U.S.-Mexico rivalry: Has it lost some bite or is it as strong as ever?
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Landon Donovan being hit with urine bags at the Azteca, Rafa Marquez head-butting Cobi Jones and the legend of Dos a Cero. Clint Dempsey, Brian McBride's goal in the 2002 World Cup last 16 or El Tri scoring four unanswered goals to win the 2011 Gold Cup. These are the moments and personalities that have come to define the U.S.-Mexico rivalry, but not one of the players involved will be in the starting XIs on Tuesday in Nashville (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET).
Tuesday's game is a bit of a clean slate, with new faces and new (interim) managers figuring each other out. Unfamiliarity tends not to breed contempt, so will just their third meeting since 2015 -- and, it must be stressed, in a friendly -- be as epic and full-blooded as those games in the past?
The biggest stars of the current crop -- Christian Pulisic and Hirving Lozano -- won't be present in Nashville, and so the likes of Tim Weah and Diego Lainez will do their part. But with the generational shift comes the sense that something has been lost in terms of the pure animosity that characterized the rivalry for decades, although it wouldn't take much to ignite tempers anew.
ESPN FC's Jeff Carlisle and Tom Marshall talked to people on both sides of the rivalry to get a sense of where things are heading.
There's still some fire
For the current crop of U.S. players, many of whom are still finding their feet at the international level, perhaps all that's needed is a bit more time and exposure. A player like New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams has already experienced it: He was part of the U.S. under-20 squad that won the 2017 U-20 CONCACAF championship, defeating Mexico 1-0 along the way.
Is it as intense as a match at the senior level? Perhaps not, but it gives players a taste of what is to come when there's a World Cup spot or trophy on the line.
"You can tell that those games are bit different than every other game you play in," Adams said. "That Mexico game just had a different edge to it. Right from the first whistle, guys were laying in tackles. At that point in the game you can tell it's going to be really scrappy, it's going to be tough and it's going to be hard to find a win."
"It's something different. The players from before are no longer there, but it remains a Clasico because we've played each other at youth levels," Seattle Sounders midfielder and holder of four U.S. caps Cristian Roldan said.
Players who came through the El Tri ranks in similar fashion agree.
"As much as it may be a friendly, a game against the United States is more than a simple game," Santos Laguna and Mexico defender Jose Abella said.
Yet players from the most recent era of the rivalry feel like U.S. vs. Mexico is waiting for the next player to redefine it.
A rivalry waiting for its next heroes and villains?
"The [Javier Hernandez] 'Chicharitos,' the [Miguel] Layuns, for as much as they say this is a rivalry, they didn't have the moments that Rafa Marquez had," ex-U.S. forward and current ESPN analyst Herculez Gomez said. "They didn't really see this dominance over the U.S. and see it snatched out of their hands. And the Landon Donovans for the U.S. are gone."
For well over a decade, Donovan was public enemy No. 1 south of the border, defining the rivalry, and with good reason. Six of his 57 international goals came against El Tri, including his first in an October of 2000 friendly as well as his last in a World Cup qualifier in 2013. Then there was the biggest dagger of them all, the header that clinched victory in the round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup. And yes, all of those U.S. wins came with the "dos a cero" scoreline.
Donovan drew even more ire when he reportedly urinated on the Estadio Jalisco field before a practice session in the run-up to an Olympic qualifier. It wasn't until very late in his career, with a stint at Club Leon and an ad campaign urging U.S. fans to cheer for Mexico at the 2018 World Cup, that the ire directed at Donovan began to subside.
Then there was Marquez, Mexico's counterpoint. The Michoacan native was 23 when he head-butted Jones and received a red card as El Tri slumped to a 2-0 loss to the United States at the 2002 World Cup. Frustration got the better of Marquez again in 2009, when he kicked out at U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard and again saw red as Mexico lost 2-0 to the U.S. in World Cup qualifying in Columbus, Ohio.
Marquez might be the most detested Mexico player in history for U.S. fans, but perhaps there is an element of jealousy mixed in with the hate. No U.S. player in history has come close to enjoying the kind of success at club level as Marquez did at Barcelona, where he won two Champions League titles and La Liga four times.
The current Atlas sporting president also had the last laugh, at least on the field. With pretty much his last touch in a Mexico shirt against the United States, Marquez headed in from a corner to hand El Tri a famous 2-1 victory in World Cup qualifying -- and doing it in the Columbus stadium the U.S. had thought made it invincible.
But with Marquez and Donovan retired, there is a sense those battles on the pitch are also gone -- for now, at least.
"I don't want to say [the rivalry] gets diluted in a sense, but you definitely feel like those bad-blood moments [are gone]," Gomez said. "I don't know how many players on both rosters have really [experienced] that."
Francisco Gabriel De Anda, a former Mexico defender and part of the 1998 Gold Cup-winning squad, agreed.
"The intensity has lowered a lot. Before the 2002 World Cup and in the years after the rivalry grew a lot because of what happened in Korea and Japan. I think the rivalry has shrunk, and when you go to the United States to play in Columbus, it's not so complicated. And when they come to Mexico there isn't the same hostility, the atmosphere around the game isn't as hostile, so I think the rivalry has decreased a lot."
For the longest time, Columbus was the U.S.'s not-so-secret weapon; now known as Mapfre Stadium, it added plenty to the rivalry's mystique. It was first used against Mexico during a 2001 World Cup qualifier and was referred to as the "La Guerra Fria" due to the freezing February temperatures that El Tri wanted no part of.
Goals from Josh Wolff and Earnie Stewart paced the U.S. to a 2-0 win, and was the genesis not only of Dos a Cero but of using Columbus as the preferred venue to play Mexico in competitive matches. The juju was so strong that there was belief that it was actually keeping the margin down; case in point was when Clint Dempsey missed a late penalty during a World Cup qualifier in 2013 that would have made the score 3-0.
"I was behind that goal, I remember it," former U.S. international Frankie Hejduk said during a 2016 interview. "It was already 2-0 at the time, it was going to be 3-0. He hits a solid shot, but there was a little wind, and the wind [whispers] 'Dos a Cero.' And he missed the penalty."
Even though the curse of Columbus has been broken, the clash still carries bite wherever the games are played. Players currently featuring in top European leagues and experiencing rivalries there still think their CONCACAF clash has bite.
"I think definitely it's a different aspect when you play club and country," said Weston McKennie, who plays for German club Schalke 04 and who's arguably the future of the U.S. midfield. "Of course the Schalke-Dortmund rivalry is one of the biggest ones in Europe, but I think coming in with your national team to play Mexico is a different feeling than that.
"Of course I have sense of what rivalry is now that I've played in the derby, but it's something I'm really looking forward to, especially playing on 9/11, it will have significant meaning I think."
A rivalry that must be experienced
For those who have already experienced a U.S.-Mexico match, there is general agreement that there's only so much you can do to prepare teammates for what lies ahead. U.S. defender DeAndre Yedlin said that at some point the players simply have to experience it for themselves.
"When I played in my first one, I asked around, 'What's it like?'" he said. "The guys would try to explain it to me, but you can't get a good grip on it until you actually play in it. I'll let them experience it for themselves and they'll do just fine."
Yedlin certainly has plenty of experience now, having played against Mexico six times, including the 1-1 draw in the Estadio Azteca back in June 2017. That match marked just the third time the U.S. avoided defeat in that venue in a World Cup qualifier.
U.S. coach Dave Sarachan added, "You've got to live it. You can teach players history, which I try to do, and give them a real perspective. Now when they get on the field and really feel it, I think this rivalry will begin to heat up even more for these guys."
Yet there's also an element of intrinsic motivation. Club America's Edson Alvarez sees the fact that Mexico has a large fan base in the United States as an extra motivation to defeat the Stars and Stripes on their turf.
"It is a strong rivalry and I think even more for Mexicans that live in the United States," Alvarez told ESPN FC. "So it means a lot for me because we are the Mexican national team, their team. To play the United States in their country and win against their team, it's very satisfying. To give Mexicans living in the United States a victory is great."
Even though players are divided on where the rivalry stands in 2018, the fans are no less emphatic about how they feel.
"This goes beyond a game," said Sergio Tristan, founder of U.S.-based Mexico fan club Pancho Villa's Army. "Losing to the U.S. as a Mexican-American, you don't hear the end of it because we live, work and play soccer with their fans on a weekly basis. It's personal. We expect to win, and we want these young kids to get a taste of victory against our rivals early on.
"A win this week cements a winning mentality against the U.S. for the next generation."
How will it play out among the home fans in Nashville? Dan Wiersema, communications director for the American Outlaws, said that the group was originally allocated enough tickets for three sections for Tuesday's game but sold out only two of them.
Wiersma acknowledged that there have been concerns about ticket pricing: Tickets in the supporters' section for Tuesday's match are $78 for AO members and $85.50 for non-members. (The cost is considerably lower, around $33, for next month's match against Colombia.) But with the pain of World Cup qualifying failure still present, there is also a bit of a wait-and-see approach from some members.
"It sure would be nice to get a victory," Wiersema said. "That would feel like we could truly hit the reset button -- beat our regional rivals, feel a bit of love in our hearts again."