GUADALAJARA, Mexico – There is perhaps nobody who knows the ins and outs, ebbs and flows and the intricacies of the USA-Mexico soccer rivalry better than Bora Milutinovic.
The Serbian coach accumulated a combined total of 200 games at the helm of both North American powerhouses, and coached both teams they last time they respectively hosted the FIFA World Cup: Mexico in 1986 and the United States in 1994. He remains a staunch supporter and keen follower of the game in both countries.
But with next week’s match between the old rivals at the Estadio Azteca just around the corner, the 67-year-old has no hesitation in saying that the tide has turned in favor of El Tri.
“The advantage right now is with Mexico,” the longtime Mexico City and now Qatar resident told MLSsoccer.com by phone on Wednesday, while on a visit to Southern California. “I can’t say anything else: There is a lot of talent now in Mexican soccer.”
That will not come as a surprise to US soccer fans, who have witnessed Mexico’s rise to prominence in youth soccer, the Gold Cup triumph last year and a renewed sense of confidence that could build to a crescendo with an Olympic gold on Saturday against Brazil at Wembley.
In other words, the renewal of the US-Mexico soccer rivalry on Aug. 15 comes at a time when Mexican soccer is on its biggest high in decades and probably of all-time if the Olympic team returns across the Atlantic with a gold medal.
On the other side of the coin, the changes going on in the US national team mean it is in a state of restructuring. Naturally, flaws still need to be ironed out, and the “friendly” in the Azteca will be part of that process for Jurgen Klinsmann’s team, says Milutinovic.
“Each coach is going to use the game for what they need,” he said, “although we have to be aware that this rivalry isn’t the same as seven or eight years ago when the United States dominated.”
The world-wise Milutinovic sees the USA-Mexico rivalry as a shifting paradigm, which next week’s game is unlikely to change, even if it does bring the US that first-ever win on Mexican soil.
“In 1991, Mexico lost its supremacy in comparison with the United States national team and that lasted until 2010,” he said. “Times change. I’ve been lucky to be the coach of Mexico in the 1986 World Cup and of the United States in the time between 1991 and 1995.”
Milutinovic pinpoints the moment the United States got a foothold over Mexico to the semifinal of the 1991 Gold Cup, when Manuel Lapuente’s side went down 2-0 to its northern neighbors, ably guided by Milutinovic himself.
“I couldn’t have imagined that with that game, history changed and ... I would be part of that history that started the superiority of the United States,” Milutinovic gushed.
Before 1991, the United States had only defeated Mexico twice, but since then the rivalry has gone in favor of the Americans, with 13 victories compared to El Tri’s 10, with nine ties.
In the last four encounters, however, Mexico have won three and drawn one.
When pressed on whether he believes Klinsmann’s new structure and tactics can turn the recent poor results against Mexico around, the man who has coached eight different national teams prefers to take a diplomatic stance, but stressed that the quality of the players at the coach’s disposal is key, regardless of the tactical system.
“The trainer has to find the formula to obtain the right result,” Bora said. “I have sympathy for all the national teams I’ve worked for and I don’t like to give opinions about individual coaches, I just give them respect.”
One major advantage Klinsmann does have, according to Milutinovic, is that MLS is generating players for the national team and boosting soccer culture within the States.
“I’ve seen it recently in the Home Depot Center,” said the veteran of five World Cups, with five different teams. “The atmosphere in the stadiums is incredible. It shows that every day there is more passion for soccer and it makes me happy.”
Milutinovic is clearly proud of his four-year tenure with the USMNT, when players like Cobi Jones, Marcelo Balboa, Claudio Reyna, Alexi Lalas, Brian McBride and Brad Freidel all debuted, and especially of the famous results achieved without a professional domestic league.
“Imagine the results we got without having the league!” laughed Milutinovic. “That tells you about the talent of the players at that time.”
One feat neither Milutinovic nor any other US coach has managed is a victory in the Estadio Azteca. Although the US have come close – most recently in World Cup qualifying three summers ago – the old 105,000-capacity Coloso de Santa Úrsula remains a place of misery for American fans.
The reasons aren’t hard to fathom for Milutinovic
“There are few stadiums in the world where the home team has such an advantage,” he said. “First there is the quality [of Mexico], then the crowd, then the altitude and also the climate. Mexico is almost unbeatable.”
Klinsmann’s men have to believe otherwise come next week, and the German legend will hope to make a real statement of intent with a famous victory.
Looking further ahead to qualifying for Brazil 2014, “miracle worker” Milutinovic is confident that the United States will have a good campaign. He speaks gushingly about the talents of Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, in particular.
“Notwithstanding the advantage that Mexico has in this moment, the United States remains a very important team in this area,” he added, “if not the dominant one that people in the United States would like.”
Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.