How the U.S. win over Mexico at the 2002 World Cup forever altered the rivalry

When Mexico faced the United States on June 17, 2002, at the 2002 World Cup in Jeonju, South Korea, few could have predicted the lasting effect a game would have on either side.

Twenty years to the day, the aura and the myth surrounding the game seem to have come to life.

The names associated with the game epitomize a bygone golden era for both teams: Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Landon Donovan, Rafa Marquez, Claudio Reyna, Jorge Campos and Brad Friedel were all legends for club and country and all served as witnesses to the game. ‘story. Today, a clash between the two teams would likely line up Gio Reyna, the son of Claudio, on the American side, and Efrain Alvarez, the native of Los Angeles and Sorting star who was born just two days after the game.

Important phrases like The fifth game – representing Mexico’s desire to reach an elusive fifth World Cup game – and two to zero are deeply rooted in what happened in Jeonju.

USA edge Mexico 2-0 – most significant two to zero result so far in favor of the Americans – had a ripple effect that shifted the balance of the rivalry. Equally important, the victory boosted USA’s confidence in the upcoming games against Mexico and earned the Americans, longtime underdogs in the series, the respect of their rivals.

Brian McBride led USA 1-0 early in the first half, and Donovan helped secure the result with a 65th-minute header.

“It made us believe,” Donovan said.

While Mexico’s Estadio Azteca remained an intimidating venue for Americans in the years that followed, winning the 2002 World Cup made Americans feel, as Donovan put it, “as if we could beat them anywhere else”.

In their 25 head-to-head matches since 2002, the USMNT have won 11 against Mexico’s eight, shifting the balance in what was once a one-sided rivalry. In addition, the United States have won six games over Mexico by a 2-0 scoreline since Korea-Japan, and the two teams have won three head-to-head title matches at regional level since this FIFA World Cup. world: Mexico has three gold medals. The Cup wins, while the United States has two and a CONCACAF Nations League, to boot.

Mexico have fought back in a way and asserted their dominance in the youth categories over the past two decades, winning two FIFA Under-17 World Cups as well as gold and bronze at the Olympics. , the de facto World Under-23 Championships. .

Later, the aftermath of the 2002 World Cup and its historic result between the two North American titans also unveiled an unprecedented battleground for both teams: the recruitment of double national players eligible to play for Mexico and the United States. -United. Prior to the Round of 16 match in South Korea, fewer than a handful of players had suited up for either team – in the years since, a host of young talent have been pursued by the two teams in dating more suited to college football than internationally. soccer.

A turning point

The start of the 21st century ushered in a new era in the CONCACAF rivalry. Before the two teams met in 2002, USA had quietly come of age with four wins from five meetings with El Tri in all competitions.

Donovan had a ringside seat to one of those wins a year earlier. He was on the bench in a 2-0 qualifying win at Columbus, Ohio – a good thing two to zero. Donovan, who shares the all-time record with Clint Dempsey with 57 goals, admitted the tide was turning in favor of the United States ahead of the World Cup.

“It wasn’t just that we beat them in Columbus, it was the way we beat them, it was so dominant,” said Donovan, now executive vice president of the San Diego Loyal of the USL Championship. . “It was so dominant and it had never happened, certainly in the history of the rivalry.”

After the group game in Korea-Japan ended, Donovan and his teammates were ‘ecstatic’ about the match against Mexico in the round of 16 – no doubt intrigued by the opportunity to play at a neutral venue, stripped of benefits of a home crowd or place.

“You see yourself as a team against a team,” Donovan said. “Because they couldn’t complain about Columbus and the cold and the snow. We couldn’t complain about the altitude and the smog. It was just like, OK, who’s the better team?”

Donovan, who would win the tournament’s best young player award, was highly motivated. Knowing what was at stake, the up-and-coming talent set out to make a massive statement.

“I certainly understood, even though I was 20, that it was possible that we would never face them in a World Cup again,” Donovan said. “There’s a historical context here that if that was the only time we played them… we wanted to make sure we still got that win.”

After McBride’s goal, manager Bruce Arena and his team did well to absorb the pressure from Mexico until Donovan headed past.

The United States, neglected by the soccer world and not taken seriously by Mexico for decades, had found a way to permanently alter the narrative of the rivalry.

“It cemented in the minds of the Mexican fans that this rivalry was now real,” Donovan said. “No matter what happens in qualifying, friendlies, they can never, ever, ever take that away from us. Immediately it gave us more credibility and I think it made the rivalry very real for the first time.”

Former Liga MX and MLS defender Greg Garza, who has American and Mexican nationality, played for the United States from 2014 to 2017 and earned 10 caps with the senior team. Garza was 10 when the CONCACAF rivals played each other in 2002, and having grown up in the United States as a fan of the Mexican Pumas, he admits to being heavily influenced by the domestic league across the border.

The victory for the United States, he said, helped him understand what it meant to represent the country whose colors he eventually wore.

“You think back to how big Mexican football was then, and how big it still is, and the pressure on that national team is enormous,” Garza said. “This country lives and breathes football. That was the turning point of that rivalry, of course. Every time you step onto that pitch for a game between the United States and Mexico, you know it’s going to be an absolute battle, an absolute war. And that is the beauty of rivalry, passion and patriotism.

Respect earned

Former El Tri defender and current ESPN analyst Paco de Anda, who played against USA in 2002, recalled a complicated game for his side that day, with his teammates never thinking about the implications it would entail afterwards.

“It was a tougher challenge than expected and we never really understood the magnitude of it,” de Anda said. “I think we were taken in by our own overconfidence, well, the reality is that it was a tougher challenge than expected. That’s the first thing that comes to mind.”

The United States followed the upset against Mexico with a total of four wins, two draws and a loss before the 2008 MLS All-Star Game, where former United States midfielder Pablo Mastroeni suddenly found himself on the line. the same shirt as Mexican soccer icon Cuauhtemoc Blanco. The World Cup rivals from six years earlier were briefly teammates when the All-Stars beat West Ham 3-2.

Mastroeni, now Real Salt Lake head coach, noticed an ‘understood respect for each other’ when spending time with Blanco.

Was there a connection with the victory of the United States at the World Cup?

“Absolutely,” Mastroeni said. “Respect for this game and previous games was definitely widespread.”

As Mastroeni puts it, there was a “psychological impact” that lingered from 2002.

“El Tri kind of lost control of being the kings of CONCACAF at the time, and [we] really started to show real strength and a real ability to not only compete with them, but to surpass them,” he said.

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