Why regional dominance actually means nothing for US, Mexico
It’s a complicated summer for sorting out who, exactly, is king of CONCACAF. And we do love that periodic argument, now don’t we?
Mexico’s best bunch has been literally halfway around the world, just off the return leg from Russia. Meanwhile, the United States’ best team will not reassemble until September. And the last time the region’s heavyweights met, the result was a draw that favored the United States but still couldn’t be called conclusive proof of any gap closing.
It’s a lovely debate, who has the better team of the moment, the United States or Mexico. But in real-world spoils, there’s zero to gain by being king of CONCACAF.
This summer’s Gold Cup won’t settle a thing; both teams will miss important players, Mexico far more of them than the United States.
So we’re left feeling a bit hungry for North American soccer’s go-to debate: Is the U.S. or Mexico currently the better team?
It’s a good time to embrace this uncomfortable truth: It doesn’t matter.
Establishing regional dominance sounds like a good idea. Then again, YouTube is chock full of things that sounded like a good idea but turned out to be … not so much.
Supporters and sometimes media get all twisted up trying to proclaim a bigger bully of the CONCACAF block. But the only benefit is feeding a debate we love. It’s great for argument over rounds at the pub or a smooth coffee, but there’s no practical application to this rivalry equation. What truly matters is how each team fares at the World Cup.
A target that’s always in motion
First, this tug-of-war is completely fluid; what is true today might not be tomorrow. It’s mostly been this way for a quarter-century now, the pendulum swinging proverbially back and forth across the Rio Grande.
The United States mostly had the upper hand over the last two decades in terms of World Cup qualifying success, although it was the slimmest of margins, and tenuously held.
Still, it was an edge that cut El Tri and its supporters deeply, especially since Mexico had historically dominated something that really wasn’t much of a rivalry until the 1990s. American soccer’s improvement elevated the bitterness of the border feud in 1991, when the U.S. upset Mexico, 2-0 in the first Gold Cup semifinal.
It was mostly Mexico for the next decade, with the United States picking off results here and there, like the U.S. win in 2000 at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum on Landon Donovan’s debut. The rivalry changed forever, taking on far more importance and gaining a real place in American soccer lore, during the 2002 World Cup, the match that changed all. The U.S. defeated Mexico, 2-0 in the round of 16. The king of CONCACAF that qualifying cycle? Costa Rica, surprisingly. The Ticos didn’t get out of their group at the World Cup.
“Dos a cero” was officially a U.S. Soccer meme – even before we knew what memes were. As of last fall, Mexico assumed the upper hand, finally solving the Columbus puzzle, ostensibly serving as a ceremonial shifting point.
Being king of the CONCACAF hill actually did matter a little back in the 2000s, but only because the United States, having temporarily taken the high ground, established itself as worthy opposition: an actual rival to provide some competitive balance. With some parity established, the debates and (generally) good-natured fan jousting ensued. It has added depth and a bit of emotional heft to being a U.S. Soccer supporter. What it didn’t do is add any practical benefit to ruling the region.
What about Confederations Cup spots?
As the two lead engineers on this CONCACAF train, the U.S. and Mexico regard World Cup qualifying as something just this side of a given. It gets a little dicey at times, but there’s a yawning gap between the Yanks and El Tri and everyone else in the region.
Yes, Mexico came close to tire-fire status during the 2014 campaign, literally within minutes of missing the World Cup entirely before a U.S. goal ironically helped avoid a complete capsize. And, yes, the United States’ effort started circling the drain last fall, prompting U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati to remove Jurgen Klinsmann. The point is, the United States and Mexico generally have the horses to hold off the field. Which team finishes first is of little consequence, seeding for the World Cup draw and all.
The Confederations Cup is the closest to any real nutrition from this rivalry meal. Then again, even that part gets seriously bland.
This year’s Gold Cup winner will face the 2019 Gold Cup winner to decide who inherits CONCACAF’s Confederations Cup spot in 2021.
Players, coaches and officials like to talk up the benefit of appearing at the Confederations Cup, the helpful investment ahead of the next year’s World Cup. The idea is that getting familiar with surroundings can be helpful. Removing some logistical mystery ostensibly allows teams to better focus on crisp combination play or eliminating killer passes in Zone 14.
But here’s the Confederation Cup’s dirty little secret: It doesn’t really help at the World Cup. There is just no evidence to support the conclusion that it helps. Generally speaking, teams that appear at the Confederations Cup do no better at the World Cup 12 months later than teams left outside those velvet ropes.
It’s a lovely debate, who has the better team of the moment, the United States or Mexico. Having the high ground probably matters for the players. It certainly does for supporters.
But in real-world spoils, there’s zero to gain by being king of CONCACAF. We won’t find out who truly deserves that title at this Gold Cup. And, in the end, the results fans care about the most occur every four years at the World Cup.
Steve Davis' column, America's Game, appears weekly on FourFourTwo USA. Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveDavis.