Soccer in the Caribbean, North and Central America is dominated by two teams who tend to battle for supremacy in World Cup Qualifying and Copa Oro: Mexico and the United States. It seems almost inevitable that the pair will represent CONCACAF at the World Cup, as has happened every year since the cachirules scandal that caused Mexico to be disqualified from the 1990 tournament. Since 1991, only once has a nation other than these two won the region’s tournament. This year the final round of qualifying, known as the Hex, kicks off with the two rivals squaring off in Columbus, Ohio, for an important three points.
Familiarity breeds contempt, which means that fans and players in this rivalry can’t stand each other. This year, tensions figure to be extra high with the game coming just three days after the election and taking place in a state won by Donald Trump. To be fair, Hillary Clinton did win Franklin County. Hopefully both sets of fans will be able to keep it respectful, although that’s not always been the case.
Relive these five moments that have helped define the rivalry in recent years:
Landon Donovan, on and off the field
Landon Donovan announced himself as a pain in Mexico’s ass at 18 years old on his international debut, scoring a goal to give the United States a 1-0 victory in a friendly. Two years later, he scored again to help eliminate Mexico in the Round of 16 at the World Cup. Mexican fans didn’t loathe him that strongly just because he scored a few goals, though. In 2004, the Mexican press accused him of peeing on the field at Estadio Jalisco in the hours before a game against Mexico. He did cop to peeing in a bush because he couldn’t get into the locker room, he said. The fact that he’s fluent in Spanish and could do interviews (and commercials) in both languages made him the perfect face for the rivalry. Donovan retired in 2014, but made his comeback for the LA Galaxy this year. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to perform well enough to get back in Jurgen Klinsmann’s good graces.
2011 Gold Cup Final and Ensuing Saltiness
The 2011 Gold Cup final in Pasadena is memorable because it featured Mexico coming back from an early 2-0 deficit and overpowering the USA. One of those goals, by Gio dos Santos, is among the best in the history of the tournament. Unfortunately, Tim Howard followed the game up with a bit of salt that would be funnier if it weren’t so gross. “I think it was a… disgrace that the entire post match ceremony was in Spanish,” he said. “You can bet your ass if we were in Mexico City, it wouldn’t be all in English.” Never mind that there were thousands of Mexican fans in attendance and that CONCACAF is made up of many Spanish-speaking nations, Tim Howard needs to hear the trophy he didn’t win be presented in his own language, just because.
Benny Feilhaber’s wonder strike
It’s only fair to highlight one of the USMNT’s best goals in the rivalry as well, which of course was scored by a player born in Latin America. The United States has won the Copa Oro five times, but only once has it done so by beating Mexico in the final. That one time came in 2007 thanks to Brazilian-born Benny Feilhaber. The goal was named one of the 10 most significant goals in Team USA history by Sports Illustrated.
Paco Ramírez and Frankie Hejduk
It’s really a testament to Frankie Hejduk’s California surfer boy background that this didn’t escalate. As a rule you should never put your hands on another person’s face and expect that it won’t go any further. After a 2-0 USA victory, Hejduk was hyping up the crowd as he left the field and Paco Ramirez, one of Mexico’s coaches, took it the wrong way. Ramirez approached Hejduk and gave him a light slap on the face. “At the end of the day, no one was hurt,” he said. “There was a little love tap and that was it. I still have my face. No damage done. It was fun. That’s just how emotional this game is and that’s how passionate they are about their sport.”
Undeniably, there’s fun in schadenfreude and USMNT would have delighted at Mexico missing the World Cup in 2014. But when Graham Zusi scored against Panama to save Mexico’s chance at qualification, it got something even better. The USMNT became that friend who did you a favor that one time that you can’t repay and now they bring it up all the time. USA has made it a habit to play Santa Claus in the Hex. In 2009 a late Jonathan Bornstein goal against Costa Rica helped Honduras qualify for its first World Cup since 1982. He’s a hero to my people now.
The start of the Hex means a new opportunity for someone to become a hero in this rivalry. Who knows, maybe this time Mexico will have to save the United States.