Something strange happened in the closing minutes of the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal between the U.S. and Honduras last week in Chicago. A sizable portion of Mexican fans, clad in green jerseys and waiting for their team to play in the second semifinal, definitely was cheering for the U.S.
It reminded me of a question I once posed to Bruce Arena when he was the U.S. national-team coach. I asked him if he thought that one day, Mexico's fans living in the U.S. would cheer for the Americans.
He shot me a look of complete incredulity, as if I'd asked the timetable for when pigs would fly. "It won't happen in my lifetime," he noted dryly.
Au contraire. Granted, it was very likely these fans at Soldier Field wanted to see the U.S. advance so they could have the distinct pleasure of watching their favorite squad dismantle the Americans in the final. They got their wish, as Mexico claimed a comprehensive 5-0 win at Giants Stadium on Sunday.
What those supporters were clued into, however, was how interlinked the squads are, and it goes far beyond what happens on the field. To be sure, the rivalry between the two teams is epic. Sunday marked Mexico's first win over the U.S. on American soil in 10 years and was a welcome change from the previous trend, one that snaps the Americans out any complacency and sets the stage for an enticing clash in World Cup qualifying Aug. 12 at the dreaded Azteca.
Mexico looked to be suffering a crisis of confidence lately, even going so far as to schedule that game versus the U.S. on smog-filled afternoon instead of the traditional evening start time, a classic piece of gamesmanship. But it's a further look into how much these two teams need each other.
The symbiotic relationship of the rivalry goes deeper than the on-field action. Soccer programs in the U.S. end up collecting a good bit of funding from Mexico fans filling U.S. stadiums to watch El Tri play in friendlies or the Gold Cup. Many American-based companies, such as Coca-Cola, actually sponsor the Mexican national team.
Mexico City's Club América participated in the World Football Challenge against the likes of Chelsea and Inter Milan -- and the tournament was made possible because the U.S. hosted the event. The better Mexican clubs perform against international competition, the more meaningful it is when Major League Soccer clubs manage to defeat them in tournaments such as SuperLiga or the CONCACAF Champions League.
That's why periods of domination by either side are stultifying to what is a very satisfying continual duel between both squads for CONCACAF supremacy. Though the overall record of 30 Mexico wins to 15 for the U.S. is clearly in El Tri's favor, the recent results are far more tilted in favor of the U.S.
The way Mexico and the U.S. more or less sliced though CONCACAF competition en route to Sunday's final makes it clear that without the other, there simply isn't enough quality to provide a consistent challenge. That's needed to provoke a team to analyze how to improve. Intense competition also helps provide valuable experience in the sort of battlefield conditions that will help both teams in the tournament that really matters: the World Cup.
By playing the U.S., Mexico gets to learn from confronting a squad that is disciplined defensively and very organized on set-pieces, characteristics of European teams that often have undone Mexico. The U.S., meanwhile, gets more familiar with the Latin style of play, featuring quick passes and darting runs.
After so many rounds of battle, with one heavyweight getting knocked down and then bouncing up again, the mutual respect between both sides has grown. It's a grudge match, sure, but one in which the winner is elated because the victory actually means something.
The players are well aware of this. The fans recognize it, too. It's not that surprising, then, that supporters on both sides hoped early on Mexico and the U.S. would meet in the Gold Cup final. They may not be the best of best friends. But these two CONCACAF brothers ultimately need each other.