As the USMNT-Mexico rivalry reignites, an era also ends

CINCINNATI — The folklore deepens twice every four years, every time days like Friday near. The U.S. men's national team and Mexico will meet here, at 9:10 p.m. ET, in Middle America. Before they do, stories will fly. Stories of invective and beverages hurled onto fields. Of scuffles and sh*thousery and legitimate violence in the middle of them. Of frostbite and sickening altitude, of controversy, of mind games and memorable games. Of legends.

Every time this rivalry reignites, the past resurfaces to fuel it. Players might not know it, but they feel it. They expect something akin to soccer war. Because there is a prevailing sense, as one journalist put it here on Tuesday, que hay algo más en juego. That there is something more at stake than merely three points, something more than even a big step toward World Cup qualification.

But the lore, the passion and the feuds? They were built on those foundational stakes, on games that defined qualifying cycles, that carried consequences.

And those stakes? They could soon disappear forever.

USMNT-Mexico stakes might soon be drained

The rivalry, of course, will endure as long as international soccer does. New generations of players, with unique backstories and ambitions, will learn to respect but dislike each other — just as their predecessors did. As neighbors and equals, the USMNT and El Tri will collide in regional tournaments. Their federations will organize friendlies that aren’t always friendly. “And when you have two teams like this going at each other, there's always going to be heat,” U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter said.

But qualifiers have always been the pinnacle. Fans travel to Ohio from 49 states and multiple foreign countries. And as they boarded flights on Thursday singing songs, one even grabbing a microphone and leading a U.S. chant over an airplane intercom, they didn’t know when or if they’d get to make this pilgrimage again.

Because the World Cup, and the route to it, are changing.

USMNT-Mexico games will always be intense, like June's Nations League final was. But the marquee meetings in World Cup qualifying are about to lose something. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)
USMNT-Mexico games will always be intense, like June's Nations League final was. But the marquee meetings in World Cup qualifying are about to lose something. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)

The U.S. and Mexico, along with Canada, will host the 2026 edition, and therefore will qualify automatically for it. By the time 2030 rolls around, the international soccer landscape will have evolved. Soccer power brokers have discussed everything from biennial World Cups to novel tournaments in the four-year interim. Increasingly crowded calendars could force CONCACAF, North and Central America’s soccer governing body, to streamline its qualification process, and perhaps split the U.S. and Mexico into separate groups.

At the very least, World Cup expansion will necessitate a new format. CONCACAF will send six or more nations to the 48-team extravaganzas beginning in 2026. Even if the U.S. and Mexico meet in a bloated final qualifying round, tension and drama will fizzle because the gap between them and their regional foes is growing. Resource imbalances are self-reinforcing. CONCACAF is increasingly top-heavy. Both rivals, no matter the results of games between them, will very likely qualify for every 48-team World Cup.

And gradually, the foundation on which the rivalry was built will decay.

What will survive about USMNT-Mexico

Berhalter, who has now experienced U.S.-Mexico as both player and coach, has been asked whether all these changes will change the rivalry itself. “And I don't think it will,” he said Thursday. “We may not be able to play qualifiers of this magnitude, World Cup qualifiers, but we'll see them down the road in a lot of meaningful games. The rivalry's always going to be intense.”

And he’s right. The folklore will survive. The whole concept of algo más is that the material stakes, in the moment, aren’t the only thing that matters.

But they’ve made the rivalry. They’re the reason the folklore exists, the reason this game gets marked on calendars, the reason the past resurfaces. Only one U.S.-Mexico qualifier in the 21st century has felt relatively inconsequential. The results have contributed to near-failures and failures, to firings and firestorms. There are ramifications, so there is reckless enthusiasm and zeal.

There will be on Friday here in Cincinnati. There likely will be in March at the Estadio Azteca. That much is clear. What’s unclear is the future. Friday’s game could be the last of its kind. And March 24, in Mexico City, could be the end of an era.