For the next two days, the American soccer press will be abuzz with talk of starters and debuts and of players and coaches trying desperately not to say much at all. All this talk of form and formation and of tactic and technique is important, and completely valid. So is the traditional vitriol, without which this game would be little more than an exhibition between two teams that collectively haven’t missed a World Cup since the Mexicans were disqualified from Italia ’90.
But for me, the thing I have never been able to get over about this rivalry is the psychology of these two teams and how the United States has simply taken up residence inside the head of the Mexican soccer fan.
For Americans, the psychology is simple. “Come on, this is just Mexico we’re talking about. We should be able to beat them in anything. Have you been there? It’s a [pick a bad word]-hole.” Is this a good attitude? Not really, that why the word obnoxious so often prefaces the word American.
For Mexicans, and particularly I think, the players and coaches who have found themselves featuring in many of the losses (Blanco, Marquez, Sanchez [Ozzie and Hugo], and others) are trapped in a cycle of believing that Mexicans are simply superior to the US in soccer that winning is as simple as showing up and wearing green.
That pride, or ardido as Grant Wahl talked about, is poisoning the psyches of the Mexican team. They remind me of John Cooper and Ohio State’s football team during the worst times of the losing streak against Michigan. Players and coaches can say over and over that “this is just like any other match,” but anyone can read on their faces that they don’t mean it. In that way, Osvaldo Sanchez is just like John Cooper. I bet you never thought you’d read those words.
On the other side of the rivalry, something almost as amazing has happened. When playing Mexico, the US soccer team actually plays confidently – without either fear or hubris. Considering how mentally frail the US has often appeared against European opposition, this contrast is simply remarkable. The American players have found that perfect emotional place required to play at the highest level consistently against their biggest rivals.
So is Mexico doomed forever against the US because of this? Nope, not at all. One of these days the US is going to come out flat and expecting the Mexicans to collapse at their feet. It won’t happen and the Mexicans will win. But in order for the Mexicans to consistently compete against the US away from Azteca, it will require the right kind of leader to step up and truly convince the players that this is just any other game. It requires a leader both respected and devoid of the rivalry baggage. I think the Mexican Federation realized this before it hired Sven Goran Eriksson. Eriksson was the right idea, but completely the wrong guy. A truly gifted foreign coach like a Hiddink or Mourinho could’ve convinced the Mexicans to just “play their game” and let success come to them. As we’ve already seen, Eriksson is a coach completely lacking in any understanding of psychology or motivation and on top of all that, he is coaching with the sword of the Aztec-version-of-Damocles hanging right over his neck.
It’s an old-school coaching cliche that all the talk of statistics or psychology or history goes out the window once that opening whistle blows. I guess the point of my previous ramble boils down to this. When the opening whistle blows at a USA-Mexico match, few things matter more than the psychology.