by Celso Chamochumbi - 10/28/2005
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At some point, familiarity is said to breed contempt. Just over a decade ago, the Mexican and U.S. national teams were the darlings of the soccer world as both countries surprisingly advanced beyond the first round of the 1994 World Cup. Mexico's run included an unlikely first-place finish in group play that featured Italy, Ireland, and Norway. The U.S. team, meanwhile, scored the most important upset of the World Cup by beating pre-tournament favorite Colombia. The 2-1 win at the Rose Bowl not only catapulted the U.S. into the second round, but it also spoke volumes to promote the fledgling idea of a national professional league.
After respectable second-round exits, both countries represented the CONCACAF (North and Central American, plus Caribbean soccer federation) at the 1995 Copa America. It was during quarter-final play that both countries squared off for the first time in a meaningful international tournament. A confident and offensive-minded American team drew 0-0 against an equally talented and more experienced Mexican side. Mexico, after all, had pioneered North American participation in the Copa America during the early 1990s with very successful results, including twice reaching the tournament final. The quarter-final match was decided by penalty-kicks, the achilles heel of Mexican soccer. Almost per tradition, Mexico lost in shoot-outs to the U.S., and relived the agonizing penalty-kick exits of the 1986 and 1994 World Cups.
By the mid 1990s, both countries had proven that their success was not of the ephemeral nature. As happens with many countries, a generation of players propels a given team at a World Cup, but the triumphs evaporate after core players retire from international play. Mexico and the U.S. qualified easily for the 1998 World Cup, and had a chance to build on the accomplishments of four years earlier.
In France '98, their paths diverged drastically, only to intersect four years later in a second-round match in South Korea. For the third time in its last three appearances ('86,'94, '98), the Mexican side advanced beyond the first round. Thrilling first-round finishes against Belgium and Holland were unfortunately forgotten after two elementary defensive breakdowns gave Germany a 2-1 victory. A pattern of strong first-round play, coupled with heartbreaking second-round matches, was taking hold for Mexico. For the Americans, their stay in France was short and humiliating. Three first-round losses and a total of just one goal scored was good enough for a last-place finish. The silver lining to the '98 World Cup experience came by way of lowered expectations for 2002, and the fact that the U.S. did not lose a home match to Mexico in the qualifying process.
As both nations splashed onto the world soccer scene in the 1990s, the matches between both countries gained escalating importance. A bona fide rivalry developed, capped perhaps by the biggest match played between the two teams: a second-round affair in South Korea/Japan 2002. That game showed the world that North America boasts two respectable teams, not just one (Mexico). The American victory will perpetually turn in the stomach of Mexican fans, and added fuel to an already bitter and loaded (historically) regional rivalry. It also went a long way to help Americans forget their dismal performance in France '98, but could it also have misled many to believe that the U.S. will also outperform Mexico in Germany 2006?
Handicapping each respective country's success in Germany 2006 is still premature. Injuries, potential coaching changes, and most importantly, the tournament draw on Dec. 9, will certainly influence prognostications. However, a look at the rivalry, as well as each team's respective performances in recent World Cups, point to a few preliminary conclusions:
1. Both the U.S. and Mexico feature squads with enough international experience that they will not play with a 'happy to be there' energy during the first round. Both teams feast on the underdog role, and have seized opportunities against aging or overrated squads.
2. Because of FIFA's intentions to avoid an early intra-regional match-up, it is unlikely that both teams will play each other. If it happens, however, the numbers support a favorable outcome for the American side. The U.S. has won both recent matches played on a neutral field, although they occurred in 1995 and 2002 respectively.
3. Mexico tends to exceed expectations, and reach the second round. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been inconsistent, and has only two first-round wins dating to the 1994 World Cup.
In short, do not use the much-publicized recent success the U.S. has enjoyed versus Mexico as a barometer for its overall potential in Germany 2006. Conversely, keep in mind that despite Mexico's shortcomings against the U.S. should not overshadow its larger success against other formidable, and much better, squads.
Finally, for our purposes it's worth remembering that the odds for World Cup soccer are often set by bookmakers in Europe, particularly England. Generally speaking, North American teams are not taken to be very competitive internationally, and thus, some real value could be found in games featuring the U.S., Mexico and Costa Rica (CONCACAF's third team). We'll delve into more specifics once the tournament pairings are announced on Dec. 9.