Mexico versus the United States. It is a match that all soccer/football/futbol fans seem to circle on their calendar no matter where they are in this crazy world. Sunday’s match between the two sides in Mexico City will put that theory to the test (8:30 pm EST, FS1, Univision, UDN).
Here is a truth about soccer that we sometimes don’t want to face: derbies often don’t live up to the hype. For all of the pomp and circumstance that is placed on these matches very often games of this magnitude just do not deliver the goods. Perhaps it is the history of some of these rivalries or the media’s need to artificially inflate the importance of sporting events (*breaks the fourth wall*) but very often it seems as if the spectacle around the match is more fun than the game itself. Let’s call this the tailgate theory where one spends six hours of singing, drinking and eating before a match and two hours watching a match. Deciding which jersey to wear can often take the same amount of time as a Tim Howard goal kick.
But with Mexico-USA it just seems different. Think back to the last ten or so senior national team matches between the two and try to come up with one game where either there wasn’t consistent back and forth between the two sides or there is some thrilling conclusion that washes away the duller moments of the match. The 2-0 win for the United States in San Antonio might be considered the exception to the norm just because that match was played with ‘experimental’ (soccer speak for ‘not full strength’) rosters. But even that match saw Jordan Morris’ first goal with the U.S. so there was at least a moment that fans on both sides could latch on to.
So why does this rivalry deliver? Politics do seem to play a role. No matter how many photo opportunities players take or how much goodwill is spread these two countries do share a border and thus share many of the same problems. That is what happens with neighbors. There is always a hot button issue surrounding Mexico-USA whether it is trade, immigration, drug or arms trafficking, or the ramblings of an orange-haired megalomaniac who eats ketchup with his steak.
But politics can only take a derby match so far. There needs to be something on the pitch to make the games watchable and to make people keep coming back. Otherwise it becomes a spectacle, a sideshow. It is why the Eternal Derby between FK Partizan and Red Star Belgrade has lost its luster in Serbia. The match is no longer about which side can contend with the powers in Europe. Instead, it is about which supporters group can do the most destruction to the others park. That might bring about some great photos and some interesting commentary on Serbian society but it makes for some terrible soccer.
The reason why this rivalry endures is that is not fully reliant on politics to sell the match. Like any good story the Mexico-USA rivalry has many different sub-plots to keep things fresh and interesting. For many years it was Dos a Cero and Mexico’s dominance over the U.S. at Estadio Azteca. Prior to that it was the 2002 World Cup and Mexican supporters finally getting a rival in CONCACAF. In 2014 it was the Panama-USA game and Mexico actually needing the United States to win to keep their World Cup hopes alive. That last scenario can only really truly be rivaled by Vince McMahon needing Stone Cold Steve Austin to save his daughter from the Ministry in the WWF. Wrestling meets soccer. Mexico-USA in a nutshell.
Sidebar for just a second for wrestling fans: during certain points of his tenure didn’t it seem like Jurgen Klinsmann might make a full heel turn? Given his attitude and sometimes coarse tone towards U.S. Soccer it seemed like he might tear off his customary U.S. Soccer jacket to reveal a Mexico jersey and yell, “It was me Donovan! It was me all along!!!!” And yes, under this scenario Jonathan Klinsmann would be Shane McMahon.
There are the heroes and villains that depending upon where one’s allegiances lie that person may be considered one or the other. Landon Donovan. Oswaldo Sanchez. Rafa Marquez. Jared Borgetti. These names and many others have made this rivalry what it is due to their personalities and the different reactions that their names get depending upon the crowd. At least we can all agree that Jorge Campos and Graham Zusi are great and all the referees are shit.
So what will Sunday’s derby bring? What will bring the supporters in Estadio Azteca to their feet? That chapter has yet to be written. But is certain is that the story that unfolds on the pitch that will be interesting and will deliver the goods.