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An Old Soccer Rivalry in a Strange New World

Hope, tension, and the end of “Dos a Cero” at the U.S. and Mexico’s World Cup qualifier in Ohio

Getty Images
Getty Images

There was reason to be concerned. Three days after electing a president whose campaign had made the United States’ relationship with Mexico and the status of Mexican immigrants hot-button issues, the U.S. men’s national soccer team hosted Mexico in a World Cup qualifier on Friday night.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, stories of vitriol and violence against people of color have proliferated. With those incidents lingering in the background, thousands of people from the U.S., Mexico, and beyond swarmed into a stadium parking lot in in Columbus, Ohio, a tiny patch of blue on a very red Ohio electoral map. They were setting up adjacent cookouts, standing in the same port-a-potty lines, and braving the same bitter cold — just wrapped in different colored scarves. In four previous U.S.-Mexico qualifiers held in Columbus, cultural differences rarely amounted to conflict. Now, with American prejudice so openly inflamed, the stakes seemed higher. This was a normalcy stress test in a new United States.

The location of the match, in the noted swing state of Ohio, was no coincidence. The first U.S.-Mexico match in Columbus happened back in February 2001. The thinking by U.S. Soccer at the time was that a 20,000-capacity stadium was small enough to prevent Mexican fans from flooding the stands, and Ohio can be frigid enough to freeze Mexican players out of their comfort zone. Since then the results have been consistent: a 2–0 victory for the home team. In 2005 and 2013, the wins clinched World Cup berths. In 2013, Clint Dempsey missed a penalty just to maintain the “Dos a Cero” scoreline.

Those triumphs made Mapfre the closest thing the U.S. had to Mexico City’s impenetrable Azteca Stadium. It’s not the biggest or best soccer stadium in America, but the Americans had not lost there going into Friday night. In a Players’ Tribune piece last week, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard dubbed it “Fort Columbus,” describing the arena as the USMNT’s “spiritual home.”

In the context of U.S. Soccer, then, this Mexico match marked the latest chapter in a storied tradition. Against the current American political backdrop, though, there was palpable concern: perhaps an opportunity for troublemaking interlopers to spoil the fun. Would there be fights? Would chants of “Build that wall!” echo throughout the stands? In a week when the spirit of Brexit had made its way across the Atlantic, would the worst elements of European soccer hooliganism manifest at Mapfre, too?

The pregame tailgate dispelled that dread. The parking lot was a lovefest, with supporters of both national teams freely sharing food, drinks, and soccer balls with each other. At an official fan center featuring carnival games, a DJ, and cardboard cutouts of American players, Mexican fans held a pep rally and cycled through some pro-Yank cheers. Those fans who acknowledged the tensions of campaign season did so with levity, including a Mexico supporter whose sign read “LOSER PAYS FOR THE WALL.”

When U.S. Soccer’s traveling supporters group, American Outlaws, marched in from its offsite event, the group shared hugs and fist bumps with Mexico partisans lined up alongside the parade.

The jovial spirit was a reminder that while soccer can foster intense rivalries between clubs and countries, in America, the game has provided a stage for multiculturalism and inclusivity. This is by necessity. If not for immigrants and their children, the U.S. player pool would look radically different, and a soccer culture probably would not have developed at all. The mass of humanity outside Mapfre was especially diverse: a German man from Connecticut who claimed to be Jürgen Klinsmann’s cousin, a Colombian virologist, and an American dad who regularly commuted to Columbus soccer matches from Indianapolis.

When the party moved inside Mapfre, the pregame ceremonies only contributed to the positive vibes, with players from both sides posing for a photo together before kickoff. Once play was underway, though, the U.S. team took that welcoming spirit a little too far. Throughout a disjointed first half, the Yanks let Mexico run wild on a field where El Tri has traditionally struggled. Beyond a flurry of activity in the opening minutes, the Americans rarely seemed in sync — perhaps because, in one of the erratic decisions that have typified his tenure as manager, Klinsmann debuted an untested 3–4–3 formation in the most important match of the year.

Mexico, meanwhile, came out with an energy and poise rarely seen under Juan Carlos Osorio, hitting the post 10 minutes in and scoring their first-ever goal in Columbus 10 minutes later. When U.S. captain Michael Bradley and Mexico’s Giovani dos Santos got tangled up just outside the American penalty area, Miguel Layún swiped the ball and rocketed it past Howard. And just like that, 15 years of psychological edge evaporated.

It was as if Mexico had seized control of the USMNT’s usual Columbus swagger. Wunderkind Christian Pulisic and rising star Bobby Wood showed flashes of attacking promise, but they had almost no midfield support. By halftime, two U.S. defenders had yellow cards and Howard had exited the game after injuring his groin on a goal kick.

Wood began the second half by converting a pass from Jozy Altidore into the equalizer, but the Americans quickly receded. Klinsmann seemed passive. He waited forever to use his subs and ultimately left potential spark plugs Sacha Kljestan, Graham Zusi, and Alejandro Bedoya on the bench, along with the youth brigade of Julian Green and Lynden Gooch. The players who remained on the pitch fell back into familiar, mediocre patterns.

In the end, Mexico made the Americans pay for their blown chances and lack of urgency. The decisive goal came off the head of longtime U.S. nemesis Rafael Márquez, a veteran of the first three “Dos a Cero” matches. The Mexican captain shook John Brooks, raced toward the near post, and nodded an 89th-minute corner kick into the net, seizing the lead once and for all. It was a symbolic knockout punch that led to an actual physical altercation. As Mexico masterfully milked the clock in stoppage time, the Americans’ frustration finally boiled over, and a squad-on-squad scuffle briefly threatened to become a brawl.

Then a few American supporters snapped, too. A belligerent U.S. fan tried to start a “Build that wall!” chant, but the rest of his section shouted him down. A few sections over, another yelled “Go home!” before whispering, “Trump, Trump, Trump.” It might have been a tasteless private joke, but what followed was shameful and public: According to sources at the game, a U.S. supporter reportedly ambushed a young Mexican fan in the stands upon the final whistle, punching him and breaking his glasses before supporters from both sides broke up the fight.

These incidents did not appear to be coordinated, playing more like random, short blasts of acrimony. It’s something you could see after any gutting sports defeat, but in the context of the hate speech and assaults that have accompanied Trump’s ascendance, every new outburst feels like a symptom of something darker.

Osorio’s Mexico team is undefeated in the five matches since their embarrassing 7–0 loss to Chile in last summer’s Copa America, thanks to the kind of crisp possession play Klinsmann has long promised but never delivered to the U.S. At their best, these teams are still evenly matched, but Mexico is in form, playing with a firmer identity. Most importantly, El Tri have a much easier road to Russia 2018 compared with the uphill battle facing the U.S. If the Yanks fail to qualify for the World Cup, they’ll have much bigger problems to worry about than their regional football power struggle with Mexico.

An earlier version of this story misstated the year that Clint Dempsey intentionally missed a penalty kick versus Mexico. It was 2013, not 2009.