Thank God for Football. More than ever. For it brings with it something that can truly unite the nation. The Hex! The U.S. faces up to Mexico
[7:45 p.m. ET on FS1 & Univision
] in CONCACAF’s version of the North London Derby. One that is played in U.S. Soccer’s impregnable “Castle Black
” of Columbus. As close as our country can come to the dreaded “cold, wet night in Stoke.”
The Dos A Cero narrative is one of the most magical in sports. Athletic proof of
George Santayana’s quote: “Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” I was in Columbus for the last in the franchise, September 2013, standing right behind the goal where Clint Dempsey missed this 95th minute penalty
that would have made it 3-0. Though Clint has sworn to me he did not miss on purpose, the grin on his face as he did so did not exactly convince me…
When I interviewed Jurgen Klinsmann for this Dos A Cero Pod Special
, he talked in depth about this being a time of generational transition for this team. A truth symbolized by the emergence of 18-year-old Christian Pulisic, a bona fide Champions League quality All-American player who has broken record after record as a young wonder with Dortmund. Perhaps most impressively of all, he has become the first on-field player to supplant Klinsmann as the face of the team. I spent some time with Christian and his family to make this film
about his rise, and how he’s handling the Pulisic Hype Train currently surging up to 11. GFOP Kevin Brand asked me a great question via Twitter: Is it strange to idolize a kid half your age?
Though we have no idea how his young body will handle the rigors of one full professional season, what impressed me about the teenager is his mental strength, hyper-competitiveness, and tenacity.
However. Playing the game in Columbus does not automatically lead to the scoreline we all crave and expect. One of these days, there will be a Reckoning. I pray that it will not be this week, as our gents face a gruelling second test on the road in Costa Rica, a place we have never won a qualifier. If the U.S. fail to glean at least 3 points from these first two games, expect the tone around team and manager to flip in a dizzying fashion.
Above all, I hope that in the wake of this week’s election, the talking points after the game are all about the football, and the passion it can produce in a wondrous way. All it takes is one idiot to give the CNNs of this world the one soundbite they are looking for, and decades of building a rapturous fan culture around this team will be blemished. Whether you’re in Columbus, in a bar, or watching behind the couch, the American Outlaws have a standing Code of Conduct. Please give it a read. And check out this fantastic tweet
that sums up all that is great about the United States as a football team, and a nation.
Sadly, I will not be in Columbus. I am headed to England for the week to make three Premier League films. We do however have a glut of content below that JW and Lexi have worked on feverishly. We’ve spoken to four former USMNT’ers with almost 300 combined caps about everything from the tactical side of Friday night to what it means emotionally to players. We also examine the rivalry from the Mexican POV, and check in with the GFOPs at Schmidt’s House of Sausage about all things salted cured meats.
And be sure to watch the USWNT take on Romania at 10 ET TONIGHT on ESPN2 from San Jose, Calif. Come on, Lynn Williams.
I. Tactical Preview With Herculez Gomez
When 22 players take the field at MAPFRE Stadium, Herculez Gomez
will have played with and/or against virtually every one of them. The Seattle Sounders striker has spent the last 14 years plying his trade in MLS and Liga MX. He also knows a little something about this rivalry. In 2012, he was part of the only U.S. team to ever win at the Azteca [Relive that magic HERE
]. Friday, the GFOPs at FOX have Herc reprising his role as an analyst, one in which he served so adroitly during the Copa America Centenario. We kick off this Raven by asking him what we can expect between the lines.
MiB: Give us a player to watch from each team.
Herc: For the USMNT, it has to be Christian Pulisic. The young dynamic attacker is technical, fast and smart about his runs with and without the ball. Most importantly, he wants the ball. He reminds me so much of a young Landon Donovan. And let us not forget where LD had his coming out party. Yes, it was vs. El Tri.
Mexico has what many consider their "golden generation" at this moment. Never before have they had such talent all over the pitch. They boast one of the best in-box strikers in the world: Javier "El Chicharito" Hernandez. His timing and anticipation in the box are second to none. I recall seeing him in his infancy back in 2010, when he skyrocketed to stardom, tying for the Liga MX golden boot [Editor's note: one of the players Chicharito tied for that golden boot was Herc]. Since then, he's only converted more doubters.
MiB: Where on the pitch will the key tactical battle be?
Herc: The midfield. It's a cliche for any tough game, but it's the truth here. Mexico can have possession if they want, but the USMNT can't concede spaces in behind them. To prevent those spaces the U.S. will need to control the midfield or, at the very least, manage it well.
MiB: How do you see this game playing out? Give us a prediction.
Herc: I see a USMNT win. I don't see them giving up the spaces that El Tri needs to play their style of game. If the U.S. can stay compact and make Mexico play a more direct and physical game, it's to their favor. As always, set pieces will be a factor.
Be sure to tune into FOX Sports 1 beginning at 7 p.m. ET Friday to watch Herc on Fox’s pre-and post-game show. And, of course, to watch GFOP Rob Stoner play referee between Alexi Lalas and Fernando Fiore.
II. What It Means to the Players With Rick Davis, Marcelo Balboa and Carlos Bocanegra
USA vs. Mexico is a match that’s been impervious to one of #ModernFootball’s most pressing questions: How much do players actually care about rivalries? When these two teams take the field, it is very apparent they care. Deeply. [We see you, Oguchi Onyewu
]. To get a better sense of how players experience these matches and the evolution of the rivalry, we spoke with three USMNT captains whose careers spanned a total of 35 years.
We begin with Rick Davis, a California kid out of Santa Clara University who ran with Beckenbauer and Chinaglia on the Cosmos. When he earned his first cap in 1977, the USA hadn’t beaten Mexico since 1934. But in 1980, Davis captained a team that beat El Tri 2 - 1 in front of 2,126 fans at Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium. That result didn’t totally turn the tide, but it portended change.
On USA vs. Mexico in the 70s and 80s…
The game in the United States was in a completely different place. But Mexico was still a huge rivalry because we knew that if we were going to qualify for a World Cup, and if we were going to be successful, we ultimately had to get results against them. We, the players, wanted so desperately to be successful at the international level. But they had the advantage in terms of skill and tactics. And they knew it. They always seemed to be putting the U.S. down, always saying the American player was nowhere. There was no future. It’s a baseball, football and basketball country. And when you’re in that game as a player, every fiber of you wants to be successful.
On the USA’s 2-1 win over Mexico in 1980, their first since 1934...
You hear that final whistle and think, “Man, we actually did it. We don’t have to doubt ourselves. We’ve given ourselves something to hang our hats on in the future.” I remember being with Coach [Walt] Chyzowych after the game. I had never seen someone with so much joy in his heart. Being able to look at the Mexican players and say, “Yeah, you haven’t beaten us every single time for forever and a day,” it was an awesome feeling.
On how he experiences the rivalry now…
I’ll be glued to the TV Friday. Anytime it’s USA vs. Mexico it’s, “Clear the schedule. Let me watch. Don’t bug me.” It’s almost like I’m still playing. I’m nervous before. You relive that part of it from when you were a player. I always want to see us throw it back in their face the way they threw it in ours. As much as I used to get mocked by all of my Mexican friends, you don’t think I’m throwing it back at them a hundredfold? USA, baby.
Next, we hear from a man whose haircut game
was 100 emoji during his playing days. A defender whose denim-clad centre back partnership with Alexi Lalas
propelled the USA out of World Cup 94’s group stage and into American hearts. Marcelo Balboa
’s resume vs. Mexico includes a 1991 Gold Cup semifinal win (their first win against El Tri since 1980), a five-game unbeaten streak from 1993 and 1996, and the team's first ever point at the Azteca in 1997.
On the USA’s 1991 2-0 Gold Cup semifinal win, the first Dos A Cero in the U.S.’s favor...
I think that’s when the rivalry really kicked off for us. Until then, Mexico were the giants, the No. 1 team in CONCACAF. We were kids that just came out of college and were playing in a semi-pro league with teams like the San Diego Sockers and the Colorado Foxes. But, our manager at the time, Bora Milutinovic, had coached Mexico from 1983 - 1986. He put the Mexican myth to bed and explained they’re just like us. That gave us the confidence to go out and play our game. And we caught everyone off guard, including ourselves. If you go back and look at the tape from after the game, we were happy, but also shocked, like, “Okay, what do we do now?” That game was a wakeup call for them.
On managing emotions before and during a Mexico game…
As soon as U.S. Soccer schedules a Mexico game, or you draw them in a tournament, you mark it on your calendar. We always knew the exact date and what was at stake. And if we didn’t know, we always got a reminder the night before the game. No matter what hotel we were staying in, the fire alarm would go off at three or four a.m. and Mexican fans would be screaming outside about how they were going to beat us three or four nothing. And while you feed off that energy, you also try and stay emotionally level the day before so you weren’t drained for the game. You also try and stay even keeled during the game, but let’s be honest, there are times when you lose it emotionally. A guy kicks you from behind, whatever. We’ve seen Ramon Ramirez and Alexi Lalas go at it
. It’s a charged game. It’s the one game you don’t want to lose. You can talk to anybody back from the ‘90s to these current players. There is one team you do not want to lose to, and that’s Mexico. And if you’re Mexican, you don’t want to lose to the U.S.
On how he experiences the rivalry now…
As an ex-player, you want to see the U.S. win every game. But USA vs. Mexico always has a special place in your heart, even if you only played Mexico one time. It’s a game that bonds us. An emotional game. You experience it like a player. And, if you could, you’d hear me scream Goal every time the USA scores against Mexico.
Finally, we turn to a gent who helped usher American soccer into its modern-era. A man who currently serves as technical director of Atlanta United (coming soon to an MLS stadium near you!). A defender who appears in one of our favorite U.S. football photos of all-time
. Carlos Bocanegra
made 110 appearances for the USMNT, 64 of those as captain. He knows a little something about Dos A Cero in Columbus, experiences several iterations of it live and in person.
On what the locker room is like immediately before a Mexico Game...
It's hyped up. It’s a rivalry game. Everyone has been looking forward to the game so it’s more getting people to calm down, and play within themselves, stick to the game plan.
On the first thing that comes to his mind when he hears Dos A Cero...
Automatically Mexico. But then I think that’s only our results at home. They have made it difficult for us on the road. So we need to keep dominating at home. A win is more important than the score.
On how he experiences the rivalry now…
With a lot less anxiety and energy. The amount of media attention leading up to this game is incredible. To be able to watch from afar, cheering on the USA while analyzing both teams on a television, I get to be more of a fan.
III. Mexico’s POV With León Krauze
We are acutely aware of our level of bias toward the USMNT in basically everything we do. But we wanted to get the opposition’s POV on this rivalry, too. For that we turn to Mexican journalist, Univision news anchor, author of “La Mesa, Historias de Nuestra Gente”
(holy crap, this guy is talented) León Krauze
. The proud Angeleno was kind enough to take time from all of the above (and crisscrossing Southern California with his eight-year-old son Mateo, who plays club soccer as a hardworking striker) to talk about what this rivalry means to El Tri fans.
León Krauze: Every team in the world has an opponent against which it is forbidden to lose. Mexico, which views soccer with an almost religious fervor, has always thought of the sport as the one area in which it can boast clear supremacy over its otherwise very dominant neighbor. The Americans, the saying goes, can beat us at everything else, but certainly not soccer. For a long time, this was indeed the case. For the better part of the 20th century, Mexico beat every team the United States put forward. It was our one consistent satisfaction: seeing Eric Wynalda pout in frustration, Tony Meola scream his lungs out, and poor Alexi Lalas lose his breath at Azteca Stadium. But then, just when the nineties became the aughts, something happened. The Americans started playing real soccer and the matches became a real challenge. Cobi Jones and Landon Donovan began showing us that they too could dribble and dazzle just as much as our own saucy wingers. Michael Bradley taught us that Americans could be masterful on-field tacticians. And then tragedy struck. On the world’s biggest stage, on a setting almost impossible to replicate, the American team beat Mexico. I don’t think I’ve ever been angrier than after that horrendous early-morning defeat in 2002. Still, now that I think about it, there was a silver lining to the infamous 2-0: a new rivalry, a better and more intense rivalry, was born. It is one of intense mutual dislike, but also undeniable respect. No Mexican can ever say that the United States plays anything less than disciplined, sometimes brutally effective soccer. And that’s the way I like it. Now, when Mexico plays the United States, I want my team to win even more. I not only want Mexico to beat the Americans, I want Mexico to teach the United States who “owns” the game, or at least the better version of the game. In the last few matches, it has been Mexico. I hope the tradition continues in Columbus. But most of all I hope that we get to face each other in the World Cup again. The wound that opened in Korea 14 years ago can only be cauterized on the same stage. Only then will our hearts rest easy, only then can we truly reclaim futbol, our game. Because, my friends, let there be no doubt: el futbol es y siempre será nuestro.
IV. Schmidt's House of Sausage
Few things go better with Dos A Cero than a Bahama Mama. What’s a Bahama Mama, you ask. How about beef and pork hickory-smoked sausage that’s spiced with secret seasoning and stuffed in “old world natural casing links” (we don’t get down with new world natural casing links). The sausage is served over hot sauerkraut with German potato salad and chunky applesauce. It’s a delicacy that can be acquired at our favorite spot in CBus outside MAPFRE stadium, Schmidt’s House of Sausage
. If you’re in Columbus for the game we urge you stop by and check it out. The GFOPs at Schmidt’s also tell us they will have a truck at the game, as they do for all Crew games. Just to be clear - this is not an advert and MiB does not receive a small percentage of this purchase to cover the cost of creating this show. We just love Schmidt’s.
V. "Plumb our Annals”
Our entire pod archive is available HERE
. If you prefer the Cliffs Notes version, check out "Men in Blazers. Unbuttoned: Now That's What I Call Sub-Optimal,” Vol. I (iTunes
, Google Play
) and Vol. II - The Best of 2014 (iTunes
, Google Play
). The albums are the least objectionable of our football "analysis," Ravens and interviews.
this to your football curious friends. Let's see if we can bring them over to the dark side. The Ian Darke Side.
“We should be careful / Of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time.”