USA vs. Mexico reaches its boiling point

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

The soccer rivalry between the United States and Mexico began, appropriately enough, in a breeding ground for conflict.

The teams first met in 1934 in a World Cup qualifying match in Italy, then in the grip of Mussolini's dictatorial control and half a decade shy of the ravages of World War II, with an unfancied U.S. side pulling off a shocking 4-2 victory.

Giovani Dos Santos and Gerardo Torrado
Giovani Dos Santos and Gerardo Torrado

The Gold Cup final boosted the confidence of Giovani Dos Santos (left) and Mexico.

(Mel Evans/AP Photo)

Seventy-five years and 56 matches later, the intensity and hostility between the leading lights of the CONCACAF region have never been at a higher level.

This rivalry has been on a slow burn, primarily due to the USA failing to regularly field a competitive team for more than 50 years after that first clash. But the teams' next encounter may resemble the boiling point.

Wednesday's World Cup qualifier at Mexico City's Estadio Azteca comes just 2½ weeks after the Mexicans' 5-0 trouncing of the U.S. in the Gold Cup final. The defeat wasn't all that surprising for the Americans, who were without all of their European-based regulars. What was shocking was the manner in which Bob Bradley's B team was torn apart in a second-half onslaught that allowed Mexico to celebrate its first victory over the USA in 10 years. The fact that El Tri was allowed to throw this party on U.S. soil didn't go over well, either.

To reestablish their dominance in CONCACAF, the Americans must now venture into enemy territory and do something they have never done in 23 previous visits to Mexico: beat El Tri in Mexico. The growing sense of payback within the U.S. Soccer community places more pressure on Bradley and his men.

"While that result [in the Gold Cup final] was very, very disappointing and painful, we get a chance for redemption very quickly," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said. "That's something you don't normally get."

South of the border, tension is high as a nation hopes the seething cauldron that is the Azteca will be enough to blast away the memories of Mexico's dismal World Cup qualifying form. Currently fourth in CONCACAF's six-team qualifying, the Mexicans are in real danger of missing out on the World Cup finals in South Africa next year.

Some verbal jousting between the camps has already begun, but there is one topic on which they are united: This rivalry has never been bigger, or more significant, than it is now.

The comments of Mexico coach Javier Aguirre this week that "the rivalry heats up" was a significant shift from the past, when Mexico would derisively dismiss the USA and claim South American opponents such as Argentina and Brazil were its real regional rivals.

"The most important thing with this game will be to get three points to take us closer to the World Cup," Aguirre said. "But it would be naïve to suggest that these games do not have an extra feeling.

"Mexico and the United States play often and they are always games with a lot of feeling. This will be no different."

There are plenty of personal differences between players on each side, with several incidents in recent years raising the ire. U.S. supporters hark back to Rafael Marquez's brutal and unnecessary challenge on Cobi Jones towards the end of the USA's 2-0 victory in the 2002 World Cup second round as the moment relations really turned sour. Mexico fans point to Landon Donovan's impromptu toilet break at Estadio Jalisco as the most blatant sign of disrespect to El Tri.

Even as things stand, Mexico is far from assured of finishing in the top three in CONCACAF's final qualifying and earning an automatic berth to South Africa. A fourth-place finish would bring a very tough playoff against a South American team and a genuine threat of elimination. Failing to reach the finals would be a disaster of unimaginable proportions.

For the USA, a spot in the finals should be all but secure barring a huge meltdown. But there are scores to settle, a reputation to uphold, and a recent embarrassment to expunge as it heads into enemy territory.

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