For the last number of years, the USA-Mexico rivalry has been defined by a pretty set cast of characters. Sure, some names have come and gone, but, over the last four years anyway, the nucleus has been rather stable.
Bradley. Dempsey. Altidore. Howard. Chicharito. Guardado. Marquez. Ochoa.
On Tuesday in Nashville (TV coverage begins at 8:30 p.m. ET, with first kick expected after 9), none of them will be involved as both Concacaf foes look toward the future. As is the case after one World Cup cycle concludes and another begins, new faces are ushered in as teams cast an eye on who may be key components of another qualifying run. Nothing is set in stone regarding the past rivalry stalwarts, some of whom may still have roles going forward (save for Dempsey and Marquez, who have retired). And with a pair of interim managers at the helm, it's quite possible that much of what happens at Nissan Stadium will have little bearing going forward.
It's still USA vs. Mexico, though, and there's no such thing as an empty rivalry bout. Here are three subplots to keep an eye on in the latest edition of their storied history:
Jonathan Gonzalez, in the flesh
The Jonathan Gonzalez USA-Mexico story diverged into a number of directions when the California-born announced his allegiance to El Tri at the beginning of the year. And while the conversations had in the aftermath were necessary and asked some tough questions of the U.S. federation, they often steered beyond the player itself and veered into bigger-picture themes.
Well, here, for the first time, Gonzalez will get to show the U.S. and its supporters what they're missing. A former teammate of Tyler Adams on the U.S. U-20 national team and a halftime substitute vs. Uruguay on Friday, Gonzalez is expected to play a big role under interim manager Tuca Ferretti in this match. It hasn't exactly been nine months of meteoric growth for Gonzalez since his allegiance change. He wasn't taken to the World Cup by Juan Carlos Osorio (given Mexico's midfield options at the time, his inclusion always appeared to be a bit of a long shot), and he had to earn his place again in Monterrey's starting lineup (in the current Apertura campaign he's started all of Los Rayados' eight matches) after it switched managers. He's fully in frame for the 2022 cycle, though, and he's out to earn his place on the national team he selected.
The boo birds might come out from the U.S. faithful (and even then, they might be outnumbered in the stands by cheers from the devoted El Tri fans who will surely turn out in droves), and they're entitled to do that, but it's not as if his choice was an acrimonious one. Gonzalez described the difficulty in his choice and the confidence he has in it for ESPNFC this week, and he'll surely have a bit of added motivation to show well against the team he could have been playing for instead.
The future is now for the rivalry
Gonzalez is far from the only rising star involved in this game. There's Cruz Azul midfielder Roberto Alvarado and Club America forward Diego Lainez, two youth stars who have come through Mexico's impressive youth system and appear set for larger roles with the senior national team–all while being ogled by European clubs.
On the U.S. side, there's no Christian Pulisic or Josh Sargent, but their young counterparts like Tim Weah, Weston McKennie and Adams are set to be fixtures from here on out.
There's no real nastiness or lingering bitterness between this cast of actors yet, and this will be their first attempt to establish themselves against the players they'll be compared to and surely be seeing in qualifiers, Gold Cups and beyond in the coming years.
The USA hasn't beaten Mexico in over three years
The USA's all-time record vs. Mexico isn't great, with the Americans staring at a 19-37-14 all-time clip entering this match. Since the turn of the century, though, fortune has favored the Americans, to the tune of a 13-7-6 mark. The most recent history belongs to Mexico, though. El Tri has gone 2-0-1 in the last three meetings, starting with the Concacaf Cup playoff in October 2015 that sent Mexico to the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup and continuing with a 2016 triumph in Columbus that forever altered the aura surrounding their bogeyman World Cup qualifying destination.
Opportunities to play against one another don't come along that frequently, and there's no guarantee they'll meet in next summer's Gold Cup, either–they haven't played on that stage since 2011. So with a chance to get one on the all-time scoreboard and to end a few-year streak of futility, the U.S. would be hard-pressed to put some emphasis on the result, no matter the circumstances around the match–for psychological reasons, if nothing else.