Most every time Mexico were mentioned during their two-week camp ahead of Thursday night’s Concacaf Nations League semifinal (10 pm ET | Paramount+, Univision), members of the US men’s national team have engaged in a balancing act: Affirm their commitment to victory in this fierce, decades-old rivalry without saying anything that could be construed as disrespect or bulletin-board material for their opponents.
“I can only reiterate that we have great respect for Mexico,” repeated interim head coach B.J. Callaghan in his matchday-1 press conference at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas Wednesday night, one of three times he used that R word.
“We had the opportunity to play against them in April, and we were very, very impressed with some of the new things that they're trying, some of the style. We're aware that from a competitive and an aggressive standpoint, we can expect them to play with high intensity; they have great individual players that can make plays.”
Perhaps the sole exception to this approach came last week, when Ricardo Pepi was asked about the state of a clasico he knows as well as anyone, as a Mexican-American dual national who grew up in an El Tri-supporting household along the border in the El Paso (Texas) region, played for both countries’ youth national teams and was heavily recruited years by both programs.
“We have quality in the team,” said the FC Dallas product in Spanish. “Obviously Mexico is a strong rival, but we have the quality to go out on the pitch and show our best. We are more aggressive, we have more quality and I think that’s the most important thing.”
It didn’t seem like particularly spicy stuff considering the passion and history around this matchup, which this time involves not just pride but a shot at a trophy, with the winner facing either Panama or Canada in Sunday’s CNL final.
Evoking the concept of “quality” seems to have raised at least a few pulses in Mexico, though, or at least given journalists some headline fodder. Several of Pepi’s teammates were subsequently asked about his words.
“Is that what he said, yeah?” responded Antonee “Jedi” Robinson earlier this week, a wry smile flickering across his face. “Go on, Pepi!”
Then the Fulham fullback sought to shift towards a less emotional framing.
“The pressure, it's not specifically that we've got to be better than Mexico per se,” said Robinson, who suggested that a semifinal faceoff carries a different feeling than their usual meetings in Gold Cup or CNL finals. “Obviously we want to [be] on the day. Every team we go out to play, the goal is just to win. But they're just the team at the moment standing in the way of us getting to a final and winning another trophy.
“So on the day, we're going to have to try our best to be better than them. But if we don't perform to the standards we have, it’s a knockout tournament, we've got to find a way to win, dig in, and sometimes it has to be like that.”
He admitted that US-Mexico clashes are different from other fixtures, and probably always will be.
“From the times that I've played against them, obviously every game has pretty much been a fight first. It's kind of trying to win the battle and then the football comes through,” said Robinson. “We have to figure out ways to get through them and then if that's not working, be able to go to plan B, be adjustable. Most importantly, we've got talented boys on the team – play with freedom, and let them try and hurt the other team.”
Even as the USMNT seek a middle ground between intensity and composure, they fully recognize the context. They’re currently on a five-game (3W-0L-2D) unbeaten run against El Tri, the second-longest such streak in program history and one that includes two cup finals and both World Cup qualifying meetings in the 2022 cycle.
That has ratcheted up the pressure on Mexico manager Diego Cocca just five matches into his tenure, none of which have been losses.
“We're not naive. We know that they're coming out for blood, that they're expecting themselves to win the game,” said USMNT and Nashville SC defender Walker Zimmerman last Wednesday. “But we certainly have to trust that what we've been doing has been successful and we know that that's going to take a lot of energy and an extreme amount of trust in the other players around you to put in the work for 90 minutes.”
Zimmerman traced the Yanks’ current run of success back to one of the lowest points of Gregg Berhalter’s tenure, a humbling friendly loss to El Tri at Metlife Stadium in northern New Jersey on Sept. 6, 2019, statistically their worst Mexico loss of the past decade or more.
It was the second of two losses to them that summer, the other a 1-0 setback in the Gold Cup final. And with Berhalter stubbornly insistent on playing out of the back in the face of Tata Martino’s withering high press and quick transitions, criticism of the first-year USMNT boss was intense.
“I remember we didn't have a great game in New York, where they had the ball a lot, and were moving us around. We end up losing at home 3-0,” recalled Zimmerman. “I think since that game, things changed. We decided to take more risks, have a little bit more confidence. And we certainly saw in World Cup qualifying that we were able to create chances, both home and away.
“I think that's a sign of progress. It's a process, but we're showing that we're taking strides and attacking these games. So I definitely think that the past couple of games against Mexico have been a little bit more different in terms of that ball retention and being able to create more dangerous chances.”
There’s a zero-sum quality to many of the world’s most intense rivalries, a sense that one side prospering inevitably means the other is suffering. This time there’s hardware on the line. The USMNT’s awkward state of transition under their second interim coach of the year, while to some a weakness, also means that Mexico’s failure to beat them yet again would be even more harshly criticized.
It all points to a high-tempo match in a feverish atmosphere at Allegiant, an NFL venue with a narrower pitch that could dial up the pace another notch.
“The times that I've played Mexico, I mean, the games are just different, you know?” said US attacker Brenden Aaronson. “The speed’s different, the way that we play, it's just tough games, always. So I don't think that Mexico is on the downswing at all.”