After eventful summer, USMNT and Mexico ready for World Cup qualifiers
By Tim Cary
Who is the best national team in CONCACAF men’s soccer today?
The United States and Mexico have traditionally battled back and forth for that unofficial title down through the years. Sometimes, there’s a rather large gap between the two rivals. Other times, they are separated by the thinnest of margins.
No one can argue that Mexico has been the top team in the region in recent history, especially after the USA failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and 2020 Olympics, while Mexico advanced to the quarterfinals in Russia and brought a bronze medal home from Tokyo.
However, the USMNT began to chip away at that narrative this summer.
The tide began to turn with the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League finals. After the USA beat Honduras 1-0 in its semifinal and Mexico advanced past Costa Rica on penalties on the other side of the bracket, the longtime rivals faced off in Denver on June 6 with a trophy on the line.
It took Mexico literally all of one minute to take the lead, as Jesus Corona’s goal caused quite a few American supporters to think, ‘Here we go again.’ But a Gio Reyna equalizer in the 27th minute after a corner kick brought new life to the USMNT, leveling the score at 1-1.
In the 79th minute, Diego Lainez gave El Tri a 2-1 lead, only to see the USA’s Weston McKennie return the favor three minutes later, again off a corner kick. After 90 minutes, the score remained 2-2.
Extra time always brings high drama, but this particular match had more than most. USA superstar Christian Pulisic scored the eventual game-winner on a penalty kick in the 114th minute, and then reserve goalkeeper Ethan Horvath denied Andres Guardado’s PK in the final moments to preserve a 3-2 win for the home team. Horvath was only in the match because of a second-half injury to starting goalkeeper Zack Steffen, but he made the biggest play of the game to help the USA beat Mexico in a final for the first time since 2007.
It wouldn’t be nearly as long a wait before the next one, as the same two sides met exactly eight weeks later in Las Vegas for another championship. Eight-time winner Mexico was a heavy favorite in the Gold Cup final, because United States manager Gregg Berhalter chose to bring a younger, less-experienced lineup to the tournament and allow his European-based players to rest.
Tata Martino’s lineup in Vegas featured seven players that had started the Nations League final for Mexico (Jesus Gallardo, Hector Moreno, Nestor Araujo, Luis Rodriguez, Hector Herrera, Edson Alvarez, and Jesus Corona) while the USMNT only started one, midfielder Kellyn Acosta. Despite that discrepancy, the Americans were equal to the challenge, led by a stellar performance from keeper Matt Turner. In front of a pro-Mexico crowd at Allegiant Stadium, the teams played 90 scoreless minutes and once again headed to extra time.
Although it appeared a penalty shootout was looming, USA defender Miles Robinson had other ideas. His 117th-minute header off an Acosta free-kick was all the United States would need to clinch a seventh Gold Cup title (and a very nice birthday present for Berhalter, who turned 48 that day).
So are two narrow extra-time victories enough to say the United States has surpassed Mexico as the top team in CONCACAF? Despite a successful summer, Berhalter knows that the next few months are more important than the last few in determining if his program has truly arrived.
“It’s nice to win a trophy in Nations League. It’s nice to win a Gold Cup trophy. It’s nice to be ranked 10th in the world in FIFA rankings. But it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t qualify for the World Cup,” he told reporters.
The final round of World Cup qualifying for CONCACAF (known as the ‘Octagonal’ due to the eight teams competing) kicks off September 2. Between now and the end of March, each country will play 14 games, both home and away against the other seven teams. The top three nations will qualify for World Cup 2022 in Qatar, while the fourth-place team will be part of a playoff to try and get in.
The format is different than in past cycles because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so the depth of each program will be tested (often facing three matchdays jammed into a single week-long window). Mexico will host Jamaica September 2, travel to Costa Rica September 5, and visit Panama September 8. The United States begins play in El Salvador on the 2nd, takes on Canada in Nashville, Tennessee on the 5th, and then heads to Honduras on the 8th.
Storylines abound for both teams as this round of qualifying kicks off, including El Tri being forced to play its first home qualifier without fans (due to discriminatory chants at past matches) and the USMNT trying to figure out how many minutes Pulisic can play after testing positive for COVID in August.
And while every match matters and every possible point is crucial, fans of both teams are already looking ahead to the next USA-Mexico showdown, scheduled for November 12 at brand-new TQL Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio. It will be the sixth straight time the United States’ home qualifier vs. Mexico has been played in the Buckeye State, with the previous five matchups all taking place in Columbus (often with the same 2-0 scoreline).
Can the USMNT make it a clean sweep of its biggest rival in 2021 and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are the best program in CONCACAF? Or will the third time be the charm for Mexico, with the biggest bragging rights coming on the biggest stage?
USMNT Tickets: Team Ticket Page, US Games Only
Mexico National Soccer Tickets: Team Ticket Page, US Games Only