fearful amount of abuse from their fans. Check BigSoccer five minutes after the game ends for an update on that.

So what can we expect to see? Hard to say. Neither team has anything remotely like a set lineup. For Mexico, Salcido, Guadado and “Rafa” Marquez are of course locks. Beyond that, there’s a lot of guesswork.

(They do feel they have the next great Western Hemisphere GK in Ochoa. A couple of guys named Howard and Guzan may beg to differ)

One thing I hope we don’t see is Sanchez sending guys like Blanco and Borgetti out there. As great as they have been, it would be like Bradley sending out McBride and Wolff: maybe they’d help us win this time, but there’s no chance they’re getting on a plane for Johannesburg in 2010.

Of course, if the US had lost nine out of the last 12 matches, maybe Bob would be sorely tempted to trot some of the graybeards out there.

Like Sanchez though, we really don’t know who – if anyone – he’s planning on calling in from Europe. Will he go with the MLS’ers he’s had in camp for the last month? Will he ask for Spector, Onyewu, Bradley, Lewis and/or Howard?

What you’d like to see from both coaches is a glimpse of the future. Both teams have some highly touted young forwards waiting in the wings, and this would seem the perfect time to run them out there.

Sanchez has budding superstar and Arsenal signee Carlos Vela and Barca prodigy Giovanni dos Santos. Bradley can counter with transfer target Jozy Altidore and the much debated Freddy Adu, now with Benfica.

These are the guys who’ll hopefully be matching each other goal-for-goal over the next ten years of this rivalry. Why not give them, and us, a taste of what’s coming?

That’s as good a reason to watch this game as any I can think of.