The United States vs Mexico rivalry has always stirred up strange emotions in me. When I was younger (circa high school age), I was a U.S. soccer basher. It is hard to admit, but I hated MLS and heavily criticized the firm defensive style favored by Bob Bradley. Both the national team and nearly all MLS sides played a direct, predictable and ugly brand of soccer in my young eyes. The U.S. team did not win games or play particularly exciting soccer, so why bother supporting them? Instead, the soccer from south of the border pulled my interest.
In my adolescence, I was solely an El Tricolor fan. This support had nothing to do with the language or culture, as I had not yet learned conversational Spanish and didn’t have many friends in the Mexican-American community in Western New York then. The Mexican national team appealed to me because of the dynamic style of play they exhibited on the field. They were just more fun for me to watch than the U.S. team.
I remember in 2009 my friend, a Mexico supporter, was trying to give me flack for the 5-0 drubbing in the Concacaf Gold Cup Final. I didn’t bite because at that time it didn’t bother me at all at the time that Mexico’s A team routed the U.S. B team. I had no great sense of national pride and I only mentioned in passing that the U.S. A team would have given a better match if they weren’t preparing for the Confederations Cup.
After I went off to college I had a bit of a revelation; I started watching MLS matches and caring about the U.S. national team. In 2010, I supported both Mexico and the U.S. at the World Cup in South Africa. Mexico was definitely more fun to watch as they eased to victory against France and actually traded chances with Argentina. The U.S. on the other hand somehow topped their group with only five points playing an American style.
More importantly, the U.S. had a tremendous emotional appeal for American sports fans during the World Cup. Landon Donovan’s near post roofed, blast of a shot was surpassed only by his now iconic late game rebound goal against Algeria which sent the U.S. into the Round of 16. By this time, Mexico still played a brand of soccer that was more attractive to me, but I had developed some sense of emotional connection to the U.S. team.
Fast forward to the 2011 Gold Cup and it was largely the same story. El Tri exhibited a fluid and dynamic style of soccer and won their three group games by a combined score of 14 to 1. In stark contrast, the U.S. struggled to beat Guadeloupe and was wholly embarrassed by Panama in the group stage. At some point during the knockout stages, it dawned on me; the U.S. was actually going to play against Mexico in a competitive match with both countries’ strongest squads.
If I was still an independent observer, I would have liked the game for producing 6 goals. If I was still just a fan of El Tri, I’d have loved the game for the result and manner of comeback. But I wasn’t either of those things; I was a full-hearted U.S. supporter and that game was the worst kind of pain. I was shocked when Bradley put us ahead and then overconfident when Donovan nabbed the second. Watching the U.S. team unravel and ultimately capitulate in the 66 remaining minutes was not only like witnessing a train wreck but rather like sitting on that train.
When I saw Gerrardo Torrado look for Gio’s diagonal run into the box, my stomach turned. I knew the resulting play wasn’t going to be pretty, however, I just assumed dos Santos would win the footrace and chip Tim Howard. What actually happened was much worse. The scene of Tim Howard crawling and swiping helplessly at the ball was etched into my brain. For U.S. fans, that goal is the stuff of nightmares. Howard’s reaction after the goal, squatting down hoping the ground would open up, was no doubt emulated by all supporters of the Stars and Stripes who were watching the game with Mexico supporting friends.
“Hey man, did you like seeing Gio make Howard crawl around like a dog?” I had to answer to that for months. I later took some solace in knowing that being bothered by those comments meant that I had internalized the fate of the U.S. team.
Then in January 2012, I lived in Puebla, Mexico for 5 months as part of a study abroad program. Clearly many of my conversations turned to soccer. I had been following the Mexican Primera Division for a few years and had the pleasure of attending three matches while I was living there. I also had the chance to watch the Mexico – Colombia friendly match, which was the same day the U.S. beat Italy.
At the beginning of the match, I was rooting for Mexico but as the game wore on and Rafael Marquez proved himself a liability in defense (which is a great conversation starter with El Tri fans), I couldn’t help but gloat a bit. On the same day that the U.S. beat a world power in Europe, Mexico struggled against an inferior Colombian side in Miami.
Each of these episodes has been a chapter in my evolution as a soccer fan; I have grown from wholly disinterested in the U.S., to disappointed, to humiliated, to hopeful and proud. Right now, I’d say I have reached the maturation of my national fan-dom. I love the U.S. team, but I still cheer for El Tri. As long as Mexico isn’t playing the U.S., I don’t see why not. I have more friends who support Mexico than the U.S., and I was never one for hatred along national divides (though club loyalties are a different story).
In the coming weeks I look forward to hearing the stories of why you support your team and learning what this rivalry means to you. To me, this match is the most important game of the year for both teams. And while tempers may flare during the game (and perhaps a few days after), it is important to me to remember that the U.S. and Mexico will always be intertwined, just as they were in the development of my soccer profile.