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A brief history of the USMNT versus Mexico

In which bragging rights are hard to find

Brian McBride goal Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

It all started well enough. In the spring of 1934 the U.S. men traveled by boat to Rome with dreams of playing in the 1934 World Cup. The team that stood in their way was Mexico. The two teams were about to meet for the first time after what must have been a grueling trip. The day turned out to be the American’s as Western Pennsylvania’s Aldo Donnelli scored four goals to lead the U.S. to a 4-2 victory. This would be the only time that the United States would directly eliminate Mexico from reaching the World Cup Final. Soccer historian Carlos Calderon Cardoso said the game “created a rivalry that lasted forever.”

But that victory marked the end of an odd little golden era in American soccer history. After a spike in popularity following the formation of the ASL in 1921 the depression dealt a major blow to the sport that was already behind baseball and football. That loss of popularity led to a dark era for American soccer and one that left Mexico as the dominant team in the region.

And by dark I mean pitch black. The U.S. would not beat Mexico again for 46 years. The highlights were a pair of draws in the states in World Cup qualifying matches in 1960 and 1965. But outside of those rare results the U.S. was completely dominated, and by the end of the 70s the U.S. had been outscored by 64 goals and were winless in 16 matches in Mexico.

USMNT goal difference against Mexico before 1980

From the ashes a fire shall be woken. The rise of the NASL in the 70s helped the U.S. turn a corner in the 80s. In a 1980 World Cup qualifier the men finally tallied their second defeat of Mexico by a score of 2-1 behind a Steve Moyers brace. Reportedly this game was an ugly affair, played in a downpour and a cloud of hatred with spitting, elbowing and kicks to the achilles throughout. Even though the team didn’t qualify for the World Cup this victory was a major achievement for the national team and a turning point against Mexico.

While Mexico still controlled these next two decades the U.S. was able to hold their own, managing a 4-3-4 (W-L-D) record at home and getting their first draw on Mexican soil. The U.S. fell off following the 1994 World Cup, however, as they beat Mexico only once the rest of the decade.

Expected lines represent what goal differential would be for average opponents

The mad science of Dos a Cero. The new millennium brought Landon Donovan and new life to the border rivalry. The U.S. downright owned the naughts and established the phrase Dos a Cero due to an uncanny number of big 2-0 victories. The scoreline is not just a romance dangled by the media, but a clear statistical anomaly. Typically a home team wins 2-0 roughly 10% of the time but since 2000 the U.S. has done this seven times in nineteen home games. Science would hand Dos a Cero the verdict of truth but what can actually explain it? Even more compelling is the fact that the U.S. registered a Dos a Cero in four consecutive home World Cup qualifiers for the 2002 to 2014 World Cup tournaments. All of them in Columbus, Ohio. All of them at Mapfre stadium.

Then there is the oddity that the U.S. won their biggest game ever, a World Cup elimination game, against Mexico by that same score of 2-0. Mexico has beaten the U.S. 2-0 in 3 of their 26 home games, which would be considered quite normal, but in U.S. terms this phenomenon is much different. Dos a Cero is flamboyant and bizarre and it adds to the mystique of the series, and must play in the minds of the players when they walk onto the field. How does something with no explanation become so much a part of the fabric of a thing?

Expected lines represent what goal differential would be for average opponents

No country for the U.S. Men. The U.S. may have a mental edge at home but Mexico has the fortress to the south having lost just once to the U.S. on home soil in a meaningless friendly. The U.S. has never won a competitive match in Mexico but they have kept games close recently. The last World Cup qualifier resulted in a 0-0 draw and the prior to that the U.S. has never lost by more than one goal in Mexico since 1993.

Taking the big picture view the U.S. Mexico rivalry has been nearly a dead heat since 1980. The U.S. holds a 17-14-11 (W-L-D) record over the last 37 years and has outscored Mexico by a scant five goals, but when you consider nearly three-quarters of the games occurred in U.S. stadiums those figures slightly favor Mexico. Over that same time frame Mexico has seven CONCACAF Championships or Gold Cups while the U.S. have five. But the U.S. won that all important World Cup elimination game. The rivalry has been that close for that long.

USMNT goal differential versus Mexico all-time

The U.S. Mexico series has all the traits of one of the great rivalries in the world with local bad blood, mysterious score lines, a World Cup elimination and eras of alternating control. In the next chapter the U.S. will return to Estadio Azteca for the third time this decade. There may also be a competitive fixture in the Gold Cup in July. But beyond the summer waits a future with two soccer powers of the region battling for supremacy and no indication of one separating from the other.