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USA vs. Mexico – History of the Rivalry

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The US men’s national team plays its next World Cup qualifier Friday, taking on bitter border rival Mexico on November 12 at TQL Stadium, the new home of Cincinnati FC. On paper, this is a great rivalry. Border nations with plenty of overlap, often times competing for the same players. Off of the pitch, there were decades of battles between the two sides, culminating in the Mexican-American War in 1846.

It wasn’t much of a rivalry for decades on the soccer field; the US didn’t defeat El Tri between 1934 and 1980. The passion and investment for the Mexican national team and the national pastime have always been there. Prior to the 2009 World Cup qualifier in Mexico City, a local newspaper polled citizens asking if they felt the country’s national pride was at stake. Seventy-six percent said yes. The same could not be said for the US, which didn’t qualify for a World Cup between 1950 and 1990. By 1994, the Americans had just three victories in 31 matches against their southern neighbors.

Americans are obsessed with sports. Take all the sports we care about here, condense it into one, and you’d have soccer in Mexico.

However, after a soccer boom stateside thanks to hosting the 1994 World Cup, a new generation of players began to make their mark. The new millennium brought Landon Donovan and new life to the border rivalry. Soon enough, the game results were pretty much even with the US holding a 16-10-6 advantage over the last 20 years. Today, through six games played, the two nations sit on top of the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, with Mexico leading with 14 points while the US has 11 points.

The games between Mexico and the United States are some of the most heated on the soccer calendar. Who can forget Rafa Marquez’s harsh red card on Cobi Jones at the 2002 World Cup or Oguchi Onyewu’s wild-west staredown with Jared Borgetti in 2005? Off the field, the two national federations are fighting and recruiting players eligible to choose either side. The process begins in a player’s teenage years, and players have even moved back and forth between each country’s programs.

In the past three months, defender Julian Araujo and goalkeeper David Ochoa — both part of the US U-23 team that failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics — announced that they would play for Mexico.

Meanwhile FC Dallas forward Ricardo Pepi, born in El Paso to Mexican parents, committed his international future to the United States. He’s been an immediate impact, scoring three goals in his first four matches.

As we look forward to another classic in Cincinnati, here are five of the top moments of the rivalry’s recent history from an American perspective.


USA vs. Mexico - History of the Rivalry

#5 – 2001 – USA 2, Mexico 0

On the eve of the World Cup qualifier (in Ohio, nonetheless), its only proper that we include at least one WC qualifying classic from the past. We are going with the 2001 tilt that took place in chilly Columbus, Ohio, a game that helped generate some momentum into the 2002 World Cup, and gave berth to the legend of Crew Stadium.

The US’s top scorer and local soccer hero Brian McBride, was knocked out of the game early and replaced by 24 year old Josh Wolff, who would play the game of his life. After a scoreless first half, US standout Clint Mathis found a darting Wolff right up the middle of the field. Wolff would win the footrace, outlast the Mexico goalie who came up to play the ball, and gently tap in the ball into the wide open net. 30 minutes later, as streamer tape was strewn throughout the field, Wolff would make a nifty move to find veteran Earnie Stewart who buried a shot to make it 2-0 in the 87th minute. The crowd that committed to braving temperatures in the 20s went absolutely insane.

The final score of 2-0 started an incredible run of identical 2-0 scores in the series, as well as a feel of invincibility in games played in Columbus. The 2-0 score is not just grasping on to a nostalgic moment by fans, but is actually a complete statistical anomaly. Typically a home team wins 2-0 roughly 10% of the time. Over the last few decades, the U.S. has done this seven times. Even more compelling is the fact that the USMNT registered a Dos a Cero in four consecutive home World Cup qualifiers for the 2002 to 2014 World Cup tournaments. All of them in Columbus, Ohio. In all fairness, however, that the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City is to the US squad as Columbus is to El Tri.

This 2001 match was the US’s first win over Mexico in a World Cup qualifying game in 21 years, and only the second ever up until that point.


USA vs. Mexico - History of the Rivalry

#4 – 2007 – USA 2, Mexico 1

This game in Chicago provided a much needed spark for a national team fresh off a disappointing 2006 World Cup. The US needed the title to help wash the stink off of the Germany disaster, and Mexico was desperate to knock off the team who had been 9-2-1 in the last 12 games in the rivalry. In front of a packed Soldier Field, the pitch was defined by a series of near misses and perhaps the most outstanding goal in the entire series.

Both goalies were outstanding throughout the game, making clutch save after clutch save. Mexico struck first right before halftime to take a 1-0 lead. The US had some amazing chances early in the second half that were not able to break the goal line, but a penalty kick in the 61st minute game Landon Donovan a chance to tie things up. As El Tri’s goalie Sanchez bounced around pumping himself up, Donovan calmly converted the PK to make it 1-1.

Just ten minutes later a US corner kick was headed back out towards midfield and Benny Feilhaber one timed a volley to the left corner to score the goal of his life. It turned out to be the game winner giving the US the 2007 Gold Cup.


#3 – 2011 – USA 2, Mexico 4

Much like the game this past July, this one was a roller coaster, and eventually had major impact off the field. The US played host to the 2011 Gold Cup tournament, with the finals taking place at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

The USMNT came out on a mission. In the 8th minute captain Michael Bradley buried a Freddie Adu corner kick to make it 1-0. Twelve minutes later, US forward Clint Dempsey placed a perfect touch pass to El Tri nemesis Landon Donovan who buried a left footed boot to make it 2-0. From there, it was all Mexico, who tied the game within 15 minutes. They eventually scored four unanswered goals and a 4-2 victory.

The dismantling on the field led to a dismantling off the field, as then coach Bob Bradley was soon replaced by Jurgen Klinsmann.


USA vs. Mexico - History of the Rivalry

#2 – 2021 – USA 3, Mexico 2

We promise this game is not due to recency bias, and anybody who watched the game live can attest to it being an instant classic. The newly formed Concacaf Nations League title produced an absolute all timer full of gripping drama that bordered on absurd at times.

Featuring a highly touted youth movement, the USMNT overcame a goal in the first minute, two deficits and a handful of injuries (including goalie Zach Steffen) to win 3-2 in extra time. While that reads simple enough, the final 20 minutes of the game was the Wild West.

After Mexico took a 2-1 lead in the 79th minute, it looked like that might be it for the US. Just three minutes later, US’s Weston McKinnie found the ball on a corner kick that snuck just inside the near side post to tie the game 2-2. The next 10 minutes heavily favored El Tri, but back up goalie Ethan Horvath made two brialliant saves to send the game to extra time.

Mexico picked up right where they left off, attacked the US with shot after shot to no avail. In the 108th minute, US captain Chrisian Pulisic fell trying to split two defenders which initially was not called. After a tense video review, the referee came out to dramatically issue Pulisic a penalty shot to much protest by the Mexico side. The shot was buried in the upper right corner and the US took their first lead of the game at 3-2. During the celebration, bottles and debris littered the field, including one that nailed US standout Claudio Reyna.

The drama didn’t end there, as Mexico was also awarded a penalty kick due to a hand ball with literally no time left on the clock. The kick was taken by the most veteran player on the field, Andres Guardado. But it was once again the US back up goalie who saved the day, diving to his right and punching the ball away.

It will be quite some time to see if there are any lasting effects from this specific game, but it was certainly a coming of age experience for a young and inexperienced US team.


USA vs. Mexico - History of the Rivalry

#1 – 2002 – USA 2, Mexico 0

The Summer of 2002, without a doubt, served as the berth of a generation of World Cup fans in the United States. Part of the love came from a once in a generation perfect storm where two border rivals met with the opportunity to crush the others’ dreams.

US coach Bruce Arena was very familiar with the Mexico style of play and line up configuration. Before the game, he moved team captain Claudio Reyna to a new position hoping to spark a series of mismatches. The strategy paid off immediately after Reyna led a run that eventually found its way onto the foot of Brian McBride and into the back on the next in just the 8th minute. “The goal really unsettled Mexico,” Reyna recalls. “We punched them early and it really stung them and it frustrated them.”

The next 30 minutes turned into the Brad Freidel show, as the US goal keeper made incredible save after save to frustrate El Tri. By the time Landon Donovan’s head buried the second US goal at the 65th minute, Mexico had come completely unglued. Mexico’s Hernandez, Blanco, Alberto Garcia Aspe and Salvador Carmona all went into the book in the next 20 minutes. US veteran Cobi Jones, who was brought off the bench to help the U.S. defend the lead, then became a target for Rafael Marquez, who drew a red card. At the final whistle, the US had won 2-0 and clinched a spot in the quarterfinals, while unexpectedly confirming the now infamous moniker “dos y cero.”

“It was more than a World Cup match,” Jones says. “This was personal. This is the one time we’ve played our biggest rival when everything was on the line. And we won.”


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