U.S.-Mexico oral history as told by the players who created it
Editor's note: This was originally published in the run-up to the CONCACAF Cup clash in Oct. 2015. But the stories told here are timeless.
It's been 13 months since the U.S. and Mexico last met, and even though Friday's clash in Columbus, Ohio, is just one game on the road to the 2018 World Cup, it's no exaggeration to say that all those involved will want the win for more than just the points. The rivalry may ebb and flow over time, but it has lost none of its fire. It never does when these two archrivals are involved.
When these two rivals take the field, there is so much more at stake. It's the chance for players to enter their names into a tapestry of epic moments and controversial incidents, stellar victories and agonizing defeats. It is this accumulation of memories on both sides that keeps the fire of rivalry burning.
What follows is a collection of memories from both sides, a mural of what has become one of the classic rivalries in the world of soccer.
The turning of the tide
For years, Mexico so dominated the meetings with the U.S. that it could hardly be called a rivalry. In 26 attempts from 1937 to 1990, the U.S. prevailed one time against its southern neighbor.
When exactly did the tide begin to turn to make the rivalry more even? Opinions vary. Many point to the 1991 Gold Cup semifinal in which the U.S. prevailed 2-0 but for the players of that era, different games come to mind.
Cobi Jones, U.S., 1992-04: My memories go back to the 1992 Olympic team playing against Mexico. You really saw the rivalry heat up, and you started seeing on a consistent basis U.S. youth teams start to beat Mexico, especially during the qualifying process when we beat Mexico [twice], and their reaction was to lash out, as usual. That kind of started the first moments where you could see a switch of power in CONCACAF.
Claudio Suarez, Mexico, 1992-06: [The rivalry] grew from the '90s. We knew that they didn't have a league like the MLS [of today] and we can say that Mexico dominated, even though there were games that we lost against them. Little by little, it became more even.
They created their league, and the confrontations became more complicated. They started to win.
I'm [in the U.S.], and I understand more and more why the United States is improving and is equal to Mexico. Even if Mexico continue with the idea that we are better, the cold numbers say otherwise.
Marcelo Balboa, U.S., 1988-00: We were always pretty scared of them because they were always the king, and then when we were able to beat them for the first time, I think we realized that we could play with them. Bora [Milutinovic, Mexico coach from 1983-86 and 95-97, U.S. coach from 1991-95] really didn't do anything but give us confidence.
They were a team that he had coached before, and it was a team that put its pants on the same way we did. It was just a matter of defending better as a group but also being able to hold the ball. That was the biggest thing -- that we gave it up so quick. If you look at that Gold Cup, we knocked it around, we were patient, and then Bora made it very clear to us that they were just another team. They do everything the same we do. It's just a matter of who does it better on that day.
Luis Roberto Alves "Zague," Mexico, 1988-02: The trigger was the first Gold Cup in 1991. [The U.S.] team was managed by Bora. We came into it without giving it the attention and seriousness, and after the [domestic season], there was tiredness and injuries. Mexico didn't give it the necessary importance, which was the opposite of the United States.
And so when the famous game in the semifinal came around, in which the United States beat us 2-0, it was a big blow. Everyone thought Mexico would win the first Gold Cup walking, and it wasn't like that. From there, the rivalry started to make itself heard. Then, in the next Gold Cup, we defeated the United States in the Estadio Azteca.
Kasey Keller, U.S., 1990-07: The U.S. Cup game in D.C. in '95, when we won 4-0, that's where it changed. That was where it definitely switched. We had never handed it to them before. That was the 'Oh s---' moment for Mexico -- no doubt about it. They can't come in here anymore, have home-field advantage in the U.S. and cruise. That was a good team that Mexico had back then. To come in and just spank them, that changed things.
Martin Vasquez, the first player to switch from Mexico (1991-92) to the U.S. (96-97): In 1991, when the United States won the first Gold Cup, I thought that was the biggest turnaround for the U.S. Mexico took it as just one day, one bad game and the U.S. getting lucky. For a while, that mentality didn't help.
Ramon Ramirez, Mexico, 1991-00: I think in the '90s, a generation of soccer players came through in the United States that were motivated by having the World Cup in their country. I'm talking about Tony Meola, Marcelo Balboa, [Thomas] Dooley, [Eric] Wynalda, [Jeff] Agoos, Cobi Jones, [Alexi] Lalas, and I've missed some.
They were a generation that understood soccer and that wanted to break the boundaries of their sport in their country, getting rid of the tag of what the traditional sports are and promoting the idea that this craziness called football could be accepted by Americans. I think it was a great generation, coached well by Bora Milutinovic, and combined with the motivation of the World Cup, they started to even out the rivalry with Mexico a lot.
Alexi Lalas, U.S., 1991-98: I think about the game in '95 down in Copa America, when we beat them [in the quarterfinals] on penalties. At that point, we were all kind of feeling our oats, we had all started to play in Europe, and we were all much more experienced and mature. Yet we still had that sense that, "Hey, we're playing Mexico, and we want to do something." For me, it was the first time we had tasted success in a game that meant something in a tournament situation.
What's it like playing in the U.S. with a pro-Mexico crowd?
Keller: I always felt that playing against Mexico in the L.A. Coliseum was far more intimidating than playing in Azteca -- really bad, much worse across the board. At Azteca, it's really difficult to have things thrown at you. You come in from a tunnel and it is what it is, it's 100,000 people.
But a couple of Gold Cup finals in the Coliseum were nasty, really nasty. You come in from the tunnel, and you're just getting tons of s--- thrown at you, spit at, just really bad. What makes it even more memorable is you're supposed to be the home team. I accept that if I'm at Estadio Saprissa [in Costa Rica] and I'm getting stuff thrown at me, that's one thing. But when I'm in America being treated like that, then maybe it just sticks out more in your head.
Ramirez: It is fabulous because we all know how many compatriots are over here, and we all understand the reasons and needs that brought them here for an opportunity. We also understand the yearning that they still feel for their roots and that football brings joy to many of them and brings them closer to their people. As a player, the biggest satisfaction you can bring them is when you win a game and especially when you defeat the United States.
U.S. recollections of combustible incidents
There have been some memorable -- some would say infamous -- moments in the annals of the U.S.-Mexico rivalry. Some of those are recounted here.
Lalas on Ramon Ramirez kicking him in the groin; Jan. 19, 1997: That was just a perfect depiction of the animosity. In the moment, I think there is a hatred involved, and the recognition that you are going to get some sort of moment of satisfaction, even if it doesn't come on the scoreboard.
You have to do it carefully, and if you watch the video, Ramirez waits for the crowd to gather round and then it's just this stealth strike, like a viper to my manhood, and I was not expecting it, to say the least. Given who we were playing, I probably should have expected it more.
People ask me if I chased Ramirez to the ends of the earth to get retribution and if in a dark alley one night, I exacted my revenge. I saw him a few years ago, and because I was able to go and recover -- I have two beautiful children -- I'm a much kinder and gentler version of myself in my ripe old age.
“Ramirez waits for the crowd to gather round and then it's just this stealth strike, like a viper to my manhood, and I was not expecting it to say the least. Given who we were playing, I probably should have expected it more.”
Jones on Rafael Marquez head-butting him July 17, 2002, at the 2002 World Cup: I just remember going up for the ball and feeling this stud into my thigh, and then Marquez's head coming into my head. Fortunately, Marquez didn't injure me too bad. I had to go out for a little bit, but I was going to make sure that I stepped back out on that pitch to let them know that they weren't taking me out, especially in this game where we had the best of them.
People forget the great Cuauhtemoc Blanco tried to break my leg in the corner as he tried to stomp on my leg. He's no angel, either. But when that happens, it shows you that they've lost it. They couldn't figure it out. To this day, I think those players are going to be taking that to their grave.
We are fair play [laughs]. We would never do anything like cheap shots. We always played hard, we played rough, but we always kept it within the bounds. That's the big issue.
Frankie Hejduk (U.S., 1996-09) on Mexico assistant Paco Ramirez slapping him on Feb. 11, 2009: It was [a World Cup qualifier], right near the end of the game. Michael Bradley scored to make it 2-0, icing on the cake, and I was so pumped up.
I'm a right-back, so I ended up being right by the halfway line, right by their bench. I was enjoying that moment with the crowd, so I don't know what the bench was feeling or what they were doing at that time. It was just spur of the moment, I was just saying "F--- yeah! F--- yeah! F--- yeah!" Everyone was cheering.
The game ended, and I'm one of the last guys off because it's my home stadium and doing high-fives more than normal. I remember walking off, and then this guy steps in front of me, and he had a suit on, he was a small little dude. I didn't know who he was. He held his credential up to my face for me to look at. When I looked at it, bam, he gives me this little slap in the face.
I was like, "What?" I literally didn't know what happened. I just put my hands in the air and went, "Are you serious, dude? I'm not even wasting my time on this little guy." That's how it went. I had no idea who it was.
People were like, "Dude, he can't do that!" I was like, "We won." I laughed at it. I wasn't letting anything kill my buzz at that time. That could have really killed a buzz. Someone slaps you, you want to slap him back. It gets weird, you've got referees, you've got fines. I laughed about it. All I know is 20 seconds after that moment, I was drinking champagne, and they weren't.
The Mexico perspective on those incidents
Not surprisingly, El Tri's recollections are different, though there is at least an acknowledgement that there were moments when a line was crossed.
Ramirez on the Lalas incident: I remember that tempers flared, and in the heat of the moment, I kicked out without knowing exactly who it was, honestly. I ended up kicking Alexi Lalas in his "noble parts," as we say in Mexico.
With the passing of time, I realized what I did was stupid, silly. Fortunately, Alexi took it with a dose of humor, and I have always publicly apologized to him because cowardly actions don't correspond to being a sportsperson. I regret it. It was a wrong, I'll say it again, but maybe it did highlight the passion in those games.
Zague: They are intense games, and I was also a target for some very hard tackles, and I never complained or spoke out because it was the way it was played and nobody wanted to lose. The Ramon Ramirez one was in the U.S. Cup that we won. I remember it perfectly. It was in the heat of the game -- not an aggression. He kicked out at Lalas, although he had given two [kicks] to Ramon Ramirez.
Suarez: We saw it as normal. With respect, I think the U.S. was still a little innocent. It is what experience of playing so many important games and tournaments teaches you. I'm not saying that we were dirty, but the battles are part of the game.
We have also made mistakes. I came to understand that in MLS, the tackles are harder and physical, but they aren't in bad faith -- with the intention of hurting the opposition. Us Mexicans sometimes fell into the trap of feeling that they were attacking us, and we also wanted to hit and kick out.
Not every battle stepped over the line. As the years pass, hostilities can fade, and what emerges instead is a healthy admiration for those on the other side.
Keller: Pavel Pardo was just a great guy and obviously a great player, huge amount of respect for him. Jared Borgetti was another fantastic guy, great player. I think Ricardo Osorio was another great guy.
It took some of the Mexican guys -- and I played against Pardo and Osorio when they were at Stuttgart, and I was at Borussia Monchengladbach -- to realize, "Wow, if Kasey is doing it in the Bundesliga, and Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride are in England, now we're coming over here to Europe and understanding how difficult this is out of our own safety net of Mexico." I think that was a continued level of respect.
“We saw it as normal. The U.S. I think, with respect, was still a little innocent.”
Suarez: In the '90s, Eric Wynalda. We had the most direct duels because he was a center-forward and I was a center-back, and so we were constantly battling. Also, [I battled] with Landon Donovan on various occasions and Cobi Jones. [They were] emblematic players for the United States, who helped the growth of the league.
The other one who I always used to fight with was Alexi Lalas. I didn't used to know what he was saying in English, although I knew they were insults! I had to mark him at set pieces, and there were struggles and pushing, and that rivalry grew. I'm now good friends with Wynalda, Cobi Jones and Lalas. They are great guys, but at that time, we had a lot of fights.
Pavel Pardo, Mexico, 1996-09: I played against Kasey Keller in Germany. Apart from being a great professional, he is a very good person, and the career he had in Europe was excellent.
Carlos Bocanegra, U.S., 2001-12: I like Andres Guardado's game. He's a really hard worker. Every single player on the field can be a little bit nasty at times -- both sides, Mexico and the U.S. You go into a challenge a little bit harder. You want to leave something on them a little bit. It's not done to hurt them, but you want to get in there. It's a huge game. Guardado was a super hard worker, and he did things with class as well.
Every player has recollections that they use to keep warm when their careers are over. The U.S. certainly racked up a few against their bitter rivals.
Zague: The Gold Cup [final] in 1993 because I was fortunate to play in the first edition in 1991, and [the defeat against the U.S.] hurt a lot. For me, it was revenge I had to get. Soccer is kind and peculiar enough that two years later, it gave me the chance to play the final against the U.S. in the Estadio Azteca, and we convincingly won 4-0.
Balboa: Every time we played Mexico in the U.S., the fire alarm [in the team hotel] would go off at 3 a.m., and then it would go off at 6 a.m. It would get everybody up and out of our hotel. Those were hilarious moments. You knew something was coming. You just don't know what time.
Herculez Gomez, U.S., 2007-13: [Playing in 2012] in the Azteca with 70,000 fans, and they all hate you. They're wishing the worst things upon you in that moment. And it was one of the most fun times I've had playing a soccer game because I'm living out a mini-dream. It probably wouldn't mean that much to a lot of people, but for me that was a really special, cool moment.
Yeah, it was a friendly and maybe it didn't mean much to people outside of that game, but to everybody that was there who knows the history, how hard it's been for us to get any type of result there, that was huge.
I came back to my club team in Mexico, and those veterans that were there before, who were in the thick of things back in the day, they had long faces. They were quiet. They weren't as chipper as they were before the match went down.
Bocanegra: I think savoring that win in Chicago after the 2007 Gold Cup. The whole team went out together. Frankie Hejduk actually brought the Gold Cup with us and filled it with beer. Shock that it was Frankie, you know?
The best thing about it is that there is so much buildup, so much hype around those games. You win, and it just brings the whole group closer together. You just feel proud. It's a great moment. For a short time, you get to celebrate it and really enjoy it. And then it's on to the next game. Any time you get a big victory against your big rival, it's a little bit extra sweet and it brings the team together.
Hejduk: After we beat them at the 2002 World Cup -- we won, you saw it -- there was all kinds of bad blood. Marquez gets a red card.
We get on the bus, we were celebrating, we were having so much fun. We had a couple of beers on the bus after that game. All of a sudden, our bus stopped at a red light. Another bus pulls up beside us as we're leaving the stadium. And it's their bus, and their team is on there. We're both looking at each other like, "Oh my god, is this really going on?"
All of a sudden, they start flipping us off. We start dancing, chanting. All of our team was on one window. All of their team was on one window. We were chanting "USA! USA!" It was such a crazy moment.
Our buses were three feet apart. I remember faces. I can name names of who they were, although I won't name them. There were middle fingers and two opposite emotions. Then the light turned green, and both buses drove off. We drove to the quarterfinals, and they drove home.
“Frankie Hejduk actually brought the Gold Cup with us and filled it with beer. Shock that it was Frankie, you know?”
Jared Borgetti (Mexico, 1997-08) on the bus incident: I don't remember. I'd be lying if I said yes or no. I don't remember. I don't know if that happened.
Vasquez: One of the nicest, more historic moments in my career was playing for the U.S. [in the 1997 0-0 tie in the Estadio Azteca]. I thought I was going to be booed and called all kinds of names on the field with the U.S. jersey.
The fans applauded and cheered me, and that is something that I'll never forget. I was expecting a hostile environment. I was expecting to be called every name in the book. When I talk about it, I still get the chills.
Borgetti: In terms of feelings, anger and frustration, it was [the 2002 World Cup elimination] in Korea and Japan because we knew it wasn't the most difficult or complicated opponent. We knew them, knew how to play them. [We knew] that they would wait for us, hand us the initiative and try to counter or score at set pieces.
[They knew] that if they could score first, the frustration would set in and that it was something they could use to their advantage. Everything went to their plan, and everything went against us, and it had a lot of repercussions in Mexico.
Bocanegra: I've been on the other end in the 2011 Gold Cup final at the Rose Bowl. Ugh, I thought we were going to punk them that game... It's hard because the buildup is so big, and it becomes such a big event and such an important piece in your soccer career in that timeline.
Balboa: Sitting on the bench in '93 for the Gold Cup final when they beat us 4-0. I couldn't play in that game, but I was on the bench, and they took it to us pretty good. That was very frustrating for me -- not being able to play and still seeing how that went down.
At that point, when we lost to Mexico, it wasn't by more than a goal or two. But on that day, they lit us up. It was tough to watch sitting on the bench and also having the chance to win a final and losing. That was difficult.
The rivalry today
The ebb and flow of the U.S.-Mexico rivalry continues. After winning the 2011 Gold Cup, El Tri seemed poised for an era of dominance, only to be hauled back. Since then, the U.S. are unbeaten versus Mexico, having won three times and drawing three others.
Gomez: When I was at Santos [in 2012], Oswaldo Sanchez bet me $10,000 that Mexico would beat us in the Azteca. That was the game we ended up winning. It wasn't something that I turned around and charged him for. In fact, I never broached the subject again. That's why I tell you that it's that generation that has that kind of bitter hatred toward the U.S. -- and not the new generation.
Ramirez: I believe that on the field, yes. A lot of the time, the fans don't understand. Players today have improved in terms of professionalism, of having respect and not over-heating things before games. The games heat themselves up, they'll have that passion on the field. I'm sure the Mexican players know it. They know it is a game to kill or be killed.
Omar Gonzalez, U.S., 2010-present: I'm Mexican-American, and this game is always going to be important to me because both my parents were born in Mexico, and I was born and raised in the U.S. I used to spend a lot of time in Mexico as a kid and still have a lot of family that live there. These games are always super important to me.
Vasquez: Being a part of U.S. Soccer until last year, I think the passion and the intensity is still there. From watching it on the field and in the locker room and with the fans, I think the respect and competitive edge [are] still there. It gets bigger and bigger. That's what I experienced.
Who is the favorite on Oct. 10?
Borgetti: Until now, Mexico has always been favorite against the United States. The history of Mexican football is much greater than that of the U.S. They have grown, but they haven't been able to say that U.S. is greater than Mexico.
Gomez: The new generation is trying to figure out who and where they are. And if I'm being honest, I think that's exactly where we are. It's a crazy thing because if you ask everybody in the U.S. camp, it's doom and gloom: "Oh my god, what are we going to do? Blah, blah, blah."
You go to the Mexico side, and it's the exact same thing. "They're going to mop the floor with us. What are we going to do?" It's the same question being asked, just in different ways. It will be really interesting to see what happens in that game.
Zague: I don't think there is one. Even though Mexico did well in the last game [against Argentina], they come into [the CONCACAF Cup] at a crucial time after what we saw in the Gold Cup, which was a very low standard for Mexican football. But the United States aren't at their best. There are a lot of doubts, a generational change, and there aren't the solid elements Jurgen Klinsmann wants from his team.
Pardo: Mexico is still favorite. Obviously, we get back to everything being possible in a clasico, with both Mexico and the U.S. looking for a ticket to a very important tournament like the Confederations Cup. I think Mexico has every chance; the United States hasn't been playing their best football.
Benjamin Galindo, Mexico, 1983-97: You know beforehand that when Mexico plays anywhere in the United States, you feel motivated to be surrounded by your people. Combined with what is at stake, I think it will be fundamental and important.