The United States Men’s National Team plays rival Mexico tonight in the opening round of the CONCACAF Hexagonal World Cup Qualifiers.
The Hex, for those less soccer literate, is the final round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying. Six teams (hence Hex) all play each other in home and home series, totalling10 games for each team. The three teams with the highest point totals automatically qualify to represent the region in the following World Cup. The 4th place team advances to an interconference playoff.
The Hex is a year-long competition, lasting from this international break, 11/16, until 10/17. Only the US, Mexico and Costa Rica have won the competition since it’s inception in 1998, and the schedulers (and broadcasters) did the US no favors. We face Mexico and Costa Rica in this window. Starting off strong with a home win vs Mexico is key.
Home field advantage is very real, as studies have found that the roar of the home crowd objectively influences refs. Sounders fans don’t need to be reminded that in soccer this is especially profound, as the subjectivity of the ref can dramatically change a game (#geigered). One problem for the USMNT as it tries to become a world soccer power has been finding a stadium that feels like home when playing Mexico. Few cities overwhelming support the Stars and Stripes in this rivalry. Columbus, the birthplace of dos a cero and home to today’s match, is one of the few places where Mexican green doesn’t dominate the stands. In Columbus, the USA has never lost to Mexico.
Okay, I cannot act like this is easy to do, writing up this preview in a vacuum of political context. Tonight I will be cheering for America to beat Mexico because, of course, I want to see soccer grow in this country and the USMNT advance to the World Cup. However. In the heart of America, Mexicans will be facing a nation that elected a man who called them rapists. A man who threatens to build a wall, deport families, and jail immigrants. I find it very difficult to support America right now.
The reason the USMNT has a hard time finding homefield within its own borders is because of our inherent heterogeneity. We are a pluralist society. We were born of immigrants and two of our national touchstones, the Statue of Liberty and Liberty Bell, epitomize inclusivity and tolerance. We celebrate a shared history and huge border with Mexico and that interchange of cultures is key to our American identity. Who doesn’t love burritos, piñatas, avocados and California? Some of our greatest cities were founded by Spaniards and stewarded by Mexico: San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Albuquerque etc. What was once Mexico is now America, and vice versa. To imagine the United States could revert to something so white, intolerant and nativist is heartbreaking.
I lived in Los Angeles in early April 2002 when the US beat Mexico in a World Cup gearing-up friendly. Bush was president and the post-9/11 unity most Americans felt was waning. That spring we were already killing civilians in Afghanistan and the WMD rhetoric was just starting to percolate. Worse, Bush had recently declared he wouldn’t follow Geneva Conventions for enemy combatants captured in the fighting. I wasn’t as diehard a soccer supporter then, but I followed the sport. Being in L.A., I had more friends who supported Mexico in that match and, honestly, I felt bad for El Trí. I was ashamed of my country and embarrassed we won.
Things got more complicated that summer. The USMNT followed up that victory with one of the biggest wins in their history at the 2002 World Cup. We beat Mexico, dos-a-cero, in the Knockout Round for our signature win of the modern era. This all happened at the advent of the Bush Doctrine, and it greatly complicated my relationship to US soccer.
Tomorrow in the Heartland, it’s America against Mexico. In the afterbirth of Trump’s America, there’s little hope the feud stays on the pitch.