There is no substitution of emotion when playing in a rivalry match or un clásico. The sense of pride for the players, the passion of the fans, the buzz around the city and amplified attention from the media just hit different. Everything surrounding that one match is heightened in every aspect.
I’ve played in some great rivalry matches throughout my career, Rangers vs. Celtic, the Manchester Derby and, of course, USA vs. Mexico. And let me tell you, there is nothing like playing for your country against your biggest rival. Ask anyone from Argentina and Brazil, or Egypt and Algeria, they would tell you the same: it’s just a different feeling than in a club environment.
I think the USA vs. Mexico rivalry is unique in its own right because the matches are not just in World Cup Qualifying or tournament play. We played Mexico at least one or two times more in friendlies throughout each year. All in all, the USMNT has played against Mexico 73 times and every single match was a battle. I’ll be honest, over the last few years I felt this rivalry had lost its bite, but I was re-energized with the USA’s performance in the Nations League.
An unforgettable 2002
There are so many memories I can go back to from that rivalry. I vividly remember the 2005 World Cup Qualifier in Columbus (Dos a cero!), and the 2002 FIFA World Cup Round of 16 match being more than a football match. That one was a straight street fight! Every player on both sides left a bit extra when going into tackles.
My fondest memory playing against Mexico will always be that game in 2002. To be able to beat them at the highest level of our sport was truly incredible. After that match, I remember getting on the bus and both buses were parked right next to each other… I still don’t know how that happened. Our veterans Cobi Jones, Earnie Stewart and Frankie Hedjuk led us in chants, songs and we were banging on the windows. Mexico hadn’t gotten on the bus yet, but we were already celebrating and running through the aisles of the bus. And while we rode by their bus, it wasn’t pretty. Basically, they gave us the finger, but we didn’t care. We had just beat our biggest rival in the World Cup to move on to the quarterfinal.
Behind enemy lines
I was in a unique situation when I played for Puebla. Playing against Mexico when you don’t live in Mexico is one thing but living in Mexico and playing against them is another. In a way, I felt more pressure to win because I was living there. I always wanted to come back to Puebla for training the next day with bragging rights with my teammates.
I never lost against Mexico when I played for Puebla in Liga MX, and I might have had some extra motivation. There was some inside “betting” going on with my teammates Jimmy (Jaime Durán) and Flaco (Roberto Juarez). I remember one being that if we had lost to Mexico, I had to come to training wearing a Mexican National Team jersey… Yeah, that was definitely not happening!
Playing at Azteca
I will say this though: Playing in Mexico City at the historic Azteca stadium is a different beast. We always went into the match with a great game plan, but it hardly ever worked. The motivation to be the first USMNT to beat Mexico in Azteca in a qualifier or a match of meaning was always there. We did win a friendly 1-0 in 2012.
Fast forward to 2022, I honestly believe we have a squad that can do the unthinkable: Win in Azteca! This group will take its lumps and disappointments, but they have zero fear. Some players will be playing there for the first time, so they will need to be brave and weather the storm at times, but they all know the importance of getting points in Azteca and qualifying for the World Cup.
The matches in qualifying are never easy, home or away. These next three games for the USMNT are crucial. Most of the time it comes down to the last few matches and this year is no different. This window will be the toughest three matches the US team will face. We have never won in Costa Rica or Mexico, in qualifying, and Panama is a tricky opponent who also has a chance to disrupt the final standings.
While I cannot predict the future, I think the US team will do enough as, quite frankly, I believe they have enough quality to qualify for the Qatar 2022 World Cup. It is important for them, for us as fans and for the continued growth of soccer in this country.