PASADENA, Calif. – Soccer’s greatest rivalries play out on the club stage, at Barcelona’s Camp Nou and Madrid’s Bernabeu, at Glasgow’s Celtic Park, Buenos Aires’ La Bombonera and Milan’s San Siro. They are fueled by tribal lore, geography and seasonal engagement — fervid rituals flowing across generations.
The hysteria meter for scrums between countries falls, in most cases, a notch below, doused by infrequent encounters. Still, the fire is rekindled when, for instance, Brazil plays Argentina, Germany and Netherlands tangle and England faces Scotland.
Another rich feud belongs on the short list: United States vs. Mexico.
You know you’ve entered the top rung of planetary rivalries when a losing player tells the president of the country, as Mexico’s Cuauhtemoc Blanco did in 2002, that defeat felt as though he had been “impaled on the spines of a cactus.”
The nations will lock horns for the 65th time Saturday for the CONCACAF Cup before some 90,000 witnesses at the Rose Bowl. While most meetings have come in friendlies or as part of drawn-out qualifying schedules, the latest showdown offers an instant prize: a berth in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia, which will provide stern tests and invaluable acclimation a year ahead of the World Cup.
Moreover, the champion will claim bragging rights in a series that has swung back and forth the past 25 years after decades of Mexican dominance.
“The tension, the passion, from both sets of supporters and players,” U.S. striker Jozy Altidore said. “It just goes so far back, the game means so much more each time it’s played. I think this will be one of the biggest ones to date.”
The biggest ones were in the 2002 World Cup’s round of 16 in South Korea (a U.S. victory), five Gold Cup finals (Mexico won all but one), the 1995 Copa America quarterfinals (U.S.) and 1999 Confederations Cup semifinals (Mexico).
A match against Mexico will “stay with you for the rest of your life,” said Jurgen Klinsmann, who is 3-0-3 in the series since accepting the U.S. coaching position in the summer of 2011. “They can be excited about it and always look back and say, ‘I was there that special day.’ ”
The rivalry has blossomed for several reasons:
Regional bullies: The United States and Mexico have claimed 12 of 13 Gold Cup titles – Canada was the anomaly in 2000 – and have made dual World Cup appearances since 1994. When the best collide, the temperature rises.
Narrowing the gap: For decades, the Americans were laps behind. It’s not a true rivalry if one team wins all the time. The balancing of the scales has raised the profile of every match.
Scheduling: While Europe’s vast field of teams keeps contenders apart in qualifying groups for the World Cup and European Championship, the Americans and Mexicans are bound to face one another twice in every World Cup qualifying cycle. They also meet regularly in the Gold Cup and face one another in hot-ticket friendlies almost annually.
Demographics: More than 10 percent of the U.S. population is of Mexican descent. Many have retained their passion for soccer and, more specifically, for Mexican clubs and the national team. For financial reasons, Mexico plays more friendlies in the United States than in Mexico. This year, seven of 10 have taken place north of the border.
When Mexico faces the United States at large U.S. venues, El Tri enjoys the majority of support. To create a true home-field advantage in World Cup qualifiers, the U.S. Soccer Federation has resorted since 2001 to selecting a small stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Smaller capacity allows greater control of ticket distribution through U.S. and MLS fan groups.
The result has been four predominant U.S. crowds and four 2-0 victories – “Dos a Cero,” a catchphrase that has defined the rivalry of late and, this summer, prompted the U.S. Soccer Federation to seek a trademark.
Saturday’s match, featuring the past two Gold Cup champions, is under CONCACAF’s jurisdiction, not the USSF’s. So to generate millions in ticket revenue and create a pulsating environment, CONCACAF chose the Rose Bowl.
In Southern California, the bastion of Mexican support, the U.S. team is not the “home” team. To counteract that, CONCACAF allotted about 25,000 tickets to each federation, held a lottery for another portion of seats and opened the rest to public sale. The breakdown will still favor Mexico, but not to the lopsided proportion of past meetings in Southern California.
No other rivalry in the world comes close to matching the unique diversity of a U.S.-Mexico crowd in the United States.
Common ground: Several U.S. players are Mexican American, play professionally for Mexican clubs and chose to represent the United States. The only U.S. victory at Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium (2012) came on a goal by California-born Michael Orozco, the son of Mexican immigrants.
Some Mexican players have U.S. roots or have competed in MLS. Competition for players eligible for both countries has ramped up.
When Joe Corona, a U.S. midfielder with Mexican-American heritage, played for Tijuana, he commuted to work from San Diego.
Mentality: Beyond soccer, the United States casts a large shadow over the hemisphere. Soccer, though, was something Mexico always did better. That has changed. The sport means more to Mexico than to the United States and is a source of national pride. Losing regularly to the United States is a blow to the Mexican psyche.
Hostilities: With the teams on level terms, animosity has grown. The most notorious act came in 2002, when Mexico’s Rafael Marquez was red-carded — and subsequently suspended four games by FIFA — for driving his head into the side of Cobi Jones’s skull.
Seven years later, Marquez was dismissed for a studs-up challenge on goalkeeper Tim Howard during a World Cup qualifier. Afterward, a Mexican assistant coach slapped U.S. player Frankie Hejduk in the face.
Nasty tackles, groin kicks, scuffles, confrontations and face-to-face stare-downs have become commonplace in these matches.
“You sense [the intensity] on the field and off the field – it’s everywhere,” said U.S. forward Clint Dempsey, who grew up in ethnically diverse east Texas. “Playing pickup with your friends, we were always talking trash in high school. It was USA versus Mexico or the rest of the world. It was always about bragging rights.”
As for the next chapter …
“This is a one-off game,” U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said. “The way it has come together, the way it has been built up, it has the potential to be one of the biggest U.S.-Mexico games in a long, long time.”
Who: United States vs. Mexico.
Where: Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
When: Saturday at 9:30 p.m. ET.
TV: Fox Sports 1, Univision, Univision Deportes.
Live streams: Fox Sports Go, univisiondeportes.com
All-time series: Mexico leads, 32-18-14.
Previous 10 meetings
April 2015: 2-0, U.S. (San Antonio)
April 2014: 2-2 (Glendale, Ariz.)
September 2013: 2-0, U.S. (Columbus, Ohio)
March 2013: 0-0 (Mexico City)
August 2012: 1-0, U.S. (Mexico City)
August 2011: 1-1 (Philadelphia)
June 2011: 4-2, Mexico (Pasadena, Calif.)
August 2009: 2-1, Mexico (Mexico City)
June 2009: 5-0, Mexico (East Rutherford, N.J.)
February 2009: 2-0, U.S. (Columbus, Ohio)
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake).
Defenders: Ventura Alvarado (Club America), DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting KC), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Fabian Johnson (Moenchengladbach), Michael Orozco (Tijuana), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jonathan Spector (Birmingham City).
Midfielders: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (New England Revolution), Danny Williams (Reading), DeAndre Yedlin (Sunderland), Graham Zusi (Sporting KC).
Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Gyasi Zardes (L.A. Galaxy).
Goalkeepers: Moises Munoz (Club America), Alfredo Talavera (Toluca), Jonathan Orozco (Monterrey).
Defenders: Paul Aguilar (Club America), Diego Reyes (Real Sociedad), Rafael Marquez (Hellas Verona), Hector Moreno (PSV Eindhoven), Miguel Layun (Porto), Hector Herrera (Porto), Arturo Rivas (Tigres), Jorge Torres Nilo (Tigres).
Midfielders: Israel Jimenez (Tigres), Andres Guardado (PSV Eindhoven), Javier Guemez (Club America), Elias Hernandez (Leon), Javier Aquino (Tigres), Jonathan Dos Santos (Villarreal).
Forwards: Oribe Peralta (Club America), Raul Jimenez (Benfica), Carlos Vela (Real Sociedad), Carlos Esquivel (Toluca), Jesus Corona (Porto), Javier Hernandez (Bayer Leverkusen).