USA-Mexico soccer mirrors ASU-UofA rivalry

GLENDALE, AZ - Uneasy neighbors with a tumultuous off-field history. An on-field legacy marred by nasty incidents. A rivalry in which one team seems to have the upper hand for years, or even decades, at a time.

To listen to the 2014 U.S. men’s national soccer team talk about their decades-old rivalry with Mexico – which will be renewed Wednesday night during an international friendly at Glendale’s University of Phoenix Stadium at 8 p.m. – one could easily be reminded of the equally nasty Territorial Cup football rivalry between ASU and UA.

“I think it has to do with geography, being bordering countries, and just the history of the two countries and everything that goes along with that,” said USMNT defender Omar Gonzalez, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Mexico, on why tonight’s game is so important.

“Mexico used to have the upper hand on us, and now we’ve sort of got the upper hand. It’s just kind of that battle, and we never want to lose to them.”

On the surface, the comparison may sound like a stretch.

But consider these parallels between USA vs. Mexico and ASU vs. UA:

-The Wildcats dominated the football rivalry with ASU for the first half of the 20th century (although ASU won the first-ever meeting), but the Sun Devils began to turn the tide in the 1950s. By the same token, Mexico boasted a 28-6-9 record against the U.S. from 1937-99 (although the U.S. won the first-ever meeting), but the Americans are 12-5-4 against their rivals to the South since 2000.

 -And like the Duel in the Desert, the socio-political bad blood between the U.S. and Mexico has often spilled on to the field, such as in 2007, when the two teams last played in Glendale. In that game, which the U.S. won 2-0, Mexican goalkeeper Osvaldo Sanchez blatantly tried to trip American striker Eddie Johnson following a late USA goal.

Many of the athletes who comprise the current USMNT roster didn’t play in that game. But, like the Duel in the Desert, the newer players have been quick to learn the significance of the USA-Mexico rivalry.

Take USMNT defender Matt Besler, who also plays for Sporting Kansas City in Major League Soccer. Besler may be new to the rivalry – he joined Team USA just last year – but he already gets it.

“I understand the history that these two teams have, the rivalry and the importance of this game,” he said. “So, whether it’s a friendly or a qualifier or in the World Cup, when we get to play Mexico, it’s a big deal.”

 Another talented newcomer who could help the Americans maintain their recent domination of Mexico is 18-year-old forward Julian Green, a prospect for one of the top teams in Germany’s premier soccer league, Bayern Munich.

Many believe that Green, who is expected to make his USMNT debut tonight, will make an impact tonight against Mexico, as well as in two months at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

“Obviously we are happy to have Julian with us, and now coming in here, getting the OK by Bayern Munich to let him go for this friendly, it’s huge,” said USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who previously played for and managed Bayern.

“Hopefully (tonight) he gets his first taste of what it means to play for the U.S., but also what it means already to start with the biggest game you can play in the U.S. with our big rival, Mexico.”

USMNT captain Clint Dempsey called Green a smart, confident player with a good touch on the ball. “He’s not afraid to take people on, he makes good decisions, and he’s a player that you can see has a bright future, so it’s great to have him part of our team,” he said.

Judging by his teammates, it likely won’t take Green long to understand the magnitude of tonight’s game and, just like the Duel in the Desert, the importance of retaining that dominance over your neighbors that Gonzalez and the U.S. have come to enjoy against Mexico.

“I think soccer has gotten better in the U.S., the quality of U.S. players has gotten better, and that’s a testament to the guys who have played before us, laying the groundwork for us,” Gonzalez said.

“Obviously I think we have the most athletic guys in the world, and now we’re getting these soccer (stars), and I think there’s a direct correlation in that.”

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