IRVINE, Calif. – Squinting under the sheer, fiery force of 98 degrees of blazing, cloudless heat at UC Irvine, Clint Dempsey considered his lifetime of preparation for Saturday’s CONCACAF Cup match against Mexico.
A marquee’s worth of star US national teammates – Rimando! Beckerman! Howard! Jones! – hip-thrusted and downward-dogged on the field behind him, where they entered their third day of the week’s training. But as Dempsey told it, he’d been steeping himself in the intensity of the US-Mexico rivalry since his childhood in Nacogdoches, Texas.
“I played with a lot of kids from Mexico who went to my high school,” he recalled. “You’re playing pickup with your friends … always talking trash in high school. We’d play ‘US vs. Mexico’ then, and it was always about bragging rights.”
And Dempsey, laser-focused and serious as the media scrum around him melted in the heat, said he was prepared for a physically intense experience on the field.
“It’s always been physical,” he said.
His USMNT teammate, Gyasi Zardes, his signature bleached hair stripe shaved level with the rest of his head, echoed that sentiment nearby. He noted, in particular, that the team’s been studying tapes of the 2002 World Cup game between the two countries (Check out MLSsoccer.com’s oral history of that game). Zardes said he expected that match, famous for its fouls and cards, to inform the one this weekend.
“I feel like from those matches you can sense the battle on the field, the heart from all the American players playing against Mexico. This rivalry is tense; it’s over a decade long,” he said. “I feel like it’s gonna be a chippy match as well. The atmosphere will display that.”
But Dempsey said he thought past years’ controversial referee calls between the two countries are a thing of the past.
“If you look back in time, they let more stuff go. I think now the game’s officiated tighter. I think player safety and making sure you keep the best players on the field [is important],” he said. “I think you see that around the world. It’s still gonna be physical, it’s still gonna be competitive, and it’s still gonna be good for the fans.”
To read all of MLSsoccer.com’s coverage of the CONCACAF Cup, visit our CONCACAF Cup page.