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No such thing as Mexico, USA friendly

FOX Soccer's Eric Wynalda recalls his favorite memory from the CONCACAF rivalry.
FOX Soccer's Eric Wynalda recalls his favorite memory from the CONCACAF rivalry.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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A terrible fury burst out of the otherwise even-keeled and softly-spoken Tim Howard. "I think it is a [expletive] disgrace the entire post-match ceremony was in Spanish," the US goalkeeper seethed, standing outside the team bus amid a throng of reporters.

"You could bet your [expletive] if this was Mexico City, the ceremony wouldn’t be all in English." The veins on his bald dome bulged. His jaw clenched. Mexico had brought him and his teammates to their knees.

Not only had the USMNT just lost the final of the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup – the biennial soccer championship of North, Central America and the Caribbean for national teams – in humiliating fashion, being resoundingly outplayed by Mexico in a 4-2 loss despite taking a 2-0 lead after 23 minutes, but it had happened on home turf. The majority of the capacity-crowd of 93,000 in the Rose Bowl was embarrassingly pro-Mexico, reclaiming for a night the once-Mexican city of Los Angeles.

And now they had to look on, aghast, at the final affront: the regional governing body, CONCACAF, awarded the Mexicans their medals and cup in Spanish.

This is no ordinary rivalry. When the United States plays Mexico once again at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City on Wednesday, the affair won’t mean anything in the context of standings or a tournament, but the official term 'friendly match' – an exhibition, or practice game, in other words – is a misnomer. Between these two countries, no game is ever friendly.

Rather than Yankees-Red Sox, Celtics-Lakers, Duke-North Carolina or Alabama-Auburn, this game is the fiercest sporting rivalry in North America; a perennial grudge match between once-warring neighbors with a complicated relationship. It is, in fact, one of the best rivalries in the world in any sport.

Many Mexicans see it as their birthright to be better at soccer than the United States. Americans can have baseball, basketball and football. The US can be more prosperous and dominate in all other arenas, and take more than half of Mexico’s territory in various wars and annexations. But soccer is theirs.

Nicknamed 'El Tri,' their national team went from 1934-80 without losing to the Americans, winning 21 of 24 games – and tying the other three – by a combined score of 85-15. Yet since 1991, the Yanks have had the gall to beat Mexico in 14 games while losing just nine and tying eight – an intolerable humiliation. Worse still, the only time they met during a World Cup, in the Round of 16 in 2002 in South Korea, the US knocked Mexico out with a 2-0 win.

HISTORY LESSONS

Stroll through memory lane and revisit the best matches every played between USA and Mexico.

The US, meanwhile, bristles at Mexico’s gamesmanship and disrespect. There was the time Ramon Ramirez drop-kicked Alexi Lalas in the groin; the time Rafael Marquez kicked Cobi Jones in the back; the time goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez tried to take out Eddie Johnson with a tackle after Landon Donovan had scored; the time assistant coach Paco Ramirez slapped Frankie Hejduk in the face after a game; or when Marquez savaged Howard’s knee.

So many incidents; so many slights to avenge.

"I don’t like they way they treat us, the way they don’t respect us," Donovan, who once urinated on the field in Guadalajara ahead of a game with Mexico, told the Sporting News before that fateful Gold Cup Final. "The way they treat us sometimes, you want them to be miserable. And the best way to make them miserable is to beat their national team. It’s not just another game for me. I clearly, desperately want to beat them.”

The US and Mexico first faced off in Italy in 1934, ahead of just the second World Cup. The winner would gain a place in the tournament; the loser would go home. Mexico assumed it would destroy those clumsy Americans and came ill-prepared. The US won 4-2, inciting 78 years of mutual disdain.

There’s a twist to Wednesday’s affair though. Since taking over from Bob Bradley, who was fired in the wake of the Rose Bowl debacle, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has essentially sought for his team to become more like Mexico.

The two countries have always had very distinct and disparate styles. Mexico relied on its savvy and technique, whereas the US built brawny teams that lumped balls forward and hoped their grittiness would save the day.

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Since Klinsmann’s first game in charge – a respectable 1-1 draw with Mexico in Philadelphia last August, incidentally – he has tried to reinvent his team as something that resembles El Tri much more than the Yanks of yore, in the hope of improving its chances at the 2014 World Cup. The former German striker favors high-ball pressure, movement and quick transitions after turnovers – all Mexican virtues. Mexico’s pro clubs, meanwhile, are venturing deep into southern US states to poach Mexican-American talent for their youth academies. The cross-pollination is palpable.

But Mexico has come into some real talent of late – 24-year-old Manchester United striker Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez is arguably already the best player ever produced in North America. Over the last two decades, the balance of power has shifted several times.

Mexico is now on the upswing, undefeated against the US for two and a half years, winning the last three games before the stalemate a year ago. On Saturday, Mexico’s under-23 national team (plus three overage players) won gold in the Olympic men’s soccer tournament, frustrating a loaded Brazil team to the point that two of its players, defenders Rafael and Juan, got in a shouting match.

In 60 contests, the US national team has never won on Mexican soil, let alone in its daunting stronghold, the Azteca, a bone-chillingly hostile cauldron of 104,000 irate Mexicans.

If this game counts for nothing officially, it only counts for everything to those playing it and to those watching on either side of the border.

Amy Lawrence is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who has been writing about the game since USA `94, covering the Premier League, Champions League, European leagues and international soccer.

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