USA and Mexico - the top two teams in the North, Central American and Caribbean zone - will meet for the 57th time on Sunday. The contest, the final of the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup, has special meaning within the context of this seething rivalry that stretches back well over seven decades. Both are tangled on a regional-best four titles, making the winner at the Meadowlands on 26 July the all-time leader in the region's showpiece event.
The US, fresh off a dazzling runner-up finish at the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, have all the momentum in the rivalry, which has come to be known simply as el clasico. Since the turn of the new millennium the Stars and Stripes have won 10 of their 14 meetings with their heated rivals to the south. Mexico still have the edge in the overall (with 30 wins to the USA's 16 and 10 draws), but the glory days - when their highly technical brand of football held sway over their rough and tumble neighbours to the north - are fading fast into the fog of history.
Even so, meetings between the pair are always ferocious, played with a passion and intensity befitting one of the world's great rivalries. The last time they met, on a rain-swept February night in Columbus, Ohio in FIFA World Cup Qualifying, the US ran out 2-0 winners in a game where Mexican captain Rafa Marquez was sent off and US stalwart Frankie Hejduk was slapped across the face by a Mexican assistant coach.
"These are the games you live for; you want to play in big games like this," said midfielder Stuart Holden of MLS side Houston Dynamo, one of the true gems in a highly experimental US side, made up primarily of domestic-based players and lesser-known overseas journeymen. "There's always pride on the line when you meet your big rivals, and Mexico are our big rivals. We as a group feel like we've come a long way in this tournament, but the work isn't done. We want to finish it off in the final and cap this off with a great win."
In this trans-Rio Grande rivalry, location simply cannot be ignored as a major factor. The United States - despite their upward trajectory of late - have still never won at Mexico City's infamous cauldron, the Estadio Azteca. By the same token, Mexico have not managed a win on US soil in ten years, a stretch of eleven games running all the way back to 1999. Though the Mexicans are bound to have heavy fan support - likely outnumbering the US - in New Jersey for the final, the statistic is bound to give Javier Aguirre and his men some cause for consternation.
Recent CONCACAF Gold Cup fortunes will give El Tri pause as well. The Americans have won the last two titles, edging the very same Mexicans in the final in Chicago last time out. Mexico have beaten the Americans in two Gold Cup finals, in 1993 and 1998, but not in the current decade.
"Against the US we need to keep the same mindset we showed when we beat Costa Rica [in a shootout in the semi-finals]," said Aguirre, who has been banned from the touchline for the last three games after kicking out at a Panama player in the group stages. "It's the final step to reaching our goal of becoming champions. We will need to be at our best, we need to focus on taking our chances because you rarely get too many scoring opportunities against the USA."
Both sides can rely on some outstanding talents in their experimental line-ups. Mexico have Tottenham Hotspurs' Gio dos Santos, Carlos Vela, top scorer Miguel Sabah and Memo Ochoa complementing veteran captain Gerardo Torrado. The Americans, for their part, can count on Holden, captain and old boy Brian Ching, the impressive Kyle Beckerman and free-scoring Kenny Cooper. US coach Bob Bradley also has an ace up his sleeve. He can call in reinforcements for his shrinking squad of just 18, according to a CONCACAF mandate relating to the Americans' participation in the Confederations Cup in South Africa.
History, numbers and theories on home field advantage amount to precisely nothing once the ball starts rolling. When the opening whistle blows on Sunday in Jersey, only one thing will be guaranteed: a passionate clash between two old rivals.