Cold-Blooded Old Timers

The players squaring off in this weekend's US/Mexico Legends Challenge are retired. The rivalry is still active.
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Like you wouldn't do the same thing to Alexi Lalas.

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On Saturday evening, Alexi Lalas will line up across from Mexican star Luis Hernandez. Claudio Suarez, the man who donned El Tri's uniform an astonishing 178 times, will once again mark American forward Eric Wynalda. A handful of the aging group's ex-teammates will fill out the field at Carson, California's Home Depot Center. This time, however, the battle isn't for regional soccer supremacy, or not solely or ostensibly so. It's a benefit supporting the Hispanic Scholarship Foundation. But it’s also more than that.

The men who built the soccer rivalry between the United States and Mexico into one of the world's best are participating in a charity exhibition called The Legends Challenge. Marcelo Balboa, Cobi Jones, John O'Brien, Clint Mathis and others will suit up for the Stars and Stripes, while Suarez and Hernandez find themselves with Jorge Campos, Jared Borgetti, and their old compadres. It has, in soccer years and chronologically, been a long time since this last happened. "The Ben Gay and the post-game beers will be aplenty," Lalas, who does studio work for ABC and ESPN after his nine-year stint with the national team, says.

It's not like the old days, for a variety of reasons. Back then, it was the scrappy, athletic Americans against a skilled, dominant Mexican side, in a rivalry that didn’t bring out the best in either. "That was the era when both teams hated each other," Balboa says. "There was a bitter rivalry. It wasn't a very pretty game back in that era. There was a lot of hard hitting. It was a very, very intense rivalry."

It wasn't, however, much of a match. Between May 25, 1934 and July 4, 1991, the USA won exactly once against 23 losses. This wasn't pre-2004 Yankees–Red Sox; it was Yankees–Portland Sea Dogs. Or perhaps Mexico–Baltimore Bohemians. The two sides were rivals, but definitively not equals.

Lalas, Balboa, and their teammates halted Mexico's cruel dominance of the American team. There was a 2-0 victory in the final of the 1993 Gold Cup and an undefeated run over five games between October of that year and the end of 1996. But the most shocking result came late in 1997 when the Americans traveled to Mexican fortress Estadio Azteca for a crucial 1998 World Cup qualifying game. Before the match, USA coach Steve Sampson simply wanted to minimize the damage. "A tie, or a loss where we don't concede a lot of goals, will be a respectful result in Mexico," he said, knowing the USA had lost all 17 previous matches, frequently by lopsided scorelines. "What counts here is goal differential."

And minimize the goal differential they did. With Balboa and Lalas anchoring the backline, the U.S. managed a 0-0 draw despite being down a man for the final 58 minutes. 110,000 Mexican fans applauded the visitors' effort. It was one of the most memorable games in American soccer history. "That 0-0 tie that we had down there with 10 men certainly sticks out because of the result, the venue, and the opponent," Lalas says. "When you walk into Azteca, it's a surreal experience not just because of the aura of it. The altitude. The smog. The size. And the buzzing literally vibrates. It's very hard to see the sky because it's so steep and so high that you're almost in this silo."

The 1990s finished with six wins for Mexico, four for the Americans, and four draws. In other words, it became a legitimate rivalry. "At the first matches, I thought they weren’t that good," Suarez, who played between 1992 and 2006, says. "But then I started to respect them because they were hard to beat. They were improving more and more."

The next decade started even better for the United States as a new generation of American stars including Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and fearless Mexico-killer Michael Bradley combined with players like Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna, and John O'Brian to help the U.S. prevail in 10 of the first 14 games between the two countries. Six of those 10 victories came with a 2-0 scoreline, which is why USA supporters still chant dos a cero ad nauseum when the squads play. Mexico won just twice—both in Azteca—with two draws. The pair met in the 2002 World Cup, and Americans advanced to the quarterfinals on tallies by McBride and Donovan.

Recently, however, the balance of power has swung back in Mexico’s favor, with El Tri going 3-0-1 over in the last four matches including a 4-2 victory in the final of the 2011 Gold Cup. The Americans went up two goals, but collapsed under an unrelenting Mexican attack spurred by Giovanni Dos Santos and Manchester United's Javier "Chicharito" Hernández, who were both 22 years old at the time. That loss kept the Red, White, and Blue out of the 2013 Confederations Cup and prompted the U.S. Soccer Federation to can Bob Bradley in favor of Jurgen Klinsmann and initiate an understated reboot of the American soccer system.

The positive results for Mexico extend beyond the senior national team. While the American youth programs are struggling to qualify for big tournaments, El Tri's are dominating. The Under-17 side won 2011 World Cup, while the U-20 finished third in 2011. Jorge Enriquez won the bronze ball as the tournament's third-best player. Led by the brilliant Alan Pulido, the U-23 team qualified for the 2012 Olympics with ease and could contend for a medal in London. Even the women are getting into the act. The Mexican team shocked the USA in the semifinals of the 2010 CONCACAF Championship, winning 2-1 to reach their second World Cup. The American women are still a significantly better team and reached the final, but they needed to defeat Italy in a home-and-home playoff to make the World Cup.

The future of the Mexican national team is bright on all levels, but the USA has talent coming through the pipeline as well. Geography ensures that the rivalry will endure, of course, but as it has matured, things have become simultaneously more and less intense. In Balboa's opinion, the rivalry is not what it once was because the quality of play is higher; there’s no need for American bruisers to turn games into no-hands-allowed bar-fights, after all, when they could win simply by playing better soccer. "I think there's a huge mutual respect for each other now. [The Americans] are playing a little more soccer than we what we played back in those days. You saw us banging around. I think [the rivalry has] calmed down," he says.

In Suarez's eyes, however, the growing talent of his former foes is exactly what raises the stakes. "I think rivalry is stronger now because USA has been getting better," Suarez says. "The losses against the USA has made the Mexicans realize the level that the US National Team is competing on right now. Soccer has been growing here in America and that makes the Americans have more passion for their team."

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Rivalries are, by and large, fan constructions. Balboa and Suarez—or any two other players from the USA and Mexican national teams, really—have a great deal more in common than they don’t, and all function within the same global soccer economy. Dempsey and Carlos Salcido, for instance, were teammates on Fulham for two years. There is a level of understanding and underlying comity between the players that was less in evidence when the deficit between the two teams was more glaring.

"I've come across [all the guys on the Mexican team] either playing against them or going out and having beer and having a good time," Lalas says. "Once we're off the field, there is a mutual respect and an appreciation for things that we all did collectively to build what has become, in my mind, one of the great rivalries in soccer in the world. Ultimately, we're all very proud of what we did on and off the field to bolster that and to make it what it is right now."

The rivalry is important—people loving seeing USA versus Mexico, and the players love playing in the games—but there is a bigger battle as well: raising the profile of both teams on the international stage. In that regard, Mexico's success against teams from around the world is good for the USA, if only because the two squads are so closely matched.

"CONCACAF needs to do well in general when we're playing big countries or big tournaments like Copa America or the World Cup. I always cheer for whoever is in CONCACAF," Balboa says. "We want them to do well. It's important for our region that they do well. People still kind of look down at CONCACAF a little bit. So I still cheer for the USA, but if Mexico is in or Costa Rica or Honduras goes to the Olympics, then I hope for CONCACAF teams to do well."

It's a diplomatic statement from a diplomatic ambassador for the sport, but not a dishonest one. Many of the older generation of American players continue to do what they can to build soccer in the USA. They work as coaches, commentators, and advocates. The men who turned USA–Mexico into a true rivalry are no longer in the spotlight on the field, but they remain invested nonetheless. Which is to say that, years after their last important games against their arch-opponent, they still want to beat El Tri. "Any chance I get to beat Mexico in anything, whether it's going on in a Legends game on a weekend or playing a game of backgammon, I want to beat that team and I want to beat them even more if they're wearing the Mexican jersey," Lalas says.

The feeling is surely mutual. And so we can expect, on Saturday, a victory over a rival, followed by beers between friends and respected adversaries. The way it should be.

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