The U.S. meets its greatest rival, Mexico, in an exhibition here on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2/3, Univision) -- I'm sure as hell not calling it a "friendly" -- and the gap between the two countries is bigger than it has been in more than 20 years. Just last Saturday, Mexico won the Olympic gold medal, outplaying a star-studded Brazil team that will provide much of that nation's 2014 World Cup squad. The U.S., by contrast, failed to even qualify for the Games.
Mexico's Olympic glory was even more impressive considering: 1) All of the players on the team that beat Brazil were Mexico-based, showing El Tri's depth, and 2) Mexico was missing almost all of its big names, including Javier (Chicharito) Hernández, Carlos Vela, Andrés Güardado, Jonathan Dos Santos and Guillermo Ochoa. (Even Giovani Dos Santos skipped the final with a hamstring injury.) What's more, Mexico won the Olympic title in Europe, an important step for a nation whose greatest soccer moments had always taken place on Mexican soil.
The Olympic gold medal was only the latest success for this Mexican generation, which has won two Under-17 World Cups, took third in last year's Under-20 World Cup and blitzed the U.S. 4-2 in last year's Gold Cup final, unleashing a barrage that was downright frightening. Even though Mexico has lost in the Round of 16 in each of the last five World Cups, everything right now is pointing to a breakthrough in two years. If I had to pick the top six contenders to win the 2014 World Cup, they would be Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Germany and Mexico.
So why is all this good for the United States? Simple. There are few better motivators than seeing your greatest rival make The Leap. Even when they aren't competing against each other, as they are this week, U.S. and Mexican soccer are inextricably linked. There's a reason I include the spots of both countries in my Twitter posts whenever the new FIFA rankings come out. The literally hundreds of live soccer games you can see on U.S. TV each month include those of the U.S. and Mexican leagues, to say nothing of U.S. and Mexican players abroad. Nor has it gone unnoticed that in terms of sheer size, fans of the Mexican national team in the U.S. outnumber those of the Stars & Stripes.
We also know that the rise of the U.S. in the rivalry helped motivate this Mexican renaissance. For nine years -- from mid-2000 to mid-2009 -- the U.S. owned Mexico. The two teams played 14 times in that stretch, and the U.S. won 10 of those games, tying two. None of Mexico's defeats was tougher to handle than the U.S.' 2-0 victory in World Cup 2002, which sent the U.S. to the quarterfinals. But the collective Mexican angst that resulted -- a pain similar to the one the U.S. is now feeling -- helped set the stage for the changes that have come. Heading into Wednesday's game, Mexico has not lost to the U.S. in four games over the past three years.
How has Mexico gotten so much better? You could certainly argue that Mexico had underperformed in the past and is now starting to reach the true potential of a nation with 115 million people, a love for soccer that dominates other sports and the relative financial health of its top soccer league, which is surpassed only by that of Brazil (and, at times, Argentina) in the Americas. Mexico's youth development has clearly gotten better, though I don't totally buy that it's down to a rule that required young players to get a certain number of minutes on the field (a rule that has been repealed, anyway).
More importantly, Mexican clubs started investing more in developing young players. "Our educators are better trained and better paid," Olympic coach Luis Fernando Tena said after the gold-medal game. "And our young players are better. They look toward the future more optimistically. Our young players left behind the old complexes. They play more at Under-15 and Under-17 levels all over the world. In that way, they acquire more maturity and experience."
The Mexican mentality is stronger, too. Back in 2005, I asked several leading authorities what was plaguing Mexican soccer when it came to playing against the United States. Rafael Ramos, who has long covered Mexico for La Opinión in Los Angeles, explained: "The Mexican writer Octavio Paz once said Mexicans have more fear of victory than of defeat." As Guillermo Cantú, a former Mexican player, told me, "I think it's a psychological game now. The mentality is on the American side, and we have to steal it."
In 2005, too, few Mexican players had joined European clubs, as many of their U.S. counterparts had. "For me it's easy," said Javier Aguirre, who coached Mexico's 2002 World Cup team and would go on to run Spain's Osasuna. "In the last 10 years the Americans have had 30 to 40 players in Europe. We have two or three players in Europe, and that is the great difference. Mexico doesn't have that type of competition."
In recent years, of course, a number of Mexican players have had success in Europe, while at the same time the Mexican league has provided a great launching pad. As for the Mexican mentality, it's a winning one these days. When the Olympic team went down early to Japan in the semifinals, the Mexicans didn't roll over. All they did was score three unanswered goals.
U.S. Soccer has made its own improvements in youth development, beefing up the numbers at its Bradenton academy and (more importantly) starting the nationwide U.S. Development Academy to incorporate the top traveling teams, limit their number of games and shift the focus from winning to honing skills for the future. But the fact is that the U.S. won't truly begin competing with Mexico (and other top soccer countries) on the development front until MLS clubs ratchet up their own academies (which is starting to happen, more with some teams than with others).
The great thing about Mexico's rise is that it's not a zero-sum game with the United States. Three teams from CONCACAF (and maybe four) will reach World Cup 2014, and we may go a lifetime without seeing another U.S.-Mexico matchup in a World Cup. Except on the rare occasions they play head-to-head, the U.S. and Mexico can benefit from each other's successes, which raise the global profile for this region and the players it produces. Plus, as U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has noted, improvement often comes from the public pressure to get better. If Mexico can do this, why can't the United States?
Where does Wednesday's game fit into the discussion? Granted, it's an exhibition (unlike the two World Cup qualifiers we'll expect to see in 2013), and granted, the U.S. has brought a team that doesn't include Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore or Carlos Bocanegra. It seems unlikely that the U.S. will beat Mexico for the first time on Mexican soil after going 0-23-1 all-time, and there are moments when you wonder if the most useful result will be Klinsmann gaining the experience of managing a team in the Azteca for the first time.
Yet I admire the U.S. for scheduling a rare exhibition south of the border, and you never know which young players will perform well when thrown into the deep end. (The U.S. back line, in particular, will face a giant test.) And who knows? If the U.S. can surprise Italy on the road, as it did earlier this year, there may be a chance for one here, too. For all the improvements that have taken place in the Mexican mentality, the U.S. is a strong-minded group that desperately wants to start closing the gap.