With all of its imbalances, intangibles and contrasting styles, CONCACAF is perhaps the strangest of all world soccer's regional federations.
Mexico's 5-0 thrashing of an under-strength United States in the Gold Cup final on Sunday throws another element into the muddied mixture that forms the battle for bragging rights in this part of the globe.
South of the border, the result was greeted with predictable glee. It ended a 10-year wait between road victories over the U.S. as Mexico recaptured the Gold Cup trophy for the first time since 2003.
It mattered little to the Mexican public that the hosts were playing what was effectively a third-string team at Giants Stadium last weekend. The result, and its resounding nature, was taken as a portent of better things to come for a nation that has so often lamented the recent difficulties experienced by El Tri.
In pure soccer terms, though, little has been proven by Mexico's triumph.
It showed that Mexico has significantly greater strength in depth, highlighted by its ability to bring on the lightning-fast Carlos Vela at halftime. Vela, who plays for Arsenal in the English Premier League, turned the game on its head with the USA's squad of largely MLS-based hopefuls running out of gas in the second half.
Yet that fact was known beforehand. Mexico's depth of talent has rarely been called into question; the problem has been how to blend it into a cohesive unit.
The real effect of Sunday's result is in the way that it sets the scene for the World Cup qualifier between the U.S. and Mexico at Mexico City's Estadio Azteca on Aug. 12. That game will be the biggest either team will play ahead of the World Cup finals in South Africa next summer.
Mexico desperately needs to maintain its dominant record against the USA on home soil in order to move up from fourth place in the six-team CONCACAF qualifying tournament. The top three teams progress, while the fourth enters a playoff against a South American squad.
The U.S.'s qualifying effort is in far less peril, but Bob Bradley's team wants to continue the momentum from its run to the Confederation Cup final in June and show it has the potential to make some waves at the World Cup.
And while Bradley will employ an entirely different lineup than the one that took the field in the Gold Cup, it would be naïve to suggest the USA's loss will not have any bearing. The first-choice U.S. squad will not have enjoyed sitting by their television screens and seeing the Mexicans, by far their biggest and most bitter rivals in the region, celebrating joyously at the Meadowlands.
Of more concern to Bradley and his troops is that Mexico could finally be starting to feel positive about itself following a depressing period of uncertainty and underperformance.
Mexican players, fans and the media alike have been talking the talk, and the verbal jousting will continue all the way up to the game that really matters. These two teams don't like each other much anyway, and emotions should be running high when they take the field in just over a fortnight.
The USA believes it is the best team in CONCACAF, having disposed of Mexico 2-0 in Columbus, Ohio, earlier this year, but there is history to overcome in the heat and altitude of Mexico City, where no American team has ever tasted victory in a meaningful game. Bradley and his men have the chance to show it is the region's real king by going into the lions' den and emerging with the result that would put the Mexicans in real danger of failing to qualify.
In this rivalry and its growing history, every game matters – even those like the Gold Cup final played with drastically weakened lineups. Yet no game will matter more than this upcoming World Cup qualifier. It'll be up to the U.S.'s first team to ensure that last weekend was a blip, not a tuning out.
- Mexico City