How the US win over Mexico at the 2002 World Cup forever altered the rivalry

When Mexico faced the United States on June 17, 2002, at the 2002 World Cup in Jeonju, South Korea, few could have predicted the lasting effect that one game would have on either side.

Twenty years to the day, the aura and myth surrounding the match seem to have taken on a life of their own.

The names associated with the match embody a bygone golden era for both squads: Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Landon Donovan, Rafa Marquez, Claudio Reyna, Jorge Campos and Brad Friedel were all legends for club and country and all served witnesses to history. Today, a clash featuring both squads would likely field Gio Reyna, Claudio’s son, on the American side, and Efrain Alvarez, the Los Angeles native and El Tri star who was born just two days after the match.

Significant phrases like El Quinto Party — representing Mexico’s yearning to reach an elusive fifth World Cup game — and Back to Cero are deeply entrenched with what happened in Jeonju.

The US win over Mexico by a score of 2-0 — the most significant Back to Cero result to date in favor of the Americans — had a rippling effect that shifted the balance in the rivalry. Just as importantly, the victory boosted US confidence going forward in coming matches with Mexico and earned Americans, long time underdogs in the series, the respect of their rivals.

Brian McBride put the US up 1-0 early on in the first half, and Donovan helped secure the result with a header in the 65th minute.

“It made us believe,” Donovan said.

While Mexico’s Estadio Azteca remained a daunting venue for the Americans in the ensuing years, the 2002 World Cup win made the Americans feel, as Donovan put it, “like we could beat them anywhere else.”

In their 25 head-to-head matches since 2002, the USMNT have 11 victories to Mexico’s eight, shifting the balance in what was once a one-sided rivalry. Furthermore, the US has six 2-0 wins over Mexico since Korea-Japan, and both teams have won three head-to-head title matches against each other at the regional level since that World Cup: Mexico has three Gold Cup wins, while the United States has two and a CONCACAF Nations League, to boot.

Mexico has fought back in a way and asserted dominance of their own in youth categories over the past two decades, winning a pair of FIFA under-17 World Cups as well as gold and bronze at the Olympics, the de facto under-23 world championships .

In later years, the aftermath of the 2002 World Cup and its historic result between both North American titans also unveiled a previously unseen battleground for both teams: the recruitment of dual national players eligible to play for Mexico and the United States. Before the Round of 16 match in South Korea, less than a handful of players had suited up for either team — in the years since, a bevy of young talents have been pursued by both sides in courts more fitting of college football than international soccer .

A turning point

The beginning of the 21st century ushered in a new era in the CONCACAF rivalry. Before the two sides met in 2002, the US had quietly gained momentum with four wins in five meetings with El Tri in all competitions.

Donovan had a front-row seat to one of those wins a year earlier. He was on the bench during a 2-0 qualifier win in Columbus, Ohio — a fitting Back to Cero. Donovan, who shares the US all-time men’s scoring record with Clint Dempsey at 57 goals, had recognized that the tide was changing in favor of the US before the World Cup.

“It wasn’t just that we beat them in Columbus, it was the way we beat them, it was so dominant,” said Donovan, now an executive vice president with the San Diego Loyal of the USL Championship. “It was so dominant and that had never happened, certainly in the history of the rivalry.”

After group play wrapped up at Korea-Japan, Donovan and his teammates were “ecstatic” about the matchup against Mexico in the Round of 16 — no doubt intrigued by the opportunity to play on a neutral site, stripped of the advantages of a home crowd or come.

“You see each other as team vs. team,” Donovan said. “Because they couldn’t complain about Columbus, the cold and the snow. We couldn’t complain about altitude and smog. It was just like, OK, who’s the better team?”

Donovan, who would win Best Young Player of the tournament, was highly motivated. Knowing what was at stake, the promising talent set out to make a massive statement.

“I certainly had an understanding, even though I was 20, that it was possible that we would never play them again in a World Cup,” Donovan said. “There’s a historical context here that if this was the only time we ever played them … we wanted to make sure that we always had that victory.”

After McBride’s goal, manager Bruce Arena and his squad did well to absorb pressure from Mexico until Donovan came through with his header.

The United States, overlooked by the soccer world and not taken seriously by Mexico for decades, had found a way to permanently alter the rivalry’s narrative.

“It cemented in Mexican fans’ minds that this rivalry was now real,” Donovan said. “No matter what happens in qualifying, friendlies, they can never, ever, ever take that away from us. Immediately, it gave us more credibility and I think it made the rivalry very real for the first time.”

Former Liga MX and MLS defender Greg Garza, who has American and Mexican citizenship, played for the US from 2014-17 and earned 10 caps with the senior team. Garza was 10 years old when the CONCACAF rivals squared off in 2002, and growing up in the US as a fan of Mexican side Pumas, he admits to being heavily influenced by the domestic league across the border.

The US win, he said, helped him understand what it meant to represent the country whose colors he eventually wore.

“You think back to how big Mexican soccer was back then, and still is, and the amount of pressure put on that national team is huge,” Garza said. “That country lives and breathes soccer. It was the turning point for that rivalry, for sure. Whenever you step onto that field for a US vs. Mexico game, you know it’s going to be an absolute battle, an absolute war. And that’s the beauty of the rivalry.The passion and the patriotism.

Respect earned

Former el Tri defender and current ESPN analyst Paco de Anda, who played against the US in 2002, recalled a complicated match for his side that day, his teammates never thinking of the implications it would carry afterward.

“It was a harder challenge than we expected and we never really understood the scale of it,” de Anda said. “I think we were done in by our own overconfidence, and well, the reality of it is it was a harder challenge than we expected. That’s the first thing that comes to mind.”

The US followed the upset over Mexico with a four wins, two draws and one loss heading into the 2008 MLS All-Star Game, where former US midfielder Pablo Mastroeni suddenly found himself giving the same jersey as Mexican soccer icon Cuauhtemoc Blanco. The World Cup rivals from six years earlier were briefly teammates when the All-Stars defeated West Ham 3-2.

Mastroeni, now head coach of Real Salt Lake, noticed an “understood respect for one another” when spending time with Blanco.

Was there a connection to the US win at the World Cup?

“Absolutely,” Mastroeni said. “The respect from that game and previous games was definitely prevailing.”

As Mastroeni puts it, there was a “psychological impact” that lingered from 2002.

“El Tri kind of lost their grasp on being kings of CONCACAF at the time, and [we] really started to show some real strength and real ability to not only compete with them, but to kind of overtake them,” he said.

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