This past weekend marked the 10-year anniversary of a match that has heated a regional rivalry up to its current level of passion.
Across the Pacific Ocean, Jeonju, South Korea was bathed with summer sunlight awaiting the first and so far only match between Mexico and the United States in a World Cup.
With seven points in the group stage and a first place finish, Mexico strolled into the Round of 16 match with supreme confidence. El Tri's swagger stemmed from an upset of Croatia, a valiant comeback against Ecuador after falling behind early and a draw against the Italians, thoroughly outplayed and surprised by Javier Aguirre's men.
The United States stumbled into the game, labeled as underdogs. A victory over Figo's Portugal had been notable, but a draw against host South Korea and a loss to Poland disheartened many who thought the USA could contend in the knockout stages.
I watched alone that night, as I had done for most of that World Cup. A pair of open windows was the extent of my communication with the outside world, and I could smell the late-night barbeque coming from my neighbor's backyard.
A Mexican goal during the Korea/Japan World Cup was usually met by shouts around the neighborhood, a phenomenon that would make me feel linked to a bigger celebration despite my isolation. The two Mexican victories and even the draw against the Italians prompted celebrations after the final whistle sounded, many of which lasted into the next morning.
Brian McBride, Landon Donovan and Javier Aguirre made sure that no impromptu parties would ensue in any Mexican household that night. The grilling in my neighbor's backyard stopped well before the game ended, and the happy rancheras and Mariachi tunes after the game were replaced by one of crooner Vicente Fernandez's saddest songs.
American media outlets reacted with surprise ("The World Cup is going on right now?") outside of the small cluster of die-hards who followed along that year. Mexican match reports read like obituaries, and headlines grimly placed the blame on specific players and manager Javier Aguirre.
After falling behind 1-0 to McBride's early goal, Aguirre pulled the trigger on a desperation move after just 28 minutes. He subbed talented winger Ramon Morales out to bring in 33-year-old striker Luis Hernandez in an effort to bolster the attack.
The result was that Mexico lost the element of surprise on offense and ended up bunching its attackers in the front, creating less danger than expected. In the second half, with Hernandez on the pitch, the USA put the game to bed with Landon Donovan making it 2-0.
"The Mexicans were spent at that point, having thrown everything they had at us in the first 25 minutes," Bruce Arena told U.S. Soccer's website back in 2003. Aguirre publicly apologized for the move years later.
The resulting loss still stings Mexican fans, and is a lynchpin for debate amongst USA supporters when discussions arise about which team is better.
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"They've never, ever been better than us," stated a defiant Hernandez, 10 years later, in an interview recalling the match. "[Aguirre's] substitution was no mistake. How could it be? It was to bring me on," the former Boca Juniors and Los Angeles Galaxy striker playfully continued.
And despite Hernandez's saucy words, it is clear that the loss in Jeonju sparked reflection for Mexico's soccer authorities, who devised a plan to get back on top and pinned the directive on a long to-do list of El Tri's goals, one that still has "win a World Cup" unchecked.
The 2002 World Cup set off a seesaw of dominance for both nations in CONCACAF, with the United States knocking Mexico off in the 2007 Gold Cup final before two straight Mexican wins pushed them over the USA on American soil in 2009 and 2011. Since the turn of the century, neither team has been able to win a World Cup qualifying match as a visitor.
El Tri's upcoming presence at the Olympic Games in London, the Confederations Cup in Brazil and its two U-17 World Cup titles certainly stake a claim for current dominance in the heated rivalry, as the United States scrambles to once again catch up to its neighbor.
The future would seem to promise no shortage of story lines and drama. "The Mexican player's mentality has definitely changed. We can play against anyone expecting a win," U-23 boss Luis Fernando Tena said after Mexico's recent conquest of the Toulon Tournament in France.
Months into his tenure as USA national team manager, Jurgen Klinsmann's emphasis on recruiting young players while dipping into the talent pools available in Mexico and Germany aims to revitalize his squad, one that even Klinsmann admits is currently below El Tri. "I have an admiration for what they've done the past ten years or so [...] This is something I aspire to."
"Ten years or so," actually has a very palpable and defined date. June 17, 2002.
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