BY MIKE VALLO
Sometimes luck is on your side. I’m not referring to the USA in their victory over Mexico – I‘m talking about myself.
I was about as excited for yesterday’s friendly in Mexico City as I was for last week’s rhythmic gymnastics Olympic final (which is to say not at all excited and sort of annoyed by its existence).
I’ve been less than thrilled by the USA’s choices of friendlies recently (turns out even after the 40th try, Brazil is still better than us) and playing your biggest soccer enemy in a friendly seemed like a stupid way to give Mexicans something to cheer about while cheapening the rivalry overall -especially when all signs suggested we were about to lose by a touchdown in the fortress called Azteca.
Luckily my column runs on Thursday rather than Wednesday, so instead of poo-pooing this meaningless friendly and predicting a lopsided win for the guys in green, I can declare it the greatest achievement in American sporting history.
Or at least that’s what my twitter is telling me.
Let’s remember that this game is just a friendly–a fact that was made apparent by the half empty stadium (Red Bull fans were in their comfort zone watching this one). Azteca was not the terrifying cauldron it’s been for past qualifiers and if they defeat the Americans in Mexico City when it counts, last night’s game will be nothing more than a happy memory.
That doesn’t mean the unexpected victory by the USA is completely without meaning. In fact far from it. The US rivalry with Mexico is more than just an annual meetings on the field; it’s a continuous mental battle where momentum is hugely important.
For much of the last decade it felt like the US was on the front foot, quickly supplanting the former masters of CONCACAF. The United States had one of the best teams in their history while Mexico was a team in transition from one generation to the next. From 2000 to the 2009, Gold Cup the United States registered ten wins against their rival while Mexico could only muster two.
However, the United States scored exactly zero wins on Mexican soil. In fact they didn’t even manage a draw south of the Rio Grande while Mexico was able to earn two draws in the States. In reality both teams were winning their home games (not exactly unexpected) but that lone win in Korea steered the narrative for the entire decade. The perception that the USA was rising to the top of the region, created in Jeonju was partly accurate and partly exaggerated, but it definitely gave the Yanks a huge mental advantage.
Then came the 2009 Gold Cup final which, since CONCACAF insists on playing the tournament every two years, was nothing more than a money grab with no spot in the Confederations Cup at stake. Still, for this rivalry, it meant everything. Mexico, with a slew of rising young stars, took advantage of the United States B team (I’m being generous here) and absolutely trounced them at Giants Stadium 5-0.
Just like that all the paranoia, angst and frustration felt by Mexico was gone and with it the feeling of inevitability associated with the rise of US soccer. Sure it was a weak USA side–featuring US legends Troy Perkins, Santino Quaranta and Jay Heaps(who I think was using a walker)–but that didn’t matter. The monkey was off Mexico’s back and they went on to win the next two meetings, including another Gold Cup on US soil.
Fast Forward to early this week and Mexico looked more dominant than they have since Pokemon Blue and Red were the new hotness. Fresh off a gold medal performance in the Olympic tournament, which the United States shockingly failed to qualify for, their ranks boast players from clubs like Valencia, Manchester United and Barcelona.
Meanwhile the United States has been going through a crisis of confidence. The early returns on Jürgen Klinsmann were mixed, the start to qualifying less than impressive, the center back situation completely unsettled and the next great American forward seemingly as elusive as the next great heavyweight champion.
Then the US beat Mexico in Azteca…in a random friendly…with an under strength squad. That’s the equivalent of Indiana Jones going to a dive bar and getting his drink served in the Holy Grail. But despite more than a little luck, the win was not a fluke. Geoff Cameron showed that he is the defensive anchor of the future. Brek Shea decided he was good at soccer again. Tim Howard was Tim Howard. Germaricans Terrence Boyd and Fabian Johnson are making fans giddy about their future with the stars and stripes.
The most amazing thing for me was the fact that Landon Donovan was not even on the field for the final whistle. I am by no means knocking Donovan, who has caused the Mexicans more grief in his career than any other current American player can dream of. But the fact that the first US win in Mexico came on the backs of guys like Cameron, Boyd and Michael Orozco Fiscal rather than Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Carlos Bocanegra has to make you excited for the future or at the very least quell some of the lingering doubts.
Mexico can erase this defeat quite easily. Assuming both teams make it to the hexagonal round of qualifying, a win in next year’s qualifier in Mexico City would certainly do. A win on the away trip in Columbus would be devastating to the United States. However in the mental battle raging between the two CONCACAF powers, last night was huge for the Yanks. Mexico’s return to dominance had the same feeling of inevitability that the United States enjoyed last decade. The US victory thew a wrench in Mexico’s return to the top.
For certain, there is still a gap. It’s most pronounced by the difference in quality between MLS and Liga MX as well as in each country’s youth development. But last night, the United States sent the message that there are still two powers atop CONCACAF and if Mexico wants to change that, the Yanks aren’t going to lay down and let them.
A friendly at Azteca, what a great idea.