By Michael Lewis
One of the best and most heated sports rivalries in the world — soccer or otherwise — gets renewed when El Tri takes on the Red, White and Blue in the Concacaf Gold Cup final Sunday night.
Given the proximity of the countries, the passion of the supporters, the quality of the teams and the history between the two sides, the championship game at Allegiant Field in Las Vegas at 9 p.m. ET promises to be yet another memorable confrontation.
The match will be the eighth time these two archrivals will collide in the Gold Cup, the seventh time in the final.
The U.S. men’s national team has a 2-5 overall record against El Tri in the competition, 1-5 in the final.
The Mexicans have won the title eight times, the Americans six.
Here is a quick look at previous tournament encounters between Mexico and the U.S., which includes the 1991 semifinals, the first time these two countries met in the tournament.
Close encounters of the first kind (1991)
After registering only two other wins in 28 previous encounters, the U.S. stunned Mexico behind a 2-0 victory in the semifinals in Los Angeles on July 5, 1991.
Defender John Doyle and forward Peter Vermes scored 16 minutes apart in the second half to secure the win before a crowd of 41,103 at the L.A. Coliseum.
The only other times the U.S. had defeated the Mexicans was during World Cup qualifying for the 1934 and 1982 tournaments. In the 1982 qualifying competition, the U.S. already had been eliminated from the competition, which made that win moot.
How earth-shattering was the 1991 result? The Mexicans fired their coach, Manuel Lapuente, two days later.
“I think we showed Mexico that they’re going to have to show us some respect in the region,” Vermes said at the time. “We came here to win the Gold Cup, but to get to the final is a big step for us, a real big step.”
After a lethargic first half, the Americans struck on Doyle’s 48th-minute goal. Defender Marcelo Balboa took a pass from Hugo Perez and fed Doyle, who beat goalkeeper Pablo Larios from the right wing. Sixteen minutes later, Vermes dribbled to his left and fired a 20-yard shot into the top corner of the net.
The U.S. went on to win the first Gold Cup, surviving a shootout with Honduras after a scoreless draw. Coached by Bora Milutinovic, the Americans prevailed in the shootout, 4-3. Goalkeeper Tony Meola made three shootout saves and five in the game.
Some home-cooking in Azteca (1993)
Mexico demonstrated its superiority and gained revenge with a resounding 4-0 victory over the defending champions in the title game on July 25, 1993.
The triumph capped a unique hat-trick for the Mexicans, who also earned the $100,000 first prize. In May, Mexico became the first country to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Earlier in July, the Mexicans reached the Copa America final, losing to Argentina.
In group play, the Mexicans crushed Martinique, 9-0, tied Costa Rica, 1-1, before rolling over Canada, 8-0. They romped past Jamaica in the semifinals, 6-1.
“This was a very exciting match and bodes well or the future of our team,” said Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who attended the match and waved a huge Mexican flag. “Let’s go out and celebrate. This is a victory worthy of a fiesta.”
Thousands of fans took to the streets shouting, “Viva, Mexico!” and waving flags. Authorities closed off the Paseo de la Reforma at the Independence Monument, where hundreds of fans celebrated.
The Mexicans, cheered on by a partisan capacity crowd of 120,000 at Azteca Stadium, showed an immense amount of flair and imagination.
The U.S. had to battle more than the Mexicans, which included the thin air, thanks to the 7,347-foot altitude of the city, and smog and pollution.
Milutinovic and the Americans did not use them as excuses. “The altitude and the pollution didn’t make a difference,” defender Alexi Lalas told the Washington Post. “The bottom line is that we just didn’t play that well.”
Ignacio Ambriz gave the hosts all the scoring they needed in the 12th minute, sending a 35-yard free kick past a defensive wall and Meola into the far corner of the net. U.S. sweeper Desmond Armstrong scored an own goal in the 31st minute under pressure from wing Ramon Ramirez for a 2-0 lead.
Luis Alves Zague made it 3-0 in the 69th minute, chesting down a Ramirez cross and pushing the ball under Meola for his 11th goal of the tournament.
“We’ve had a lot of confidence, a lot of faith in ourselves, and we knew we could do it,” Zaque said.
Guillermo Cantu completed the romp in the 79th minute, latching onto a deft flick from Jose Noriega to score from close range.
A disgraceful display by the fans (1998)
World Cup hero Luis Hernandez scored the lone goal in the 43rd minute to give the Mexicans a three-peat (they also had won in 1996). But Hernandez’ heroics in many respects paled in comparison to what the partisan Mexican crowd of 91,255 at the Los Angeles Coliseum did to the U.S. team on Feb. 15, 1998.
The match could have been played anywhere in Mexico the way the Americans were treated by the fans, who taunted and jeered the hosts. They also pelted the U.S. players with several objects, including bags of urine — on their supposed home turf.
“That’s the most pissed off I’ve ever been at what happened on a soccer field,” U.S. captain John Harkes told Soccer America, “and I’ve been through a lot of fights, bad tackles, [crap] thrown at you, fans saying bad things about your family and all sorts of [crap], and none of that was as bad. That was an absolute disgrace for soccer in this country.”
The comeback kids (2007)
Despite being a goal down to their archrivals, the U.S. rallied for a pair of second-half goals to register a 2-1 win at Soldier Field in Chicago on June 25, 2007.
The U.S. also booked a spot at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, a tournament of continental champions that traditionally is used as a World Cup rehearsal.
“It was nice to win the Gold Cup, but it’s a little sweeter when we beat Mexico,” U.S. captain and defender Carlos Bocanegra said. “We came from behind. It’s nice we drained their spirits.”
To rub it in a little more, the U.S. came back from a deficit against Mexico for the first time in its 73-year rivalry that had totaled 53 matches at the time.
“Awesome. Awesome,” said Landon Donovan, whose 62nd-minute penalty kick tied the match. “It’s weird. You get into the game and you almost forget its a final because its Mexico again. But we realized at halftime that this is the last 45 minutes. It’s not you’re in qualifying and you have more games to play. This is it. It’s now or never.”
The unlikely goal-scoring hero was Benny Feilhaber, a 22-year-old midfielder who was a walk-on at UCLA. Feilhaber had but eight international appearances and two goals to his credit. Goal No. 2 could not have been more dramatic — a 22-yard volley off a poor clearance that broke a 1-1 tie in the 73rd minute.
Donovan called the goal “unbelievable. I was wide and a little bit right and as it came I was going, ‘Don’t shoot it.’ . . . Maybe it’s one in a thousand he scores that goal.”
The venue might have been the Windy City, but the atmosphere was strictly Mexico City as the capacity crowd of 60,000 was essentially a sea of green shirts cheering for the Mexicans.
Mexico, behind Nery Castillo running wild in the midfield, dominated the opening half. Castillo set up Jose Andres Guardado’s five-yard score in the 18th minute.
El Tri rises again (2009)
It took 11 1/2 years and almost a dozen games, but Mexico finally won on U.S. soil again, and El Tri did it in style, scoring all their goals in the second half of a 5-0 rout at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. on July 26, 2009.
The result was significant for two major reasons. It was the worst American home loss since a 5-0 defeat to England in L.A. in 1985. It also was the first Mexican win on U.S. soil since a 2-1 result in San Diego on March 13, 1999, snapping a 9-0-2 American domination.
The hosts did not deploy their A team, which finished second at the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa. They used a side that was relatively inexperienced internationally. The Mexicans used five starters from their full squad, the Americans one — forward Brian Ching.
Mexican forward Giovani Dos Santos, the man of the match, felt the result would silence the team’s critics for the upcoming World Cup qualifier at Azteca (Mexico prevailed in that encounter, 2-1).
“The fans, like the media, will now believe in the National Team towards our Aug. 12 game,” he said. “We’ve been working hard despite all the criticism.”
The Mexicans struck in the 56th minute when captain Gerardo Torrado converted a penalty kick into the upper right past goalkeeper Troy Perkins after defender Jay Heaps dragged down dos Santos in the penalty area before a soccer-record crowd of 79,156 of mostly Mexico fans.
The goal certainly emboldened the Mexicans, who used counterattacks to pad their lead. Dos Santos converted a rebound of a Miguel Sabah shot in the 64th minute. Carlos Vela chipped the ball to the far right post in the 70th minute. Jose Antonio Castro (79th minute) and Guillermo Franco (90th minute) closed out the scoring.
“We just lost our composure,” Ching said. “They punished us.”
“That’s not what we’re all about,” coach Bob Bradley said.
A cliché becomes reality (2011)
You’ve probably heard the cliche many times: a two-goal lead is the most dangerous lead in soccer. Mexico proved that and then some in the 2011 final before a pro Mexican crowd at the Rose Bowl in the 2011 final.
Staring down a 2-0 deficit at the Rose Bowl, life looked rather bleak for El Tri in the final. Bradley (eight minute) and Donovan (23rd minute) had given the USA the lead.
But the Mexicans never gave up. By halftime the Mexicans had equalized behind Pablo Barrera (29th minute) and Andres Guardado (36th minute) before Barrera’s second goal lifted Mexico into a 3-2 advantage for good five minutes into the second half.
Dos Santos put an exclamation point on the victory with a marvelous chip shot from the right corner of the penalty area over goalkeeper Tim Howard.
“There’s no better moment than victory,” Mexican coach Jose Manuel de la Torre said. “Everything else is in the past now.”
U.S. coach Bob Bradley had a different perspective. “When you let it get away, it’s an empty feeling,” he said.
The six goals set a record for a Gold Cup final, eclipsing the 2009 championship encounter.
The triumph capped one of the most memorable Gold Cup runs for any champion in the 11 editions of the tournament. The Mexicans outscored their opposition, 22-4. They began the competition with a pair of 5-0 routs of El Salvador and Cuba and continued it with a 4-1 romp over Costa Rica. Life became more difficult in the knockout round as they edged Guatemala in the quarterfinals, 2-1, and needed extratime to prevail over Honduras in the semifinals, 2-0.
“They’re as dynamic as any [Mexican] team that I’ve ever played against,” Donovan said. “They’ve got a few guys who can change the game in a heartbeat. Between Guardado, Barrera and Giovani and Chicharito, they can make special plays. They’re explosive. If you give them a lot of space, they’re going to make plays, especially on a big field like. It certainly played to their advantage.”
One is enough (2019)
Long-time rival Mexico denied the United States from winning two championships on the same day Sunday as it captured the Concacaf Gold Cup behind a 1-0 victory at Soldier Field in Chicago July 7.
Earlier in the day, the American women captured its fourth Women’s World Cup with a 2-0 win over the Netherlands in Lyon, France.
In the Windy City, Jonathan dos Santos’ 73rd-minute goal turned out to be the deciding goal.
U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter sent out the same starting XI that guided the USA through the semifinal while handing the captain’s armband to Weston McKennie for the first time in his career. Ten players have skippered the USA squad this year.
The USA looked the better bet to score early on with Jozy Altidore putting Christian Pulisic, named Young Player of the Tournament, through on goal only to see his shot blocked by Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. The rebound was headed back in by Paul Arriola. A missed overhead kick attempt by Altidore was nearly cleared off Pulisic into the upper left corner.
A minute later, former Red Bulls defender Tim Ream cleared the ball upfield where Altidore brought it down and cut past a defender into the box but dragged his shot just outside the right post.
Later opportunities for the industrious Arriola and the creative Pulisic rolled wide of the left stick and landed in the hands of a nearly-chipped Ochoa, respectively.
When the teams emerged from halftime tied at 0-0, play carried a similar pattern to the first half. In the 51st minute, Jordan Morris was denied on a glorious chance as his header from a Pulisic Corner was cleared off the line by Andrés Guardado.
After that point, the field slowly tilted in Mexico’s favor. Berhalter made two subs after the hour mark, bringing on Cristian Roldan and Gyasi Zardes to provide fresh legs. A header from Zardes put Pulisic in on goal in the 71st minute, but the young attacker was closed down by a Mexico defender and put his shot wide. Two minutes later Mexico took the lead when Raúl Jiménez laid it off for dos Santos to hit the winner.
The USA continued to search for a way back into the game and a final burst of pressure resulted in a last-gasp chance for Roldan in the 87th minute but his one-time drive from inside the box was blocked by Héctor Moreno.