When the U.S. men’s national soccer team defeated Mexico twice this summer — with a trophy at stake each time, no less – it seemed to signal a change was coming in what has often felt like a lopsided rivalry.
The Americans were young, but brimming with talent. Players who not only are playing in Europe, but starting for clubs that play in the UEFA Champions League. Players that other countries had courted, aggressively.
The World Cup qualifier in Cincinnati won’t make, or break, either team’s chances of playing in next year’s tournament in Qatar. Concacaf’s top three teams advance to the World Cup, and Mexico currently leads the Octagonal at almost the halfway point, with the USMNT three points behind.
There is something to be said, however, for taking points away from Mexico. And, more importantly, letting El Tri know once again that this U.S. team is every bit its equal.
“We have a long way to go to get the respect of Mexico. I guess the two games this summer didn’t do a lot to get that,” coach Gregg Berhalter said Thursday, an edge in his voice. “We’re going to have to do a lot tomorrow on the field.”
For decades, Mexico had the run of Concacaf. And the U.S. men. From 1937 until 1980, Mexico had a 24-game unbeaten streak against their neighbors to the north, with many of the margins laughable.
There was the 7-2 drubbing in a qualifier for the 1958 World Cup, which came after a 6-0 rout. In several of the games, the U.S. men didn’t even manage a goal.
Fortunes began to change in the mid-1990s, as the U.S. men began their climb toward soccer respectability. A USMNT win here, another there, games that were competitive. Finally, in the Round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup, there was a landmark U.S. win.
Goals by Brian McBride and Landon Donovan stunned Mexico, which was eliminated 2-0 while the Americans – the Americans! – advanced to the quarterfinals. “Dos a Cero” wins sealed the USMNT’s spot at both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, and the Americans won by that same scoreline to book their place in the 2014 tournament while putting Mexico on the brink of missing out.
But the U.S. men’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia forced a rebuild.
This is, arguably, the most talent and depth the U.S. men have ever had, led by players like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Gio Reyna (who remains out with a hamstring injury). Of the 25-man roster for this round of qualifiers, 15 play in Europe.
The Americans are young, however, with the average age of their recent rosters in the early 20s. It has taken the team time to come together, with the USMNT getting off to a rough start in qualifying.
The wins over Mexico this summer served notice, though, of what this team could be. The decision in August by teenage phenom Ricardo Pepi to play for the USMNT, rather than Mexico, only solidified the notion that the Americans are on the rise.
“I knew I had to take my own path,” said Pepi, who has been even better than the Americans could have hoped, scoring three goals in his first four appearances. “We have a very important game and I want to make sure I represent the U.S. in a good way.
“It’s going to be a special feeling. A special feeling having my family in the stands, having me put the U.S. jersey on,” Pepi added. “I feel like I’m going to get goosebumps for sure. I’m going to be very motivated for the game, and very prepared for it. It’s going to be good.”
One game won’t erase Mexico’s advantage in the all-time rivalry. Nor will it be enough to get the USMNT the respect it wants from its old foe.
But it’s a good place to start.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mexico will always be the measuring stick for USMNT