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Why the USA vs Mexico Rivalry is much more than just the Gold Cup final

While the CONCACAF Gold Cup final match is being played between the USA and Mexcio this Saturday it will be just the tip of the iceberg of the rivalry between these two nations.

I have an interesting conversation every time the USA and Mexico play a soccer match, not just when the full national teams play, but even when the women's teams play, the youth teams play, heck even when the two played recently in beach soccer (Mexico won 2-1 in the semifinals played in December). One of the sweetest ladies you will ever meet will go out of her way to find me and remind me of the score, only if and when Mexico wins. She has lived in the US for almost 20 years and bleeds Red, White and Blue more than most people born in the USA, but when it comes to the round ball her loyalties are all about Mexico. I think there are a lot of people like that, but it has left me wondering about the rivalry.

1) Regional Dominance

When you look at CONCACAF at any level you are often going to see Mexico and the USA going head to head either in the finals or semi finals of every tournament. 20 years ago this wasn't really the case it was almost always Mexico lifting the trophies, but at every level of the game the US has been improving. I think it goes back to the 1994 World Cup, the USA qualified as the host nation and the sport got a new professional league shortly after the World Cup and since then the USA has been on the upward path. It was the qualifying for the 2010 World Cup that may have been the final nail in the Mexican dominance coffin as the USA finished as the top team in CONCACAF.

Now the two sides battle it out as each side is trying to establish themselves as the top team in the region, but a look at the numbers since 2000 shows the US holds a huge edge in the 16 matches played 10-4-2. If you actually look a the three matches the sides have played at neutral sites since 1990, the USA holds a 2-1-0 record. Fans of Mexico are quick to point out that Mexico won the last Gold Cup which was played in the USA and they are correct, but US fans will quickly point out that the USA had brought a team of reserves and backup to the tournament that year as they focused their top players on the 2010 World Cup.

Saturday's match will be a battle to see who is the best team in the region.

more after the jump:

2) National Pride

So the USA is a nation made up of huge immigrant populations, a good number of them have come here for various reasons from Mexico, but on Saturday the Rose Bowl will be packed with soccer fans and a majority of them will be wearing the national colors of, and cheering for Mexico. I sorta get it, if you are from Mexico and living in the USA then I can understand you cheering for them in a match, but where the national pride issue confuses me is when I see people born in the USA, cheering for an opponent that the US National Team is playing. My ancestors came to the USA from Germany (and a couple other places) and so I often find myself cheering for the German National Team, but I could never imagine myself cheering for them in a match against the USA.

Update: So as someone pointed out to me a big issue may be that a number of people who have come to the USA for economic opportunities still have their families and roots in Mexico which may be why they continue to cheer for Mexico, that makes sense to me but it raises another issue. If you came here for a better life or better opportunities why would you cheer for the place you left? Clearly there are a lot of issues behind things like national pride.

Yet we see it happen all the time when these two teams meet, and again I could almost understand it if one side was the clearly superior side, but again that isn't the case. Well not on matches played in the United States, where the USA has a 13-7-9 record. A lot of that success is in recent years, but the fear of pro-Mexican crowds has forced the scheduling of matches in places like Columbus, Ohio. In fact of the last 10 matches played between the two teams in the USA, 3 of them have been in Columbus, twice the matches have been scheduled for Feburary, and in each of those matches the score has been 2-0 for the USA. So I am often confused why so many people born in the USA of Mexican heritage cheer for Mexico over the United States.

I think there is no point of National Pride in the rivalry that speaks louder than 23-0-1. If you are a USMNT fan or a fan of the Mexican National Team you know those numbers, it is the record of the USA when they play matches in Mexico. Not a single win, ever. November 2nd 1997 was the one time that Mexico didn't get a win, but had to settle for a 0-0 draw at Estadio Azteca. It is that dominance in Mexico that has many of the Mexican fans holding on to their superiority in the sport, and that keeps many who may live elsewhere believing that the Mexican National Team is where they loyalties should be placed.

The issue of national pride took center stage for Bumpy Pitch, you know the kick butt line of soccer themed shirts. they partnered with Nike to create two shirts, one for the USA and one for Mexico. They were so popular that they had to reorder them to keep them in stock in advance of the big match, and trust me no matter who wins these will be popular items until they are sold out.

It will be a sell out crowd at the Rose Bowl on Saturday afternoon, the TV ratings will be huge for both English and Spanish broadcasts. I expect the crowd in Southern California will be 75-25 cheering for Mexico, something fans of USA soccer will have to try hard to change in the coming years.

3) Soccer Foothold

For years the United States didn't care much about soccer, there were always people playing the sport or watching it on TV but in never has gained a solid foothold in the USA. The sport has always been the most popular sport in Mexico, their top level professional league, the Primera, has been going for over 60 years and has fans around the world. Their league actually has 4 levels of competition, and the nation has twice hosted the World Cup.

In the USA the sport is still considered a "fringe" sport by most people but you only have to look at the TV ratings for the 2010 World Cup to know the sport is growing quickly in the USA. The average team attendance for Major League Soccer now rivals the NBA and NHL, and on Thursday night over 45,000 people attended the MLS match featuring the New York Red Bulls and the Seattle Sounders. More and more you can find people in the USA wearing soccer jerseys, which shows a growing adoption of the sport, but far too many of them this weekend will be wearing Mexican National Team jerseys.

4) The Match

So I am a huge fan of infographics, I love how various bits and facts can be put together to provide a picture of things in such an interesting way. At the start of the Gold Cup US Soccer put out a great inforgraphic and now on the eve of the USA vs Mexico final, Major League Soccer has put together one about the rivalry of these two teams.

For me I am expecting an exciting matchup between the two teams, for Mexico they dominate their group stage winning by huge margins, but faced tougher tests in the knockout matches where they had to come from behind to get a 2-1 win over Guatemala and needed goals in extra time to get a 2-0 win over Honduras. The United States struggled in their group stage but were able to get a solid 2-0 win over Jamaica in the Quarterfinals and a good 1-0 win over Panama (a team that beat them in the group stage) in the Semifinals.

For me this match will be a battle but there are two players who will be keys for their teams, Javier Hernández Balcázar or Chícharito for Mexico has taken the world by storm this year. First for his great play for his club team Manchester United, and second for the 7 goals he has scored so far in the Gold Cup. For the United States it will be Clint Dempsey who I think will be the key, he has 3 goals in the Gold Cup and had a breakout season for Fullham in the English Premier League.

This match is likely to be very physical and I wouldn't be surprised if one team ends up playing short handed before the end of it, the teams simply don't like each other much and both would love nothing more than to get bragging rights for their nation on Saturday. I think we will see a 1-1 tie at the end of regulation, and then all bets are off as to what might happen, whatever the final result is this rivalry won't be settled.